MOSCOW, June 14, 2018 - The stage is set for a global spectacle as Russia officially welcomes the rest of the world to its cold embrace on Thursday at the 80,000 capacity Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
The most prestigious football competition in the world, the World Cup, returns in all of its glory and will take centre stage in 12 venues across 11 cities from the 14th of June to the 15th of July.
Hosts Russia will set the ball rolling against Saudi Arabia in the curtain-raiser bearing in mind the fact that no host nation has ever lost in the opening match of the World Cup.
Not much confidence - Stanislav Cherchesov’s side are the lowest ranked team at the global showpiece. They have not won a game since beating Korea Republic 4-2 in an international friendly last October – amassing four losses and three draws afterwards. Surely this form does not instil any kind of confidence.
In an interview with AIPS, Russian journalist Dmitriy Zelenov of Sports Express reiterated thus: “Not much confidence.”
He added: “The Russian team can hope for big things but it is not even for sure they will qualify from the group. The problem is that this generation of Russian Football players is not the best. The generation of ten years ago was much better.
“That generation had success at the European Championships in 2008 when Russia reached the semi-finals. They beat the Netherlands 3-1 in the quarter finals and after that the likes of Andrey Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko went to good English clubs. But now we don’t have such players so we are hoping that Russia will just take its chance, with a lot of help from the fans of course.”
The plan - Cherchesov, a former USSR and Russia international goalkeeper, was appointed as coach of the side in August 2016. This was soon after Leonid Slutsky stepped down following a dismal performance at the UEFA Euro 2016 where they could only manage a point in the group stage.
Cherchesov then led the hosts at the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup where they also failed to go beyond the group stage with just one win.
But on this biggest stage of all, what does Russia have in store?
Zelenov seems to have a plan. “We hope that Russia will beat Saudi Arabia in the first game,” he said. “That will give confidence to the team ahead of another crucial game against Egypt. If we win Egypt then we don’t have to give our hearts against Uruguay.”
Zelenov is however predicting one victory and two draws for Russia; 2-0 v Saudi Arabia; 1-1 v Egypt and 0-0 v Uruguay.
Saudi Arabia’s return - Saudi Arabia will become the first Asian team to play in the opening match of a FIFA World Cup. They are making a return to the global stage after 12 years and the last time they tasted World Cup victory was in their first appearance in USA 1994 where they reached the Round of 16.
Since qualifying for Russia 2018 last September, Saudi Arabia have changed their coach twice. After negotiations with the Dutch manager who led them to the promised land, Bert van Marwijk, broke down, Argentinian Edgardo Bauza was hired to replace him. Five friendlies after, Bauza was out of job and his compatriot Juan Antonio Pizzi, who failed to lead Chile to Russia, became coach of the Asian side.
With three wins, five losses and a draw in the friendly matches they have played so far this year, what chance does Saudi Arabia have at the finals?
Time to show up - Abdulrahman Abed, a Saudi journalist with Al riyadiya newspaper, thinks it would be a miracle if Saudi Arabia go past the group stage. “I am expecting we will go back home after the third game,” he said.
He however added, “It is great to be back in the World Cup after 12 years. We’ve got to prove to all the people around the world that we have talented players. So it’s time to show up and play nice football.
“Many things have changed since 1994. At that time we had many great players; Said Al Owairan, Mohammed Al Deayea, Majed Abdullah, Sami Al Jaber, Mohamed Abdeliawad. Very high level players from different positions.
“Why we’ve failed to win a game, I think every world Cup has its reasons. Like in 1998 in France, there was no harmony between the players; In 2002, some of the players told me that the head of the football federation had told the coach to change the formation and we went on to lose 8-0 against Germany; 2006 we weren’t lucky… but against Spain we had a very good performance. Spain are a very good team and 1-0 was a reasonable result.”
Although the opening match of the FIFA World Cup 2018 features the worst-ranked teams of the tournament, fans will still expect top quality football to be on display.