World Cup Preview: Russia v Croatia

Who? Russia - Croatia
Where? Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi
When? July 6, 20:00 (CET local time)


One of the biggest fears in Croatia, following the impressive group stage domination, was another round of 16 mental collapse that comes as a result of some big expectations – similar to what happened in Euro 2016: Portugal, the eventual winners, came as underdogs vs Croatia and eliminated them.

 That scenario was very close to repeat itself, as Denmark put everything on the line and pulled the Croatians all the way to the penalties. At the 115th minute, Luka Modrić sent an amazing ball to Ante Rebić, who found himself facing and empty net – but was fouled at the last moment before scoring. Modrić missed the penalty, the game went to penalty kicks to decide the winner, and the momentum suddenly felt Danish. For many, this reminded the Uruguay – Ghana quarter finals from 2010, when Luis Suarez’s handball and Gyan Asamoah’s missed penalty broke the Ghanaian’s mentally. Moreover, The Croatian’s had a Deja-vu from the Euro 2008 quarter finals, as they scored a 119th minute goal vs Turkey, only to concede an equalizer a minute later and then losing in penalties.

This time, it wasn’t that case – Croatia won in penalties. It was an emotional rollercoaster, and even Modrić scored his penalty from the shootout. The game in Nizhny Novogrod proved, more than anything, that the Croatians have great character. Now they face hosts Russia in the quarter finals and feel there is a chance to continue dreaming. As memories of the 1998 World Cup continue, it’s time to remind the Vatreni that they were eliminated in that tournament by the hosts France in the semifinals, so perhaps its time to look at 2018 as a chance to make new and better history.


The other half of this European derby has also qualified to the quarter finals in thrilling fashion. Russia faced the heavily favored Spain and set a very good defensive structure that forced the Spaniards into producing a lackluster passing fest. Yet, the Russian’s also needed to show mental strength. An own goal by 39-year-old Sergei Ignashevich forced Russia to attack, and they responded with a blitz towards the end of the first half. It led to a penalty equalizer by Artem Dzyuba. Ignashevich overcame his own demons, and himself produced a tough defensive display, along with goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev – who was the penalty shootout hero eventually.

As a youngster, Akinfeev looked set to become a world class goalkeeper. He won the 2005 UEFA Cup with CSKA Moscow and produced stunning performances such as keeping a clean sheet away vs Arsenal in the Champions League a year later. That game proved to be a turning point, as he conceded in 43 consecutive Champions League games. Akinfeev was ridiculed and became a laughing stock and has also symbolized the uncompetitive nature of the modern Russian footballer who preferred to stay at home and enjoy earning easy money rather than moving to play in Western Europe. But now, after helping the national team beat Spain in front of the home fans, he has cemented his place in Russian football folklore.

Akinfeev and Ignashevich will play their 550th game together vs Croatia, an astonishing number, as Russia will try to keep the dream alive – and they can gain optimism from the fact that Croatia are 0 from 2 vs World Cup hosts. The Spaniards, whom they defeated on Sunday, have also never beat a World Cup host previously. Ironically, Sochi’s distance from Zagreb and Moscow is almost similar – but it is definite the Russian fans are all in with their team now.

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Wind of Change

What is the place of the media in our life? Can headlines shape consciousness about places, cultures or people?

The answer is yes.  Definitely yes. One of the interesting things about this World Cup is that there is not a large number of European fans in Russia. Just very few of them. For example, England, who regularly sends around 30,000 fans to big tournaments, arrived in Moscow in a timid 3,500 fans.

The majority of fans come from Latin America, Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. How does that happen? The answer might be a large amount of negative articles in English about the bad side, that it is there is, in Russia, and less articles, or not at all, pieces that highlight things that are good in the country.

This prevented many people who consume only English media to arrive in Russia, and in general placed a very specific state of mind about the 2018 World Cup host.

Before the tournament, many people had concerns. The country, the culture, the corruption, the racism, the hooligans and violence in local football were the first things to come in mind when mentioning the Russian World Cup. To their surprise, the tournament has been going through in an excellent atmosphere with almost zero racist incidents. Does it mean that everything is okay in Russia? What is the real impact of this event on the host country? And most importantly - whether it is going to stay this way after it’s over?

In order to find out more, BabaGol met Robert Ustian, a Russian guy from Abkhazia, the entrepreneur behind CSKA Fans Against Racism, who talked with us about media, stereotypes, how to fight racism and stay sympathetic to your club, as well as the real meaning of this World Cup for Russia & the West, and the challenges that follow it.

