No country for old men? Maybe, but not just yet.
The elders and the inexperienced of Russian football had given the masses of the host nation untold anxiety as the clock ticked down to the kick-off of the country’s World Cup.
But as they swatted away the pathetic challenge of Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium on an opening evening that ended up being historic for all the right reasons, you were left wondering what all the worry had been for?
Russia’s Sergei Ignashevich turns 39 next month after a long career playing for his country
Ignashevich celebrates with Ilya Kutepov after Russia scored their second goal on Thursday
A record victory in the history of the tournament’s first match was masterminded by a supreme young talent in Aleksandr Golovin, who may not have many caps but has more than enough ability. And the elders? They weren’t found wanting either.
A country that loves a proverb, it seems like Russia has one for every one of its 144 million people. They come in all shapes and sizes. An inordinate amount of them involve animals.
Even translated, they can be cryptic to Western ears. But some…some don’t take much explaining. Like this six-word offering: ‘Old age is not a blessing’. Not much room for misinterpretation there.
Aleksandr Golovkin celebrates with team-mate Denis Cheryshev after his first goal
On Tuesday there hadn’t been much room for sentiment either when the Moscow Times front page screamed ‘Aging and Inexperienced: Why Russia’s World Cup squad is doomed to fail’. As far as last-minute national cheerleading goes, it was unlikely to lift the country’s expectations of the potential for their national team to do them proud at their home World Cup — expectations that sat somewhere between not a lot and none at all.
Russia pitched up at the Luzhniki just one game shy of equalling a winless record set over a century ago when Tsar Nicholas II ruled the country, breezily oblivious of what was waiting around a corner. The miserable run ensured that Stanislav Cherchesov’s side began the tournament as the lowest-ranked team here.
None of the numbers that swirled around his side sounded pretty. But that divergence between age and experience — they boasted the seventh-oldest squad yet ranked in the bottom third in terms of caps — counted for the majority of the concerns.
Russia’s players produced a dominant display against Saudi Arabia in Moscow on Thursday
There was a party atmosphere inside the Luzhniki Stadium as the Russian fans celebrated
Cherchesov called on four of his seven 30-somethings for his first competitive game in change (if we don’t count the Confederations Cup, which we shouldn’t). Between them goalkeeper and captain Igor Akinfeev, defensive pillar Sergei Ignashevich, Yuri Zhirkov and Aleksandr Samedov boasted 360 caps. The other 19 members of the Russian squad have 296 caps combined.
It wouldn’t be unfair to call the quartet the host country’s old men.
Ignashevich, who came out of retirement to answer an SOS in defence, is the most senior of all at 38. He will be a year older again by the time the World Cup rolls all the way back here to the Luzhniki for the final on July 15.
He wasn’t the only one aging at an alarming rate as the world waited for Robbie Williams, another plucked from retirement, to get on with the entertaining and get off the pitch.
These grand, overblown occasions have a knack of helping wipe away even the most recent past and after a slightly unsettling presidential address and a wholly stirring national anthem, a the Russians young and old packed into the Luzhniki emptied their lungs in expectation that was supposed to be in short supply.
The veterans and rookies in red responded. Less than 90 seconds in, Zhirkov, a player the memory associates with a Chelsea side that seem five or six eras ago, clipped a beautiful pass to Golovin who won a corner. The hosts were on the front foot and stayed there.
Cheryshev points towards the Russia supporters after scoring his country’s fourth goal
Twice more the somehow just 34-year-old Zhirkov foraged and forced corners in the next 10 minutes. The third set piece would do the trick. Zhirkov whipped in a delivery that duly made its way back to him. The veteran fed the rising star Golovin and a delicious in-swinger was met full and true by Yuri Gazinskiy. A primal roar rolled around the Luzhniki and lifted a weight off Cherchesov’s shoulders.
The manager hasn’t found much luck in his two years in the job and when he lost Alan Dzagoev on the half hour may have feared the worst. But this day wasn’t to be like the others. He sent Denis Cheryshev on in Dzagoev’s place and he would provide the game’s shining moment, skirting two hapless Saudi defenders to score the decisive second right on half time.
The Saudis barely mustered a single moment of attacking worth, leaving the stage clear for another Cherchesov substitute, Artem Dzyuba, to grab a third, Cheryshev to put the cherry on top with a sublime fourth only to see his thunder stolen at the death by Golovin’s delicious free-kick.
As the clock had ticked down, Zhirkov was still harrying up the left and Ignashevich was snuffing out a couple of late threats in front of Akinfeev as the hosts wound down for the true tests that will come their way against Egypt and Uruguay.
Old age may not be a blessing. But it’s not a curse either. Certainly not when young talents like Golovin are close by.
Author: Nancy Parker
Nancy Parker is a five time Emmy Award winning journalist and seven time Emmy nominee who has spent almost twenty five years covering news in South Louisiana. She has anchored every prime time newscast at WVUE FOX8 during her twenty year tenure in New Orleans.