The airport arrivals hall tells the story, where the Russian national football team are concerned.
A World Cup is supposed to make legends out of local heroes, though at Sheremetyevo you are greeted with monochrome images of players wearing CCCP on their shirts — the Soviet Union’s flat-capped goalkeeper Lev Yashin and Valery Voronin, striding away from Pele in 1965.
Coach Stanislav Cherchesov’s desperately shallow pool of players has given rise to pessimism and also a yearning for the days, before the collapse of communism in 1991, when the nation had all of the Soviet countries to select from.
Russia head into the tournament having gone seven games without securing a victory
The Soviets were European Championship winners in 1960, finalists against West Germany in 1988 and semi-finalists in the 1966 World Cup, yet their 1994, 2002 and 2014 World Cup final appearances have brought only two wins from nine games.
‘The football was better organised in those old days,’ the Ukraine-born former Manchester United winger Andrei Kanchelskis, who played for the Soviet side, tells Sportsmail.
‘We had a traditional system. When the USSR broke up, our football went down. Now the level of Russian football is not great. Now there are problems.’
It is striking how many of the older generations feel sentiment about those days, even though the bread lines of the communist days are still part of the collective memory.
Kanchelskis (left) earned 36 Russia caps but isn’t satisfied with the current squad
Kanchelskis says the World Cup hosts are ‘the worst Russian team I have seen in my life’
One of the defensive linchpins of the Soviet Union’s Italia ’90 squad, Vagiz Khidiyatullin, feels that the communist hierarchy bred the discipline needed to win.
‘The line (of command) was vertical, not horizontal, like in Europe,’ he says in a new book about that tournament, World In Motion by Simon Hart. ‘The coach-player relationship should be like that. We’re talking a little bit about a dictator. But if the results are good, it’s fine. It works.’
The sentimentalists say the centralised communist education system manufactured good players, too, though the 1990 World Cup was the beginning of the end in very many ways.
It was the first time ‘CCCP’ didn’t appear on the team’s shirts but there was a player revolt over the football federation’s refusal to pay them some of the money earned from a sponsorship deal with a kit firm, Citronics.
‘In the end they shared out the money, 30,000 dollars, between all of us,’ Khidiyatullin tells Hart.
Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov has a shallow pool of players to choose from
The loss of great players from the outlying Soviet nations was a far bigger problem. The great Soviet boss Valeriy Lobanovskyi had an immensely strong core of players from Ukrainian side Dynamo Kiev and the Russian clubs benefited from playing crack teams across the union.
Club football in the country is desperately diminished now: the average attendance of the Russian Premier League in 2016-17 was only 11,415. It all contributes to the possibility that Russia will be only the second host nation, after South Africa eight years ago, not to progress beyond the group stage and to effectively vanish within 10 days. Kanchelskis’s own analysis is particularly brutal.
‘We are worried because it is the worst Russian team I have seen in my life,’ he says. ‘Everybody says it.’
Kanchelskis, overlooked by the Russian federation and now coaching the country’s university team, claims that Cherchesov, a goalkeeper, doesn’t appreciate the mechanics of a team.
‘There are some problems inside the team,’ he says. ‘There are some good players but they don’t like playing for the national team because of problems with the coach.’
Cherchesov certainly can be caustic and can find it hard to forgive. Many here feel he should have selected 34-year-old midfielder Igor Denisov, who has just won the Russian title with Lokomotiv Moscow, but he and Cherchesov fell out badly after player called manager ‘an idiot’ when the two were working together. He has been overlooked.
It’s at the back of the team that the most desperate difficulties are to be found, though. It was bad enough when record cap holder Sergei Ignashevich retired along with twins Vasili and Aleksei Berezutski.
But two of the replacements, Viktor Vasin and Georgi Dzhikiya, have suffered anterior cruciate ligament injuries which rule them out, which makes you fear for a side who will face Egypt’s Mohamed Salah and Uruguay’s Luis Suarez in Group A, with Saudi Arabia the only seemingly benign opposition.
Ignashevich has agreed to come out of retirement to help out, though he will turn 39 the day before the final and has made no pretence about his best days being behind him.
Those Russians looking on the bright side in the final countdown will point to creative midfielder Aleksandr Golovin, who is considered the best Russian talent since Andrey Arshavin, sought-after by Juventus and destined for a move to western Europe if he performs in the next few weeks.
But there is no anchor to operate alongside him and many feel that Cherchesov lacks some of the faith in youth that Gareth Southgate has shown, with his reluctance to play the 22-year-old Miranchuk twins, Aleksei and Anton.
CSKA Moscow midfielder Aleksandr Golovin will offer some hope for hosts Russia
HOW HOSTS HAVE FARED AT THE LAST FIVE WORLD CUPS
2014 – Brazil – Semi-finals
2010 – South Africa – Group stages
2006 – Germany – Third place
2002 – South Korea – Semi-finals
Japan – Last 16
1998 – France – Winners
Russian security services are certainly showing some optimism. They are throwing extra resources at Russia’s last group game, against Uruguay, as they believe that the team’s progress to the knockout stage might depend on it.
But it seemed ominous for Cherchesov when the chairman of the World Cup organising committee, Arkady Dvorkovich, expressed the opinion yesterday that the Russian team must successfully overcome the group stage.
President Vladimir Putin, whose sport is ice hockey, has said he hopes that ‘the guys play with full commitment, like real warriors and athletes, to at least please the fans with their efforts to win’.
He has revealed he has consulted unnamed ‘world-class’ specialists about how well Russia can play and received a pessimistic prognosis — in which poor youth coaching and too many foreign players in the Russian league had been cited.
The streets of Moscow are already filling up with raucous Mexicans, Peruvians and Argentines, who have arrived earliest in big numbers and there is no doubt that Russians are looking out for heroes.
But the bus-shelter images tell the story of who those might be. Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Romelu Lukaku fill the void.