Part 1:

Part 2:

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World Cup Preview: Spain v Russia

Who? Spain - Russia
Where? Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
When? July 1, 16:00 (CET local time)

Spain (Yossi Medina)

The future of Spain national team looked a bit uncertain only a few years ago. With a coach that was appointed only two days before the World Cup, nobody thought that Spain will impress in this tournament. Even though they almost didn't face a real opponent in the group stage, Spain maintained its place as one of the favourites and qualified from the top spot.

Now they will play against Russia, who showed already a great performance but failed against a stronger team like Uruguay. Russia has the support as host nation and Spain knows well what it means to play as an away team in the World Cup. In 2002, they faced South Korea and couldn't handle the combination of good opponent, home crowd and of course some controversies with some of the referee's decisions.

In the game against Morocco, we saw an interesting scorer. Two years ago, Iago Aspas wasn't even considered as part from the national squad. He made his debut in a friendly match in November 2016 and since then made just 12 caps. Yet, his scoring record in the team is amazing, as he scored 6 goals. At the age of 30, Aspas became an important part from the Spanish team.

With so much hopes and dreams, Spain will need to defeat Russia if they want to fulfill them. It wouldn't be easy in Luzhniki, but Spain showed more than once that they can do it everywhere.

Russia (Eden Roitfarb)

On Sunday 17:00 Moscow time, the Russian national team would take the role as David and will face Goliath – also known as La Roja, the Spanish Selección. Speaking of David, the last game Russia played in the knockout stage in a big tournament was the semifinals of Euro 2008 against non-other than Spain – as young midfielder David Silva scored the last goal in an emphatic 3-0 victory. Earlier in that tournament, both teams faced off once more in the group stage and David Villa scored a hattrick on route to a 4-1 win. Ironically, that was still the best side produced by Russian football for a long time, and success has eluded them since.

Back to today, the Russian public feels that advancing to the round of 16 is considered a big achievement as there were almost zero expectations from this squad. 2 from 2 to start the tournament while scoring 8 goals were enough to change the mood of the hosting nation, but Uruguay brought everyone back to earth after easily beating The Golden Eagles 3-0. In this game, Stanislav Cherchesov made a few changes to his starting lineup, but everything went wrong with a Denis Cheryshev own goal and Igor Smolnikov’s dismissal.

Shifting back to optimism, the matchup against Spain will take place in the Luzhniki stadium – where the World Cup opener and 5-0 drubbing of Saudi Arabia took place. 3 other games took place in the venue and only 2 goals were scored. Russia would definitely look to close down the Spanish midfield, which consists old fellow David Silva, and keep a closed and close game while trying to surprise on the counter attack. Then, maybe then, Russia can beat Spain in their home court – just like David overtook Goliath in the biblical myth story.

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World Cup Preview: Uruguay v Russia

Who? Uruguay - Russia
Where? Samara Arena, Samara
When? June 25, 16:00 (CET local time)

Uruguay (Gilad Seroussi)

La Celeste already won its place in the next phase before even playing their last match in the group stage. Yes, it is happy rare days in Uruguay. But after a decent performance in the first game the team didn't play well in the second one, and Tabarez is still searching for the right formula.

Facing the explosive host team, Uruguay are going to try a different game plan; no more trying to be the initiating side, but back to the familiar style of a team that lets the opponent take the initiative and then striks with quick counter attacks. The injured Josema Gimenez will probably be replaced with Sebastian Coates, playing alongside Godin and Caceres in a 3 man backline. Laxalt and Nandez will be the wide players, the position causing the biggest headache to Tabarez, with the second designated specifically to stopping Russian winger Cheryshev. While Laxalt will be very familiar with that role, the same he is completing in Genoa, Nandez is still struggling playing wide. Another change will be Lucas Torreira debut in the starting lineup of Uruguay, adding more vertical play to Vecino and Bentancur in the middle of the field. Upfront no changes; Suarez will lead the line and alongside him Cavani will look for his first goal in the World Cup.

Don't expect sexy football from Uruguay, unlikely any change in formation and lineup will do it, as they will try to be formidable in the back as they've been so far, and more clinical upfront. As the great Edinson Cavani put it: "Our joy is from giving all we got on the pitch". I wish la Celeste will enjoy it again.  

Russia (Eden Roitfarb)

The Russians have qualified from a group stage for the first time since the 1986 World Cup, then still known as the USSR. Amazingly, Stanislav Cherchesov’s men have produced another impressive attacking performance, this time dismantling Egypt 3-1. Again, Russia beat an Arab team, but unfortunately for them, Uruguay come from South America and are a whole different challenge. With two hard fought 1-0 wins, Oscar Tabarez’s team almost look like the international version of Atletico Madrid, a team you never want to play against in an important game.

