Supposedly terrible Russia ready for 'game of our lives' against Spain in World Cup
MOSCOW -- It wasn't supposed to happen. It wasn't even talked about much, wasn't even a talking point. For months and years, the buildup to the World Cup in Russia centered on subjects like logistics and corruption and stadium-building and visas and hooliganism and racism.
The Russian national team? An afterthought, if that. And why not? The Russians were, in a word, uzhasnyy -- terrible -- the lowest-ranked team in the tournament.
Yet, somehow, here we are. On Sunday, Russia -- bad Russia, awful Russia, hopeless Russia -- will face Spain, one of the bright lights of European soccer, in a round of 16 game at the famed Luzhniki Stadium.
It is Russia's first appearance in the knockout rounds in 32 years and, for a team that many thought might struggle to record a single victory, or even score a goal, it is a remarkable accomplishment. More importantly, for a country that has put so much into hosting the world's biggest sporting event, it feels like nothing less than the equivalent of a showpiece final.
"We need to give 200 percent of what we can," winger Denis Cheryshev said. "We know that's our responsibility."
"For us," striker Artem Dzyuba said, "it is the game of our lives."
Adding to the luster is that, while Spain surely are the bigger name, it is not altogether inconceivable that Russia could win. There is no denying that the talent gap is considerable, but Spain fired its coach two days before the tournament began and has looked spotty, particularly defensively, giving up three goals to Portugal and two to Morocco.
Russia, meanwhile, won two of their three group stage games (albeit against Saudi Arabia and Egypt), and have clearly harnessed the momentum that comes with galvanizing a home-country fan base. The fan zones around the country have been full during Russia's games, as fans move on from the dire pre-tournament predictions for their national team and embrace a group of players that has made a surprising run.
"Tomorrow needs to be a party," Cheryshev said.
Cheryshev, who has scored three goals, has been critical to Russia's success, but the home team has also relied on a remarkable level of fitness in its games, running their opponents into the ground.
Russia recorded the third-highest distance covered during the group stage, averaging 110 kilometers (about 68 miles) per game. Particularly in their first two games, the Russians buzzed around the field, seemingly buoyed on by the ubiquitous "ROOS-EE-YA!" chants from the stands.
Of course, with the well-known history of Russia's Olympic doping scandal, the physical accomplishments of the Russian soccer team did not come without some skepticism. Alexey Sorokin, who is the head the local organizing committee for the tournament and also a FIFA Council member, even joked about it after a journalist asked him how he felt about the Russian team's success here and, in the same sentence, inquired about the tournament's doping protocols.
"I think there's a certain hint in that question," Sorokin said, smiling, before adding that more than 2,000 drug tests have been conducted at the World Cup, with each player who has participated being tested at least once.
(On Saturday, a journalist asked Cheryshev directly about a rumor that he had taken growth hormone; Cheryshev politely but firmly said the rumor was contrived, stating flatly, "I have never used any prohibited substances. You don't even have to think about it twice. That's my answer.")
Russia's coach, Stanislav Cherchesov, has done his best to downplay the significance of the occasion, attempting to portray this as just another match. He said his team has achieved "intermediate success" and would not be cowed by the realization that they are now only three victories away from a place in the World Cup final.
Cherchesov was not helped in his attempts at minimizing the situation by the Russian media. At the start of his news conference, he turned toward the first journalist and was taken aback when the reporter presented him with a gift instead of a question, offering a handmade sculpture that was, the journalist said, created by a local artist and named "Success."
Cherchesov did enjoy a brief trip down memory lane, however, when a reporter asked him about a 1991 match in which Cherchesov's team, Spartak Moscow, played against Real Madrid, which included Spain's current manager, Fernando Hierro. Spartak won 3-1, and Cherchesov chuckled when it was suggested that the result might help him figure out how to pull off an upset against Hierro's players on Sunday.
"At that time, Spanish teams were favorites, but we have a saying in Russia that 'Anyone can be a God if he tries,'" Cherchesov said. "Back then, the Luzhniki Stadium was different, the weather was different, the team was different, but no one believed that we could win. And, well, tomorrow, we can repeat that success and prove our worth again."
Sam Borden is a Global Sports Correspondent for ESPN, also covering soccer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamBorden.