Moscow (AFP) – Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov has told his team to ignore media criticism ahead of Thursday’s World Cup kick-off against Saudi Arabia and focus on winning.
The host nation enter their first home World Cup in the worst possible form.
They have beaten both Russian and Soviet records by going winless in seven matches and slumping to 70th in the world, the lowest of the 32 teams in the tournament.
Newspaper headlines are asking not whether Russia stand a chance of lifting their first World Cup trophy but if things can possibly get any worse.
“We have to take all the criticism and turn it into something positive,” Cherchesov told reporters after the team’s final practise at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.
The imposing 80,000-seat arena has been rebuilt from the days it hosted the 1980 Summer Olympics and will be the venue of both Thursday’s tournament kickoff and the July 15 final.
President Vladimir Putin has already said he expects to see much better from Russia when he arrives in Luzhniki for the opening ceremony.
“We very much expect — all fans and lovers of football in Russia — expect the team to play with dignity, for them to show modern, interesting football, and to fight until the end,” Putin said last week.
Russia’s last two World Cup warm-ups saw them manage just one shot on target in a 1-0 loss to Austria and 1-1 draw with Turkey.
The team have not tasted victory in eight months.
But Cherchesov promised that everything will look different should Russia manage to beat Saudi Arabia.
“The first game will be the most important one because it will leave its stamp on the entire campaign,” the 54-year-old former national team goalkeeper said.
“Every player knows that he represents his country and will give everything he has for the win.”
Russia play their second match against Egypt on June 19 in Saint Peterburg and finish off Group A play against two-time World Cup champions Uruguay in Samara on June 25.
Qualification for the knockout stage would probably mean a last 16 matchup against either European champions Portugal or former World Cup winners Spain.
Various Russian officials have already said that Cherchesov’s failure to lead Russia out of one of the most straightforward groups in the draw would be a national sporting disaster.
Yet Russia also crashed out of a 2014 World Cup group in which they were one of the favourites.
Cherchesov made no promises but said his charges were intent on making the nation proud.
“Our goal is to make people excited by our play, and everything will go right after that,” he said.