With that in mind, it is very likely that an even tougher opponent would wait in the next round – Portugal or Spain are favorites to qualify from Group B, which faces Group A in the next round. The exact order would only be known after Russia would play, so it would be impossible to predict beforehand which spot would be more appealing. Therefore, Russia would want to get the best result possible, and a draw would be enough to secure first place.

One of the topics discussed around the team lately is the alleged suggestions by foreign journalists that there might be cases of doping within the squad. This is due to the surprising two victories, and also because the Russian players ran the greatest distance on pitch than any other team in the tournament. In response, team doctor Eduard Bezuglov said that his players undergo twice as many drug tests than other teams, and that they are in good shape because of their own training and the support of the whole country – which helps them perform well. Undoubtedly, Russia would need to work even harder to compete with Uruguay.

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World Cup Preview: Russia v Egypt

Who? Russia - Egypt
Where? Krestovski Stadium, St. Petersburg
When? June 19, 20:00 (CET local time)

Russia (Eden Roitfarb)

They say that time flies by when you enjoy! The first round of group games is behind us, and here we are again with hosts Russia who face Egypt. And what a difference a few days can make: The Russians came into the opening game with clear pessimism and doubt of their team, who eventually smashed Saudi Arabia 5-0. Now, it feels closer to euphoria in the Russian camp, who know that a victory over the Pharohs would clinch a qualification through to the next round – for the first time since the Soviet Union collapse.

Another reason for the Russian optimism is due to the questionable fitness of opponent superstar Mohammed Salah. It is clear that without him running down the wing at full forces, Egypt are dramatically weaker, and that can tilt the odds towards the hosts. On the other side, the unlucky Alan Dzagoev has been ruled out for at least the rest of the group stage after injuring his hamstring vs Saudi Arabia. His replacement would be Denis Cheryshev, who produced a brilliant display on Thursday. His 2 goals were his firsts for the national team, and along with Yury Gazinsky’s goal, that marked the first time two players have scored their first goals for a national team in an opening World Cup match.

After pleasing the Moscow crowd, Russia move on to host in St Petersburg, the former capital of the Russian empire and Vladimir Putin’s hometown. These two facts alone should fire up Stanislav Cherchesov’s men to perform well and continue the momentum.

Egypt (Uri Levy)

After stretching Uruguay to the very last minute in Ekaterinburg, Egypt is now facing their most important in this World Cup. Some would say in their history. It won’t be easy. Russia, as seen in the tournament’s opening match, is very strong in front the home crowd, and in the city of St. Petersburg, the local fans are already preparing a hostile welcome to the Pharaohs.

The biggest question of course is whether Mohamed Salah will take part in the game or not, but one must acknowledge the fact that Egypt produced a great tactical performance against Uruguay. They hanged on to the match and almost scored versus a much better side. Abdalla Said, Ahmed Hegazy and even Amr Warda has done their job perfectly. The one who will now need to deliver is Hector Cúper, who made a huge mistake by making the last substitute in the last game.

Without Salah, Egypt actually has a psychological advantage over the rival - while the other team is worried from the moment Salah will join from the bench. If Cúper wouldn’t made the final change that convinced the Uruguayans that Salah won’t play, the result could have been different.

But it’s all over now. Egypt must win in order to progress from Group A, and nothing but a victory over the host in one of the best stadiums in the tournament will be counted as a success.

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The Bizarre Story of Ekaterinburg

A city that parts of it look as they had been stopped in 1953, and parts as if they had come from the future. This is probably one of the oddest cities Baba has been to, with one of the oddest stadiums where the World Cup games were played.

A mix between old & new, between Asia & Europe. Ekaterinburg (Photo: Uri Levy)

A mix between old & new, between Asia & Europe. Ekaterinburg (Photo: Uri Levy)

Ekaterinburg is the fourth largest city in Russia, with a population of 1.4 million inhabitants.
It sits on the Iset River at the heart of a ridge that divides Russia into East and West, the border between Asia & Europe. It is an important academy city, and also has a football team - Ural FC.
On paper, Ekaterinburg is an ultimate place to host the World Cup, though things are a bit more complex than that when deep diving in to the city story with the tournament.

In order to increase the capacity of the local stadium, the Central Stadium, which was established in 1957, from 23,000 seats to 35,000, an original solution has been found. The round and impressive structure, with no olympic runways whatsoever, was bizarrely renovated in which two temporary stands were placed behind the goals, in such a way that the fans are actually seating outside the stadium. Yup.

