Global excitement for the 2018 World Cup is palpable, but mostly for everything that comes after the opening match. The tournament kicks off on Thursday with Saudi Arabia — FIFA’s lowest-ranked team in the competition — taking on the hosts, Russia. The Russians probably stink.
It’s important to use a qualifier like “probably” because there really isn’t enough information available to say so definitively. Unlike the rest of the field, Russia did not have to prove itself in competitive matches to get here. Knowing that its friendly matches didn’t matter probably affected the team’s mindset. And none of their matches leading into this tournament were preceded by a three-week training camp, which could make a big difference in Russia’s play.
But they probably stink. Weirdly, no one outside of Russia seems to care whether or not they stink.
This is a strange situation for a host country to be in. In the World Cups since the 1990s, all of Italy, France, Germany, and Brazil have known that their home crowds would demand excellent performances. South Korea and Japan each finished bottom of their respective groups the tournament before hosting, and were pleasant surprises in 2002. The United States exceeded expectations in 1994 as well, while very few had expectations for South Africa or criticized their failure to advance out of the group stage.
And then there’s Russia, which ends up a strange outlier because the world, at large, does not seem to care about them at all. There has been no discussion in the Western press about their chances to advance from their group, their key players, their manager, or the impact that success or failure will have on their reputation as a footballing nation.
This is probably because Russia is neither a developing underdog, nor an established power — every other host has been one of the two. Instead, Russia is well-established as a middling soccer nation, having to failed to qualify for three World Cups since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Russia has never made a World Cup knockout round despite having the sixth-best league in Europe, according to UEFA’s coefficient. It has only made the knockout round of one international tournament, Euro 2008.
Most of the stars from that team are gone and have not been adequately replaced. Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, defender Sergei Ignashevich and versatile left-sided player Yuri Zhirkov have hung on, but they’re all on their last legs. That 2008 team’s best player, Andrey Arshavin, appears to have been a once-in-a-generation outlier and was out of top-level soccer by age 32. The young players players who were called on later to supplement and ultimately replace him — Denis Cheryshev and Alan Dzagoev, in particular — are now in their mid-20s, having failed to reach their potential. If Russia is going to do anything at this World Cup, they’ll need those players to turn in the performances of their lives.
If there’s one great hope that Russia can eventually morph into something great, it’s 22-year-old CSKA Moscow star Aleksandr Golovin. He’s coming off the best club campaign of his career, and this World Cup could prove make-or-break for his prospects of completing a transfer to one of Europe’s biggest teams.
But these are not superstars. We cannot, in good faith, pump these players up and tell you that they are reason to get excited about Russia. They just represent the small bits of potential in this team; Russia’s best-case scenario involves those three players coming alive and combining beautifully. The more likely scenarios involve Golovin struggling to find the ball, Dzagoev going missing in big moments like he has for his entire career, and manager Stanislav Cherchesov leaving Cheryshev on the bench while considerably more boring players see the pitch.
So we’re left with a host that doesn’t have much of a narrative. It won’t be a huge story if Russia scrapes second to limp into the knockout stage, and it won’t be a huge story if they flame out in last place either. They’re the first World Cup host of their kind in years — a team that’s been average for decades, and that fans have accepted as average. For that reason, the opening game between Russia and Saudi Arabia feels very much like an opening act before the headliners come out.