Russia defied their recent poor form to thrash Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the opening match of the 2018 World Cup. This was despite pessimism that had surrounded the country’s progression in the tournament. Prior to the match, Russia had failed to win a single game in the entirety of 2018. This woeful record led to many analysts tipping Stanislav Cherchesov’s men to have a woeful tournament.
From laughing stock to dark horses
However, all the negative predictions were thrown out the window as the Sbornaya proved the critics wrong in emphatic style. It was a day of pride for Vladimir Putin and patriotic Russians all over the world. After the national team became a laughing stock following the their failure to win a game in their warm-up matches; their dwindling FIFA rankings; and the existence of a song by a Russian comedian mocking the national team, Russia had to respond.
The win shows that pre-tournament form is not necessarily the best yardstick to measure a team. But even more importantly, Russia kept alive a World Cup tradition that has stood the test of time: No host nation has ever lost its first game in the tournament. Now with this record safely maintained, the question becomes whether Russia go one step further by going all the way to the final and even winning the competition on home soil. An unlikely outcome, sure. But not an impossible one.
Riding the wave of home support
Uruguay, Brazil, England, Argentina and France have all shown that a nation can ride on the support of its home fans to bring glory to their countries. There is something about the home support that invigorates a team and can make a group of players unstoppable.
The famous Greek philosopher, Archimedes of Syracuse, made a statement that can be perfectly applied to football. “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world,” he stated. Provide the platform and the necessary support and any football team can achieve the seemingly impossible. The examples above prove the point.
Human beings are very emotional by nature and can perform super-human feats when given the right motivation. Many a time a football player or manager has come out to extol the virtues of the fans and appreciate their role in getting the team over the line in critical periods and games.
They don’t do this for the sake of it. They do it because they feel it’s true. The importance of the fans’ support is why we often hear of the twelfth man in a football game. Granted, Russia played against a relatively weak opponent on the day. But the significance of the win is that it can breathe new confidence into the team that can take it’s performance to a whole new level.
Russia’s unprecedented mauling
That’s more so as it was a whitewash. Suddenly, Russians are beginning to believe in their team’s chances of winning the trophy. You may say that’s too early to say or its even far-fetched, but when was the last time you saw a 5-0 scoreline with the winning side conceding no shot on target? In fact, the last time we saw a mauling of the opponent in the World Cup was Germany beating Brazil 7-1 in 2014 and they went on to win the tournament.
So it is understandable if Russian fans begin to dream. History is very much on their side. That said, the reality on ground for Russia makes it highly unlikely that the team can pull up the surprise. The opponents they will have to conquer on the way to such a feat are just too formidable.
Russia has tried some of them for size preparatory to the tournament and the results were not encouraging. Aside from Spain and Germany, Argentina, Brazil and France are some of the teams tipped to win gold in Russia. Russia has played the last three in friendlies ahead of the tournament and lost to all of them. The Sbornaya lost 0-1, 0-3 and 1-3 to the three respectively. There is no guarantee they will do differently in the competition proper. In fact, it is very unlikely they can beat any of them. That makes it almost impossible for the home side to pull up any surprises moving forward.
Home support won’t be enough this time
As much as home support can lift a team, it’s usually not enough. The real job must be done on the pitch by the players. Ask Switzerland, Sweden, Chile, Mexico, the U.S.A., and more recently South Africa and Brazil who hosted the last two editions but couldn’t win. It’s always more about the quality of the team and squad dept.
The quality of the South African team in 2010 let them down. Not even the Vuvuzelas could compensate for that. In 2014, Brazil were missing their talisman and without adequate replacement, and were slaughtered by Germany. In the 2018 tournament, Germany are serial winners, Brazil have Neymar and Coutinho, France have Pogba, Griezmann and Mbappe, Argentina have Aguero, Messi and more. But what do Russia have? Yes, Cheryshev came in as a first half substitute and scored a brace, Golovin created one and scored another but when was the last time that happened? And can you bet on them repeating the feat again sometime soon? Your guess is as good as mine.
The bottom line is it’s not enough to beat Saudi Arabia. Almost every other team in the tournament can do that. It’s about performing when it matters most against the toughest opponents. Russia just won’t be able to do that and that is why they cannot win the tournament no matter margin of their first victory and the home support.