Land of Snow and Glory: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime as Russia Take on Three Former World Champions

Lionel Messi and Fatos Bećiraj may not have anything immediately in common. One is widely regarded as the most talented footballer in the world today, and by some even of all time; the other plays as number 10 for Barcelona. Oh come on, you knew what you were getting yourself in for by reading this column… Excuses for pathetic attempt at humour aside, they actually do share something in their recent career paths; both will have played against the Russian national team this autumn.

Who’s this Bećiraj chap I hear you ask? Well, for those uneducated heathens amongst you, he is the hulking Montenegrin target man who is keeping Pavel Pogrebnyak out of the Dinamo Moscow side. Admittedly it’s not a particularly hard task, but the strange thing is it was as a club player that he faced Russia. Yep, that’s right; the country that is hosting the next World Cup and spent around a billion US dollars on one stadium alone couldn’t find a single nation to play against in the early September break, and played their third string against a side in the relegation zone.

However, let’s fight fair. The Russian Football Union have surpassed all expectation to line up not one but three world-class opposition in a row, starting with Argentina at the official re-opening of the refurbished Luzhniki stadium. There are over 500 places in the media centre alone, an 80,000 capacity, and a mammoth complex of sport arenas and parkland surrounding it. It truly is magnificent, and a worthy stage for Messi and co. Russia’s Fyodor Smolov is back amongst the goals and will lead the line after bagging four goals in his last two league games to draw level with his former youth team colleague Aleksandr Kokorin at the top of the scoring charts.

On Tuesday Spain will face Russia in St Petersburg’s magnificent Krestovsky Stadium which has swallowed all those countless dollars and, tragically, the life of a North Korean construction worker. These two fixtures will be a tough test of the struggling but reborn Russian national team, and sure-fire ways to pack out the two largest and most emblematic World Cup venues with a sample of next summer’s anticipation. Russia’s defence is no longer a retirement home – the standard pairing of Vasili Berezutskiy, who scored the equaliser against England in Marseille in last summer’s Euros, and Sergey Ignashevich would now have a combined age of 73. Georgi Dzhikia, Roman Neustädter, Ilya Kutepov and Viktor Vasin have shown themselves capable of playing in either a three or four-man defence, and mercifully are all under 30.

Speaking of the top, and of Peter the Great’s ‘Window to Europe’, the unthinkable continues to happen. Zenit have crumbled to their longest winless run in over a decade, now going five domestic matches without a win, and their place has been taken by a Lokomotiv Moscow side missing their most established striker and centre-back captain Vedran Ćorluka. Roberto Mancini began life in Russia to great fanfare and expectation, and he delivered right from the off. After 10 matches, it seemed nobody would have a hope in hell of catching them by the end of the season, yet alone the halfway stage.

The Russian Football Premier League is a competition that is almost completely ignored on the continent, despite out-ranking Portugal’s top flight in the UEFA coefficient rankings. It is proving to be the most unpredictable, however, as not only are Zenit flailing of late, but the chasing pack right outside the European qualification places are made up of names casual observers will never have heard of. At one stage last weekend, Ural Ekaterinburg were set to move into the Champions League places, while Arsenal Tula – where Emmanuel Frimpong played briefly – and Ufa, one of Andrei Kanchelskis’ first clubs in management, lie just behind. No gap between neighbouring teams in the table is more than three points, while only two sides have won more than twice in the last five matches.

Ignore Russian football at your peril.