Brazilian-born right-back says hosts' unexpected run to the last eight is 'my best moment in football
Mario Fernandes on Russia reaching World Cup quarter-finals: The whole country is happy and supporting us
Surprise quarter-finalists, the hosts who defied the odds, but Russia are focused simply on riding the crest of their World Cup wave.
The home side, tipped pre-tournament for a group-stage exit, are into the last eight of the global finals having defended doggedly against and then dispatched Spain on penalties on Sunday. Russia held the 2010 champions to a 1-1 draw at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow before triumphing 4-3 in the shoot-out.
Stanislav Cherchesov’s side came into the competition without a win in seven matches, but now have three victories from four fixtures, including the opening-day 5-0 evisceration of Saudi Arabia. At 70th in the Fifa rankings, they are the lowest-ranked team in this month's tournament.
However, now Russia sit two matches from the final. On Saturday, they take on Croatia in Sochi in an intriguingly open half of the draw. From the outside, their progress has been barely believable, although within the camp they insists confidence was never an issue.
“Before the tournament, no one thought we'd get here, no one believed we would get out of the group,” said Mario Fernandes, the Brazil-born right-back, late on Sunday. “Only a few in the media supported us, but the whole team believed in ourselves, knew we would fight.
“With everyone helping each other, we knew we could get something. Now we've knocked out Spain - one of the favourites. We just need some calmness. It's game-by-game, step-by-step now. We deserve a lot of credit.”
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As it is, Russia have reached a World Cup quarter-final for the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Given that, the Spain victory was celebrated long and loud on Sunday, and some of Monday morning as well, as fans took to the streets in Moscow to commemorate the latest mark in their team’s unlikely run.
“I read that and I'm very happy,” Fernandes said about creating history by making the last eight. “To see the support here, everyone is happy. Everyone was good. In football, Russia has never done something as big as this. The whole country is happy and supporting us. I'm so happy that the people are happy.
“For sure, it's my best moment in football. I thank God for getting here. Without him, it wouldn't be possible. I'm happy to have helped the team.”
Fernandes’ delight was echoed by Denis Cheryshev. The Russian midfielder has been one of the stars of his country’s campaign, scoring three goals en route to the last 16. He began Sunday's match on the bench, but was introduced just after the hour and scored in the shoot-out.
Having grown up Spain – he came through the Real Madrid academy and is currently contracted to Villarreal – for Cheryshev, the victory carried extra weight. Especially given his troubles during the past few seasons.
“I’m very happy right now,” he said. “But my first thought after the penalty was about my father, my parents, my girlfriend. They deserve that because we suffer a lot the last years because of my injuries. The victory is for them also.”
Asked what it meant for the national team, Cheryshev said: “It’s amazing for us. Nobody had a hope that we would be here now. We just want to improve, to keep on working hard and to win the quarter-final.”
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