Russian football finds itself at its lowest ebb before hosts' opening game against Saudi Arabia
World Cup 2018 at Russia's doorstep but no sign of winter ending for home team
If, as cliche has it, the league table does not lie, do Fifa’s world rankings?
They penalise those who do not play competitive games, as Russia have not for two years. Yet there feels something symbolic that, as the World Cup begins, the hosts have slipped into their lowest position: 70th.
Their clash with 67th-placed Saudi Arabia may be officially the lowest-calibre game in World Cup history.
Only the draw, in what was deemed “the Group of Life”, offers encouragement. “The Russian team is in such a sorry state that if we were not hosting the tournament, we would probably have struggled to qualify for it,” Andrei Kanchelskis wrote in his book Russian Winters.
Kanchelskis is a reminder of happier days, of more talented teams and of players who were coveted across the continent. Reared in the Soviet Union, later playing for Russia, he is part of the era that straddled communism and capitalism, and was one of finest Russian exports.
There were few before his generation, because of politics, and few after, because they languished in their homeland, unwanted abroad. “There is no interest in Russian footballers in western Europe,” Kanchelskis lamented.
Only back-up goalkeeper Vladimir Gabulov and Villarreal midfielder Denis Cheryshev ply their trade abroad.
International relations have presented problems for sides with quotas of home-grown players: CSKA Moscow lost 4-1 at home to Manchester United this season, Lokomotiv Moscow 5-1 at home to Atletico Madrid and Spartak Moscow 7-0 away at Liverpool.
Ignominy has been a regular companion.
And this is without the top Russian players leaving. Overpaid footballers with questionable levels of motivation generate few offers. They rarely play in full stadia. A malaise seems self-perpetuating.
“When I started playing for Dynamo Kiev in 1988, football in the Soviet Union could be counted as one of the top five leagues in Europe,” said Kanchelskis, scorer of the Soviet Union’s last goal. “The standard had dropped alarmingly by the time I signed for Dynamo Moscow [in 2003]. It has fallen further still.”
Russia did not win a game in either the 2014 World Cup or Euro 2016. They have not won in seven games. They at least tasted victory in last summer’s Confederations Cup, but beating New Zealand was not enough to avert a group-stage exit.
Manager Stanislav Cherchesov had to field questions if he would resign. To the disappointment of some, he did not.
He was appointed in 2016, charged with reaching the 2018 World Cup semi-finals.
Russia did reach the last four of Euro 2008 10 years ago, but otherwise have endured three decades of disappointment. They have not qualified from a World Cup group since 1986, as the Soviet Union and with a squad packed with Ukrainians.
Russia lost a consistent supply of talent in a post-Communist split, even if a country of 144 million should not find itself so short of high-calibre players.
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Russia have then been stripped of some of the better performers they do possess. Alexander Kokorin, their most dangerous forward, is sidelined by knee surgery after excelling for Zenit Saint Petersburg.
Defensive injuries meant the 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich was called out of international retirement; the 35-year-old Berezutski twins, who seemed to date back to the Romanov era, only ended their Russia careers earlier this year.
Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of Russia’s last clean sheet and they have a defence that blends unwanted elements: old and slow (Ignashevich) and inexperienced (the rest).
Perhaps some combination of AleksandrGolovin, Alan Dzagoev and Fyodor Smolov will offer enough going forward. Perhaps the draw will camouflage failings.
Yet it feels as though the World Cup has come to Russia just when Russian football is at its lowest ebb.