Richard van Poortvliet: Russians warm to World Cup and a post-Soviet resurgence

A collective sigh of relief went around most of Russia on Friday evening, as millions were glued to their television screens, watching events unfold at the upmarket resort of Costa do Sauípe Resort in the East of Brazil. They could finally breath a lot easier, or start planning their summer holiday’s once Russia, who were the final country to be drawn, were placed in a group with Belgium, South Korea and Algeria.

The draw has remarkable similarities for Russia to the World Cup group draw in 2002. Not only were they drawn into the same Group H, but they also faced Belgium, while South Korea and Algeria are both near neighbours of Japan and Tunisia who Oleg Romantsev’s side faced 11 years ago.

The less said about Russia’s last appearance in the World Cup the better, as they would crash out in the group stages, after defeats to Japan and Belgium, while there were riots in central Moscow as their side lost 1-0 to the Japanese.

Aleksandr Mostovoy was part of the Russian squad 11 years ago, under Romantsev, though failed to play a single minute in the tournament and he believes things could have been much worse for Fabio Capello’s side: “Of course Belgium are a very good side, but if you stopped and asked fans on the street, who would you prefer to play? Belgium or Germany? Belgium or Spain? Or Belgium or Argentina? I think everyone would say Belgium – and this backs up my point.”

The former Celta Vigo midfielder believes “Russia and Belgium are the favourites to qualify,” though “Russia should also be wary of South Korea, who we recently beat in a friendly, as they are a fast and mobile side.”

The rise of Belgium has been quite staggering over the last few years. Coached by Marc Willmots, who scored what turned out, to be the winning goal against the Russian’s at the 2002 World Cup, they have fantastic players all over the pitch, playing in some of the biggest leagues in Europe. Two players likely to be in their squad, Axel Witsel and Nicolas Lombaerts, play their club football for Zenit St Petersburg.

Former Russian midfielder, Andrey Kanchelskis believes Russia have every chance of qualifying. “Everything is in our hands. If we win and score goals, then we will go through to the next round,” said the former Manchester United double winner. “The favourites in the group are Belgium and Russia, but it is difficult to say anything about Algeria, who we know little about. It was a good draw for us and I don’t see any reason why we can’t qualify for the next round.”

One person who will know a thing or to about Algeria will be Russia’s head coach, Fabio Capello. The Italian was in charge of England at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, who were held to a disappointing goalless draw by the North African nation in Cape Town. The 67 year-old was also widely criticized by the English media for selecting his team’s training base at Rustenburg, due to its remote location and few activities for the players.

It seems as though Capello has gone down a similar route for choosing Russia’s base for the World Cup in Brazil. Capello had the option of choosing from six different training camps, but in the end opted for the city of Campinas, which is about 100 kilometres North West of Sao Paulo and located within easy travelling distance of Russia’s three World Cup venues – Rio de Janeiro, Cuiabá and Curitiba. Their base will be the training ground used by Ponte Preta, who are coached by former Bayern Munich right back Jorginho. Capello has stressed the need for a “quiet place – away from the hustle and bustle of city life.”According to the President of the Russian Football Union, Nikolay Tolstykh,, “it’s a good training facility, out of the city and has good pitches”.

It is unlikely Capello will receive the same criticism from Russia’s media for keeping players away from the spotlight – in comparison to England three years ago in Rustenburg. And it is unlikely that the players will complain of boredom. It will be the first World Cup for the vast majority of the Russian squad, only Aleksandr Kerzhakov, who was 19 in Japan and Korea, has previously appeared at a World Cup from the players that Capello selected during in qualifying.

There is quiet optimism within Russia that their country could do well at the 2014 World Cup, following a favourable draw and playing their matches in the cooler south of the country. Despite the high costs, it is likely that a few thousand Russian fans will make the trip to cheer on their team, as their country look to try and qualify for the knockout stages for the first time since the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Richard van Poortvliet is a sport presenter and correspondent at Russia Today, based in Moscow.