The 2018 World Cup, Day One: From Russia, With Love
We’d all been there and all had that conversation, hadn’t we? You know, the one about how these were the worst two teams in the tournament, and that this would continue the World Cup’s ignoble tradition of dull opening matches between cagey teams, perhaps even taking it to new levels. But the big matter facing us as we survey the wreckage of Russia’s five-nil demolition of Saudi Arabia can only be… how much have we learned about Russia from this? Because what we know for certain is that Saudi Arabia were abject. But we’ll come back to that.
First of all, there was an opening ceremony featuring Robbie Williams – resembling Morrissey dressed, somewhat ironically, like the interior of an Aberdeen Steak House – and a speech from Vladimir Putin translated on the fly, apparently by someone whose previous experience of English was to have heard the garbled announcements of a London underground station once to get through. There’s no need for an opening ceremony, of course. There’s no need for any of this nonsense. And those hoping for Putin making veiled threats to the west as tanks drove across the pitch with the drivers turning to face him were to be disappointed. If it hadn’t been for the hatchet-faced man giving the speech, this could have been any opening ceremony for any sporting event of significance held over the last twenty years.
With this being a FIFA tournament and all, though, there wasn’t any chance that everything would be completely perfect. Russia’s kit, which felt like a throwback to the start of the 1990s, is a glorious item – in particular the socks, which have turn ups which change them into distorted versions of the Russian flag – but Saudi Arabia wearing green opposite them when they might just as easily have worn white made their players look almost invisible against the grass of the pitch, whilst the decision to put a team in green up against a team in red only really seemed likely to confuse or otherwise infuriate the colourblind.
This, at least, might explain some of the football that Saudi Arabia attempted to play in the Lushniki Stadium yesterday afternoon. Seldom has the World Cup seen a team more profligate in possession in recent years than the Saudis were, wasting possession, allowing themselves to be knocked off the ball with ease by the Russian team, passing into nowhere – or, occasionally, straight into touch – and then, having seemingly gone well out of their way in order to concede possession, not tracking back into defensive positions, and even defensive clearances sailing straight over everybody’s heads and out into touch.
It took twelve minutes for Yuriy Gazinksky to head the host nation into the lead. There was a hint of a push on his marking defender, but there was no trace of VAR being summoned, even if the decision to award the goal was completely valid. We can but hope, but perhaps signifies that the new technology will be used more sparingly than it has been during its trials over the last couple of years or so. After this came the only cloud on Russia’s horizon, when Alan Dzagoev pulled up and had to be replaced. It was a hamstring problem of some form or other, and if it’s torn then he’s out of the tournament, continuing an astonishing tun of bad luck which saw him injured for the 2016 European Championships and the last year’s Confederations Cup. Russia’s consolation for this loss came when his replacement, Denis Cherysev, added Russia’s second goal, shortly before half-time.
The second half continued very much as the first had ended… eventually. Although the Saudi threat to the Russian goal was never more than slight, it took until seventy-one minutes had been played before Artem Dzyuba added a third goal, and as the clock ran down stoppage-time at the end, Cherysev added a fourth before a free-kick from Alexandr Golovin set the seal on an extraordinary day for the host nation, who will now go into their remaining group matches with Egypt and Uruguay with considerably greater confidence than most would have believed they would.
Yet for all of that, it’s difficult to assess just how good or poor Russia were yesterday. On the one hand, it was difficult to find any fault in their performance yesterday. They were energetic from the outset, and apparently unconcerned by the inevitable pressures that come with being a host nation at every tournament. They hassled and pressed, forcing as many mistakes from Saudi Arabia as their opponents gifted them. Furthermore, they took their opportunities when they were handed to them, and controlled the game without needing to even control a majority of possession.
On the other, though… well… we all know what we know about the Russia team from their consistently underwhelming performances over the last couple of years or so. Now, it’s possible that coach Stanislav Cherchesov might be some form of incredible alchemist, the Merlin of modern football. It seems equally plausible, however, that this match felt like little more than a training match to his players, who surely couldn’t belive their luck at the paucity of opposition that they’d been presented with in their opening match. None of this is to say that Russia weren’t any good in their opening match – as mentioned above, there was practically nothing to fault in their performance – it’s more that it’s difficult to know how strong they are after having completed something approaching the equivalent of having played eleven scarecrows wearing Saudi Arabia football shirts. Their next game, against Uruguay on Tuesday, will provide a considerably sterner test and it’s difficult to say how they’ll rise to it.
As for Saudi Arabia, well, it’s difficult to see how things can or will significantly improve for them. Against Uruguay, they will most likely face the twin threats of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, and against Egypt they will likely face Mo Salah, though whether he’s completely match fit for what might be a crucial match for Egypt remains, of course, open to question. One doesn’t wish to write an obituary for any team after one match of a tournament, but it’s difficult to see where they go from here, and that’s a viewpoint solely formed from what we saw from their performance yesterday, without even taking into account whatever additional damage to their confidence and morale might have been managed as a result of yesterday’s debacle.
None of this reflects particularly well on the Asian Football Confederation, either, still less on Gianni Infantino’s plans to expand the World Cup to include forty-eight teams from 2022 on. It would be mildly ridiculous to assume that the sixteen teams that FIFA plans to add to this competition in four years time will all be as weak if not weaker than this Saudi Arabia team, but it seems similarly unlikely that there won’t be more of this sort of drubbing in the future, as well. In a broader sense, Asia makes up 60% of the population of the entire planet and the interest in the game definitely exists there. Maybe throwing money at it won’t make any difference, but it wouldn’t necessarily be surprising to see some sort of concerted effort being made in the future to improve the quality of teams across this vast continent.
Last night, however, belonged to Russia. We may have serious reservations about their government and its motives on the global stage as well as revolting homophobic laws at home, but the Russian population are football supporters like us, and the expectations of their team had dropped so low that the avoidance of national humiliation had become something approaching the summit of their ambitions leading up to yesterday’s match. No matter what happens now, the Russian supporters have that, even if none is really learned that much about their team yesterday afternoon on account of how weak their opposition was. They may not be world beaters, but putting five goals past anyone in the opening match of World Cup is certainly nothing to be sniffed at. They’ll face greater tests than this in their final two group matches, but Russia has cause to be smiling this morning.