Russia have been drawn in Group B at this summer’s Euro 2016 and have a great chance of reaching the next round having been drawn with England, Slovakia and Wales. The Russians qualified for France after coming second in their group behind Austria with 20 points – 6 wins, 2 draws and 2 losses.
The largest nation on Earth has now qualified for four European Championships in a row with their best showing being a semi-finals berth in Euro 2008 where they eventually lost out to tournament winners Spain, 3-0 in front of a packed crowded of 51,428 in Vienna’s Ernst-Happel-Stadion.
Euro 2012 was a huge disappointment for the Russians after being knocked out in the group stage and they will be hoping for a better showing at this year’s edition. In 2012, Greece pipped Dick Advocaat’s men to the second qualifying spot due to a better head-to-head record after the Greeks triumphed 1-0 in the last group game in Warsaw.
Before we focus on this summer, a large event took place in Russian football recently after Brazilian-born Guilherme became the first naturalised player to play for the national team, is that a tactic which the country is looking to exploit in the future?
It is. It was hoped that Schalke 04’s Roman Neustädter could play for Russia this summer, but he has faced some unexpected issues, and most likely we have to wait until after the Euros before he’s ready. While Neustädter has Soviet ancestors, Russia are also in the process of naturalizing the Brazilians Mario Fernandes from CSKA and Ari from FC Krasnodar.
The difference between them and Guilherme is that Guilherme didn’t receive any help from the authorities, and did it all off his own back after now living in Russia for nine years. Receiving Russian citizenship wasn’t a part of any political agenda as he simply followed Russian rules to get one.
How did the public react as Russia has unfortunately become synonymous with racism in football over the last few years?
The public is split into two major camps. One who wants the national team to be as good as possible, while the other one has a more romantic approach to the national team and prefers to keep it Russian.
The players can be divided into the same two camps. Again, it is important to note that unlike the likes of Fernandes or Ari, Guilherme is very well-integrated into the Russian society, which means many welcomed him to the national team.
What is the state of domestic football nowadays? The Russian Premier League still seems to be able attract big players, is the game in a good state in the country and what you think will happen in the future?
I’m counting down the days for the 2018 World Cup to end. When that’s over I expect Russian football to take some significant steps forward. At the moment most decisions are taken in order for Russia to perform well at the World Cup, which means we see a lot of short-term decisions like naturalizing players and imposing foreigner quotas. After the World Cup, I hope we can finally see some more long-term planning, like for example removing the quota and creating room for more young players.
Okay, focussing on the Euros – After finishing second behind Austria to reach the finals, what do you think of the team’s chances in Euro 2016?
Russia needs to be humble before entering this tournament. Their group might not be the sexiest, but it is very even with all the teams being able to advance to the play off stage. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has advanced from the group stage on just one occasion, and that was at Euro 2008 in Austria and Switzerland.
Even though the group is difficult, Russia’s goal should be to advance, and that is definitely also realistic, as I do see them as stronger than Slovakia and Wales. Anything more than that would be a bonus.
Who were the best players for the Russians during the qualifying process?
Artyom Dzyuba was incredible after Leonid Slutsky replaced Fabio Capello as head coach. The Italian never favoured Dzyuba, but his eight goals in eight games combined with his six goals in the Champions League group stage for Zenit Saint Petersburg proved that he is the best striker in Russia.
Russia have been handed a good group having been drawn against England, Wales and Slovakia. How do you see the group panning out?
England is the obvious favourite in the group, but as we all know that doesn’t automatically equal success. The groups looks very open, and while Slovakia may be the weakest team on paper, they also have some stand out players in their squad. I can’t write off any of the sides, but if I have to make a prediction I’d say the group will end with England in first place, then Russia, Wales and Slovakia in that order.
The English media feel that the draw has been kind on England and they will qualify for the next round with ease – there is a very real danger of overconfidence – can you see Russia or the other teams pulling a few surprises?
Yes definitely. First of all, it would be classic England to underestimate their opponents. Russia, Slovakia and Wales all have good players, and they are all capable of punishing their opponents given the opportunity.
Do Russia have a more attacking or defensive mind-set? What kind of tactics do you expect head coach Leonid Slutsky to employ during the finals?
Slutsky prefers a classic 4-2-3-1 with attacking full backs and plenty of crosses to the target man Dzyuba in the box. It is a team that is capable of moving the ball forward quickly on counters, but who can also build the attacks up slowly and keep possession.
There have been some wonderful teams and players over the years, especially under the USSR banner, how to you rate this current team?
It would be borderline blasphemy to compare this Russian team to some of the Soviet teams. This Russian team is decent, and could pull of a surprise or two, but compared to the earlier teams with world class players it is nothing.
The USSR had a wealth of world class players to choose from in their glory days, not just from Russia, but the other Soviet states such as Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, etc. The Soviets were so good that they had a dominant spell in the late 50s and early 60s as they became Olympic (1956) and European Cup (1960) champions, came fourth at the 1966 World Cup and ended as runners-up during there Euros defence in 1964.
Who we look out for this summer?
Igor Akinfeev needs to redeem himself. He has made some mistakes for both CSKA Moscow and Sbornaya recently, and he if continues doing that at the Euros, Russia will face a difficult time. However, if we see the old Akinfeev, he could very well be a decisive factor for Russia.
Offensively speaking, I have high expectations for Roman Shirokov. He is 34 now, and it is therefore likely that this championship will be his last major tournament. He accepted a major pay cut to move to CSKA and get the playing time he needed to become relevant for the national team, and he seems motivated to have a good tournament.
How are the team preparing for the Finals? We see they have lined up friendlies against the Czech Republic and Serbia – will they be preparing in different ways?
The friendlies against Czech Republic and Serbia makes sense. Both are strong opponents, and the brotherhood feeling between the Russians and Serbs will make that game even more special. Regarding their preparation for the tournament, I was disappointed that they opted to play against Lithuania in March. That was a waste of time.
Are there any potential star players coming through the youth ranks and any that could possibly be in with a shout of making the squad?
The biggest talent in Russia’s squad is Aleksandr Golovin from CSKA. The 19-year-old midfielder has gotten his break through this spring, and scored great goals for both Russia and CSKA. It seems very likely that he’ll be in the squad this summer. You could also mention Rubin’s Elmir Nabiullin or Lokomotiv’s Aleksey Miranchuk, but it seems unlikely that they’ll receive call-ups.
A huge thanks goes out to Toke Møller Theilade for agreeing to the interview and answering in such depth. If you are a fan of Russian football please be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out Russian Football News which has excellent coverage of the League and national team in English.