Russia would probably not have been competing at the 2018 World Cup were they not its hosts. Their World Cup record since 1990 is wretched, two group stage victories and three failed qualification campaigns. In 2014’s edition, they drew with South Korea and Algeria and lost to Belgium. By 2015, head coach Fabio Capello had been sacked at a reported cost of $35m.
More recent history was hardly more promising. A winless streak of seven matches included draws with Iran and Turkey and defeat to Austria, while a win against New Zealand accounted for Russia’s only points in last year’s Confederations Cup. The questions regarding this squad were being asked with finite rather than open-ended expectations: ‘Will they get through the group stage?’ rather than ‘How well will they do?’.
More generally, this is a country that enjoys football but succeeds at a far greater level in ice hockey, basketball and volleyball. Any athletic glory at Olympic endeavours comes with a clanging caveat that has defined Russian sport over the last decade. Given the breadth and depth of Russia’s state-sponsored doping programme, US Anti-Doping Agency chief executive Travis Tygart chose the eve of the tournament to call into question the morality of them hosting the tournament and the potential cleanliness of their World Cup squad.
The obvious punchline is that if Russia are guilty of doping violations, they have certainly covered it up well in their performances. “We need to be a really strong host,” coach Stanislav Cherchesov told German magazine Kicker. “We can’t face Germany until the semifinals or finals. If we get that far, I’ll be the happiest man in the world.” And then he woke up.
There was a realistic chance, then, that Russia could be the worst ever World Cup hosts – they still might be. That dishonour currently lies with South Africa, although their four points against Uruguay, France and Mexico in 2010 was actually considered above par. Russia had an easy draw, and yet the public mood was still one of pessimism. Hearing pundits like Sasha Goryunov lambast their team’s chances went beyond merely playing down expectation – they were really worried.
In such circumstances the party hosts need the perfect house guests. Saudi Arabia would bake a cake, take their shoes off at the door and offer to come back the next morning to help clean up. Juan Antonio Pizzi has only been in charge of this team for seven months, but seven minutes should have been long enough to tell his central defenders not to try and pass it out from the back. They were often calamitous defensively.
For all their tidy passing in attacking midfield, Saudi Arabia were far worse than anyone expected. They were guilty of over-adventure in the first half, picked off on the counter attack, and then failed to mount an attacking assault after the break when the situation demanded it. They were physically overpowered throughout.
That makes it difficult to judge Russia, but there were sure signs of sunshine and blue sky. Alan Dzagoev’s injury could well rule him out of the rest of the tournament, but his replacement Denis Cheryshev took the second and fourth goals beautifully. If Fyodor Smolov left us with a tinge of disappointment, Artem Dzyuba took less than a minute to make a case to start their next game.
This Russia team has a star, too. We already knew that Aleksandr Golovin was the great hope of the motherland, but the reported interest from Juventus makes a lot more sense after Thursday. Golovin stays between the lines, picking pockets of space and dribbling forward when he finds them. Thoughts immediately turn to Andrey Arshavin’s displays at Euro 2008.
Russia will have to be far better against Egypt and Uruguay, particularly if Mohamed Salah is fully fit. In 2014, Italy and Ivory Coast both won their first group games and were still eliminated in the group stages. Neither of their forthcoming opponents will afford them the same luxuries as Pizzi’s side did.
For now though, positivity should reign, both for the hosts and this tournament. Russia vs Saudi Arabia was treated with widespread derision in the build-up, the plain brown bread roll before something that you actually ordered arrives to the table. It is indeed slightly unfortunate for the organisers that the inaugural game of such a showpiece tournament was between the two lowest-ranked teams.
But sod all that, because the World Cup has begun. When we have waited four years, who cares about the two teams? Their identity is a mere irrelevance. This is about sights, sounds and tingles, the first of 64 matches in 31 days. If you can’t absorb the World Cup at its Russia vs Saudi Arabia, you don’t deserve it at its Portugal vs Spain. And you’re only allowed to watch the final if you sat through Robbie Williams in the opening ceremony.
As Slaven Bilic said in the ITV studio before the game: “The Champions League is brilliant. The Premier League is brilliant. But this is the World Cup. This is the best.” Welcome to Russia 2018 – let the games and goals begin.