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As the domestic season draws to a close, the focus of the back pages is slowly but surely starting to settle on Russia. The opening match of the FIFA World Cup takes place on 14 June, when Russia take on Saudi Arabia. Ordinarily, it would not be a match-up to capture the imagination, but there is always something special about seeing the host nation in action.
Russia are favourites to win that first match, with some bookmakers having them as strong as 1/4 on, and if all goes to form, they will take an early lead in the Group A table. But how far can the host nation really go?
Everyone likes a dark horse
Even the most die-hard follower of the top teams loves to look down the list of qualifiers and select their personal dark horse, which they will cheer on to pull off a few surprises. You can also read about 5 underdog teams to watch at 2018 World Cup over here. Clearly, the hosts will be one on the most talked-about underdogs in the World Cup. But just how far can they go?
Russia’s World Cup record
In the Soviet days, the team had some strong World Cup performances, making the quarter finals in 1958, 1962 and 1970, and having their best ever performance in 1966, when they lost to West Germany in the semi final.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, Russia has had a torrid time. The team has only qualified three times, and has never proceeded beyond the group stages, winning just two of the nine matches they have played. Potentially, however, things could be different this year.
The luck of the draw
The other teams in Group A with Russia are Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay. While Uruguay are clearly the stand-out favourites in the group, Russia certainly have a realistic chance of getting through to the last 16. Some see Egypt as another dark horse, and the match between them, which takes place on 19 June, could be the pivotal one.
Pressure to perform
With everything else that’s going on in the world at the moment, a successful World Cup is of huge importance to Russia, both socially and politically. If their own team can perform well, that will be the icing in the cake – in fact, according to a survey by the Public Opinion Fund (FOM), three quarters of the 1,500 people asked said it is “personally important” that Russia performs well, although only four percent backed their team to win the entire event.
The additional pressure of being the host nation has traditionally been more of a curse than a blessing. Of course, South Korea astonished the watching world to make the semi finals in 2002, but they are the exception that proves the rule. More commonly, the hosts struggle to live up to the hype. South Africa had a wretched World Cup 2010, their consolation win over France proving the only bright point.
One man is quietly confident that Russia can go at least one step further than they have gone before, and that’s their former manager, Fabio Capello. The 71 year-old, who was recently sacked from his latest role at Chinese club Jiangsu Suning, is confident that Russia have what it takes to make an impact this year. When asked by FIFA.com what the world could expect from his former team, he said: “I saw the draw – they will get past the first round.”
He added that there is one man Russia will desperately need to have firing on all cylinders, and that is the captain, striker Fyodor Smolov. The 28 year old is undoubtedly world class, and has already attracted Premier League attention, with West Ham expected to make a move for him in the transfer window.
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Tony Gallacher- Falkirk
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Will They Stay?
The Board of the SYFA has announced that the Chief Executive, David Little, is stepping down from his position.