MOSCOW — Three weeks ago, the players on Russia’s national soccer team were laughingstocks, targets for jokes and social-media memes.
Russia has gone further in this year’s World Cup than its fans ever expected, all the way to the quarterfinals against Croatia, and its players and coach have gone from figures of fun to national treasures.
Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov warned his team to avoid reading Russian newspapers before the tournament, when it was widely ridiculed. That’s still the policy, if only to stop the team from getting overconfident from all the praise.
“Criticism needs to be constructive and not insulting,” Cherchesov said Friday. “We can’t get into euphoria. Teams who are stronger than us on paper have already gone home.”
Cherchesov’s tactical ability was mocked after Russia arrived at the World Cup without a win in seven games. He was seen as an unsophisticated “gym teacher” whose biggest accomplishment as a coach was winning the Polish league.
Late-night TV host Ivan Urgant launched a tongue-in-cheek campaign for fans to support Cherchesov by wearing “victory moustaches” in imitation of his facial hair. After Russia started winning games, many fans embraced the gesture, now without a hint of irony.
Igor Akinfeev is the goalkeeper who stopped Spain in the shootout and sent Russia to the quarterfinals, but he was once better known for his blunders.
Akinfeev looked nervous in big matches and went 42 games over a decade without a shutout in the Champions League. At the 2014 World Cup, he let a weak shot from South Korea slip through his fingers.
Stopping Spain in the penalty shootout has transformed Akinfeev’s reputation forever. An image of him as a Russian Orthodox saint was widely shared online on Tuesday, and opposition leader Alexei Navalny said he should get the Russian state’s highest honour, the rank of Hero of Russia.
Russia’s Central Bank proudly pointed out Akinfeev’s final penalty save was a near-match for one depicted on a World Cup-themed banknote.
“Prediction always was our strong suit,” the bank wrote.
Raised in Spain by a Russian soccer-playing father, Villarreal winger Denis Cheryshev was the odd man out in the national team.
The fancy footwork he developed at Real Madrid’s academy was seen as a luxury that Russia’s rugged, defence-first team couldn’t afford.
When Alan Dzagoev was injured in the opening game, Cheryshev came on and scored twice in a 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia. He added another goal against Egypt. Against Spain, he scored the winning penalty in the shootout against a team containing several of his old friends from Spain.
Cheryshev speaks Russian with a Spanish accent and has never played in the Russian league, so many fans have seen him in the flesh for the first time at the World Cup.
Russia forward Artyom Dzyuba is not subtle but he is effective.
Six months ago, his hopes of playing at the World Cup looked to be over after he was frozen out of the Zenit St. Petersburg team following poor performances that saw him labeled “wooden” on Russian social media.
He had also reportedly left Cherchesov unimpressed by imitating his moustaches in a social-media post.
Dzyuba brought himself back into contention with six goals in 10 games on loan at provincial side Arsenal Tula. He even bought out a clause in the loan deal with his own money to be able to play against Zenit, scoring a late equalizer which helped dash the St. Petersburg club’s hopes of qualifying for the Champions League.
At the World Cup, he started as the second choice forward behind Fyodor Smolov, but after scoring in the opening game, he became the starting striker.
If Russia gets to the World Cup final, it will be a double celebration for Sergei Ignashevich, who turns 39 that day.
The news that he was coming out of international retirement to join Russia’s World Cup squad was greeted with joy by fans disgruntled with the national team’s poor defending in friendlies, but exasperation by others who saw a team running out of talent and ideas.
Since then, Ignashevich has played every minute of Russia’s World Cup in the heart of defence. He recovered from an early own-goal against Spain to shore up the defence and drag Russia first into extra time, and then penalties.