What was even more odd, is that almost 6,000 seats remained empty during the match that hosted 15,000 Egyptians & 3,500 Uruguayans. After talking with local residents, fans & journalists in the city I got a different picture. 

Not everyone thought it's a good idea. The temporary stand in Central Stadium (Photo: Uri Levy)

Not everyone thought it's a good idea. The temporary stand in Central Stadium (Photo: Uri Levy)

When Russia won the hosting rights of the World Cup and it was announced that Ekaterinburg would be the a host city, there were those in the city who did not like the idea. This is a city with significant sectors of workers and students. For them it seemed that the investment in renovating the stadium and investing in a "one-time" infrastructure for the World Cup alone was perceived as corrupt and not beneficial to the locals. There were demonstrations, arrests while few strong figures in politics and local crime opposed to hosting games in the region. According to few  local journalists, the decision to host the World Cup games in the city was accepted after several influential people in the city  allegedly received bribes from interested parties. "No one really knows who approved it, and there is nothing to say, this structure is strange by all accounts, and does not do good PR to our city," says Alexander, a local fan who came to the game with a Russian flag on his back. But it wasn’t only this that was bizarre.

The temporary stands were filled on one side with thousands of Egyptians and Uruguayans and some Russians, but the stands along the lot were almost empty. It was the second game in the World Cup, and the most promising African team and one of the top South Americans. But thousands of seats remained empty, as mentioned.

When I asked official representatives at the stadium why this was the case, they first answered that they did not understand English. Finally, I turned to the FIFA representative in half about how the second game in the World Cup could be half empty. “the stadium was a sell out for this game." "How can that be?" I tried again. “It is not clear why and how no one came."

A brief review of ticket prices to category 1 indicates a strange situation.
The ticket to Uruguay and Egypt in Ekaterinburg in this category rose about $210 dollars - about what an average worker earns in the city for a whole week. So how does it make sense then? A FIFA administrator in the Media Center told me: ”I understand what you're saying, but I can not answer that. Sorry.”

A local journalist who wished to remain anonymous said that there was another explanation for the whole scandal. "When the opposition to hosting the World Cup was in the city, what happened was that the organising committee granted protection rights to local to few people who are connected with crime and drugs, to all the real estate assets related to the World Cup, and they were also guaranteed tickets. The empty chairs are simply tickets that someone could not sell on.”

So where is the truth lay? Apparently in the middle or on the side" Do not look so surprised, "she added. Sometimes things happen and there is no explanation for everything.” 

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World Cup Preview: Russia v Saudi Arabia

Who? Russia - Saudi Arabia
Where? Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
When? June 14, 17:00 (CET local time)

Russia (Eden Roitfarb)

Here we go again! 4 years of anticipation are finally over and suddenly we stare in the eyes of the World Cup opening match. If the football world has waited long for this day, more so have the Russians, that will host a major tournament for the first time. That was officially announced in December 2010 and handed Russia more than 7 years to prepare efficiently.

But are they ready? Unfortunately, it doesn’t look so. Despite being drawn in a comfortable group (which always seems to be the case for host nations), Russia are projected to struggle to qualify further. Only a decade ago they were Euro semi-finalists, but much has changed. To understand that, it’s enough to look at their recent friendlies form that is counting 7 games without a win.

The main problem of the Russian football is the absurd amount of money spent by owners in the local league in previous years. Although this helps to attract foreign stars and improve the football level, there is a major downside for the drive and competitiveness of the Russian footballers who can earn very high wages at home and stay in their comfort zone. Alan Dzagoev, for instance, has never left CSKA Moscow even though he was considered a wonderkid on a global level. Similarly, Yuri Zhirkov did tried his luck in England but returned to the homeland quickly. Evidently, only two squad players earn their living abroad. This type of career management has led to stagnation in the development of the Russian footballer and directly damages the national team. 

However, coach Stanislav Cherchesov might hope experience would provide an x-factor – the Russian squad is one of the oldest this summer with average age of 28.8, and he knows a win on Thursday can change the whole narrative of the Sbornaya.

Saudi Arabia (Uri Levy)

"I'm very optimistic. No one gives us a chance, our players had a disappointing year with their loan deals in Spain, but the truth is that Russia can be surprised in the first game”, said Khaled Abdel Rahman, A Saudi fan with a huge smile outside the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow at Monday afternoon. “The Russians are a weak and fearful team, and against Egypt? Well it's an Arab derby, so everything is open”, he added.

