Living on a prayer
Russia hopes rather than expects a miracle ahead of opener against Saudi Arabia today
THE World Cup finally kicks off today with a whimper rather than a bang when hosts Russia play Saudi Arabia – at least if you go by FIFA rankings. The Group A game in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium sees the two lowest-ranked sides in the 32-team tournament up against each other. Russia are the lowest rated at 70th, while Saudi Arabia are not much better at 67th – hardly a meeting to set the pulses racing for neutrals. Of course, rankings are no parameter and big names are no guarantee of thrills. Nerves have often got the better of teams in opening matches, and when World Cup holders had the honour of playing the first games there have been upsets – the last in 2002 when France were beaten 1-0 by Senegal. Since then it has been a job for the hosts, and so far none have lost their opener. For the sake of the mood in the tournament ho s t country, Russia will be keen to avoid that fate in a match expected to be watched by President Vladimir Putin in the stadium which will also host the July 15 final.
Putin himself has high hopes the team can lift fans with some good showings, although he accepts the signs have not given much cause for optimism.
“As regards the national team, I have to acknowledge that, sadly, our team has not enjoyed great results lately,” he said in an interview last week.
“But we, all the fans and football lovers in Russia, have high hopes that our team will make a good showing, play a modern, interesting and beautiful style of football, and fight to the finish.”
Unde r c o a c h S t a n i s l a v Cherchesov, the home team will be hoping to avoid the fate of 2010 hosts South Africa in failing to reach the last 16 in a group which sees Egypt play Uruguay in Yekaterinburg tomorrow.
Former keeper Cherchesov, who took the job after Russia’s exit without a win at Euro 2016, has had a tough task in making the hosts a contender after his team also failed to impress at last year’s Confederations Cup.
However, there have been signs of improvement, with fans also rallying around the squad in the run up to the World Cup despite a lack of recent victories.
“We have a more positive image than we used to have,” Cherchesov told dpa in a recent interview.
“We became a team. We worked on our mentality, and now we can really step on the gas.”
The Saudis are meanwhile back at their fifth World Cup, having missed the last two editions, and confident of a good showing, led by former Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi.
Pizzi was in Russia with Chile at last year’s Confederations Cup but stepped down in October after failing to get the Copa America champions to the World Cup.
Just over a month later he took over the Saudi team after the dismissal of fellow Argentinian Edgardo Bauza. – dpa
Juan Antonio Pizzi.