Expectations could barely have been lower for the World Cup hosts, but with qualification for the last 16 confirmed a wave of optimism is lighting up the nation
They chanted it inside the St Petersburg Stadium on Tuesday night. They chanted it in Moscow, above ground in the fan zone and below, in the metro. They chanted it in the restaurants and bars, and later, inebriated, they chanted it in the fountains. The main chant of this World Cup is not complicated. It's the name of the host country, drawn out over three long syllables, and recurred ad infinitum:” Ros! Si! Ya !”
It was Uruguay's win against Saudi Arabia on Wednesday afternoon that corroborated Russia's advance to the next stage, but with two wins and a aim change of +7, Russia's progression was all but wrapped up at the end of the Egypt game the evening before.
If the proficiency of Russia's 5-0 victory over Saudi Arabia in the opening game had caused the country's collective jaw to drop in appreciation and astonishment, the emphatic follow-up against Egypt received the incredulity transitioning to joy and naked patriotism.
It is not just the team's performance that is making this such a fun World Cup to experience on the street of Moscow and other cities. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of fans from across the world, turning the centre of the capital into a never-ending carnival of smiles and dancing, has a lot to do with that. But the sheen would have been taken off the celebration had the home team played as disastrously as predicted.
The attitude towards the national squad had been summed up by a popular meme doing the rounds on social media in the days before kick-off. A sign in a saloon demonstrated different footballers using the lavatory: Cristiano Ronaldo curling it in from a distance, Zlatan Ibrahimovic urinating backwards overhead-kick style. The graphic for the Russia team was simple: a human standing in a puddle of his own piss.
The grim despair of Russian advocates was hardly surprising. This, after all, was a team who had not won in seven matches and appeared sluggish and uninspiring in the warmup matches. Just before the tournament, the veteran defender Sergei Ignashevich, who turns 39 in July and seemed dangerously slow even at the Euros two years ago, was recalled to the squad and put in the starting lineup.
Despite all the ominous presages, specific actions on the pitching has been a revelation, with two wins that have surpassed the high expectations of even the most patriotic optimists. True, Russia's opponents so far have been a woefully inept Saudi side and Egypt with a half-fit Mo Salah, but Russia could only play the opponents put in front of them, and it is worth remembering that according to Fifa rankings, Russia were a worse side than Saudi Arabia.
Russia have never qualified for the knockout stage of the World Cup- the last period it happened was in 1986 when the country was still the Soviet Union. The last time a Russian or Soviet side won their two opening games at the tournament was 1966, an indication of just what a start the hosts have managed this time.
Football is not a national obsession in Russia, with most people only taking notification during rare success such as the run to the semi-finals of Euro 2008.” I guess half the country will find out that we have a World Cup when the whistling blows ,” the coach, Stanislav Cherchesov, said before the tournament.” It takes a long time for us to start driving but I guess when we press the foot on the pedal, we go all the way .”
That is now starting to happen, as those who were previously disdainful of “the member states national” side or apathetic begin to rally around the flag. At the Luzhniki on Wednesday afternoon, as a capability crowd watched Portugal beat Morocco, there were loud cheers for Ronaldo's goal from one end but the loudest thunder of all was a few minutes into the second half, when the inevitable chant of” Ros! Si! Ya !” went up from the locals sitting in all four sides of the stadium.
Over the past few years, patriotism in Russia has been divisive, with the chest-beating and flag-waving over the annexation of Crimea in 2014 stimulating some of the liberal minority queasy about patriotism. Viktor Shenderovich, a Russian satirist and radio host who is strongly critical of the Kremlin, wrote on Facebook on Tuesday:” Great match, the chaps were brilliant, we deserved victory. But then you listen to the patriotic hysteria on the nation channels-‘ WE DID IT'- and you brain tells your heart: you've been used again. All very predictable .”
But for many, the performance of the national team appears to have rehabilitated the flag, a sort of patriotism the whole country can rally behind. Igor Rabiner, one of Russia's resulting football journalists, wrote in the Sport Express newspaper that more Russians are interested in winning than are interested in football per se, but said history was being constructed:” The young people who are waving flags and shouting:' Russia' will remember all of this 50 years from now .”
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