Khaled’s thoughts are not there for granted. Not because of his team's ability, the opposite - the Saudis doesn't have much to lose in this World Cup. The betting agencies give them the lowest chances to win alongside with Panama, and, as Khaled mentioned, this was not a good season for the big stars of Saudi Arabia.

Though, in the last preparation friendly against Germany, although the Saudis conceded twice in an early stage, but looked solid altogether, made it very difficult for the Germans to score more and even got one goal back. “Honestly, I was surprised by the ability," Khaled added. "The goal came as a result of a good pressure, exactly like it came against Italy. These things weren’t happening in a Saudi national team before. When I saw that, I said that perhaps the time in Spain did something good eventually,” he laughed.

After a short period, it seems that Juan Antonio Pizzi is starting to leave his mark on the Saudi players. It is true, they are not favorites in Group A, but they have no pressure and what is certain is that Pizzi will do everything he can to prevent a humiliation in this World Cup. If it is up to him, the 0-8 against Germany & Miro Klose in 2002 will be a foregone memory. Pizzi's Saudi Arabia is a more combative team than what appears on paper.

But will they be able to steal the show in the opening game of the World Cup?
If you ask Khalid, he will tell you: “I told you man, everything is possible!”

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The Russian Paradox

With 10 days remaining for World Cup opening match, the Russian national team's troubles are flowing. The hosting country's team is considered as one of the weakests in the tournament, with miles of potential being wasted and promising players who disappered throughout the years. Although it has been majorly talked about the lack of centre-backs in the hosts' squad after recent Berezutski brothers' retirement, lest it be forgotten that most of other positions are not much better.

A quick review of the squad reveals that only 3 out of 28 players play abroad – third-choice goalkeeper Vladimir Gabulov (Club Brugge), naturalized Roman Neustader (Fenerbahce) and Denis Cheryshev (Villarreal). A squad which is based on the local league players may definitely be an advantage, improving the players' comprehension, but not when the league is as weak as the Russian Premier League.

The truth is there are no Russian players who are good enough, physically and mentally, to play abroad. Anderi Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko playing in the English Premier League are a distant memory, whilst players who were expected to lead the national team failed to do so. Alan Dzagoev, who was marked as a future star, spent all of his senior career at CSKA Moscow. Although he is one of the Armeitsy's best players, he could have played in a better league and become a better footballer. Artem Dzyuba was also marked as a possible key player but got loaned out from Zenit St. Petersburg to middle-table Arsenal Tula. These are just two examples of this disturbing phenomenon.

The main reason for that is the desprate will to make Russian Premier League more attractive by signing foreign players. Nowadays, the best way to convince a player to move to a non-top league is usually a high salary, and this is what the major Russian clubs did. The results were devastating. If Hulk, Axel Witsel and Willian raised the Russian League level, most of the foreigns fell short of expectations or simply were past their peak. For some reasons they were preferred over local players, who  stayed on bench and stopped improving. The few Russians who kept playing became indispensable for their clubs since they had no replacement, regardless of their performances' quality. Considering their astronomical salaries, moving abroad meant less money received and more efforts required. And so a Golden Cage was created.

Another aspect of the issue is the absence of a new generation of young players. Aging Berezutski brothers played alongside Arshavin and Aleksandr Kerzhakov, who quitted national team long ago. Instead of investing in young players promotion, Russia chose the easier way and used the old generation players as long as possible. Sadly for them, the they've lost their shaped in the worst timing.

As for today, only three youngsters could make an immediate impact – the Miranchuk twins, Aleksei and Anton, and Aleksandr Golovin, 22 and 20-years old respectively. The Miranchuk brothers took massive part in Lokomotiv Moscow's fantastic season, becoming unexpectedly champions, and Golovin helped CSKA to finish second. It is to be said that Anton Miranchuk started playing first team football only the past season, previously being plying his trade in the Estonian League. He took to chance and have produced high quality performances. Maybe now young players will get more chances, following his case.

Russia will start the tournament against Saudi Arabia, whom they can and ought to beat. At least one of the other teams - Uruguay and Egypt - will lose points, which may give the hosts an advantage before the next two games. Although stopping Luis Suarez and Mohamed Salah with no center-backs is not an easy task, a successful opening game along with massive support from the tribunes may help the locals in advancing to the next stage. With two brothers in squad again, this time attacking players, Russia might manage to avoid early exit from the tournament they are hosting. After all, the famous phrase says that the best defence is a good offense. The Russians will have to count on that. 


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