It’s a bit simplistic to say, but Russia is a proud nation. Since the dawn of the Cold War – earlier, really – Russians have had a preoccupation with the “Motherland” being, and perhaps more importantly, appearing to be, strong.
The desire to appear mighty has, in the past, resulted in military parades, monkeys in space, and Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on a table at the UN.
When it comes to sports, it’s what led to the massive, state-sanctioned doping regime that got Russia, qua nation, banned from the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. From the political leaders and oligarchs on down, Russians seem to crave strength.
Again, it’s not fair to lump all Russians together, but it’s hard to argue that the overarching ethos of the nation is anything but a quest for power. Vladimir Putin, a stereotypical strongman, has his opponents to be sure, but far more supporters than detractors and an iron grip on the country.
This creates an awkward dynamic for the 2018 World Cup. Russia has always been a sporting power. At the Sochi Olympics in 2014, they finished first in the medal count. When it comes to the Summer Olympics, they have finished in the top four every time since the USSR broke up, and the Soviet Union never finished lower than second in any Olympics it ever attended (summer or winter).
But when it comes to football, Russia is far from a world power. They have no Lionel Messi missiles to launch in a time of crisis. No Cristiano Ronaldo rockets to defend their air space. As noted in this exposition of the Russian team , and the challenges it will face on home soil, they are the second-lowest ranked team in the tournament – sitting 66th in the FIFA rankings — only ahead of Saudi Arabia, who are 67th.
Their recent results on the world stage do not portend greatness, either. The only national team they have beaten in the last 11 months is South Korea, and that was eight games ago. Since then, they have tied three games and lost four, including several on home soil.
Back in March, they were demolished 3-0 by Brazil in Moscow. A few days later, the French embarrassed them 3-1 in St. Petersburg. Before that, they struggled to a 1-1 draw with Iran – far from a world power, themselves – in a match in Kazan.
Playing on home soil, and situated in a fairly weak group with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Uruguay for the first stage of the tournament, Russia has a reasonable chance to progress to the knockout stage.
However, the very fact that they are in such a weak quartet cuts both ways.
The Russian fans will expect this team to succeed. They won’t be looking at the FIFA rankings and thinking, “it’s reasonable if we lose to Uruguay; they are ranked 14th in the world.” They will be looking at the relative sizes of the countries and saying to themselves, “the Russian national team should crush Uruguay”
But that’s not likely to happen, and there’s a decent chance that the Russians are pipped by Egypt or Saudi Arabia, as well, two other nations that the average Russian will perceive as less-than teams that ought to be vanquished with ease.
Perhaps the team will improve its play at just the right time and make the following issue moot, but the potential for epic failure in front of 7.4 billion sets of eyes does not jibe with the traditional Russian sense of self, and just how those two will coexist is one of the most intriguing questions heading into the 2018 World Cup.