The story of Russian football must begin in Soviet times after Stalin. The sport was a popular before the World Wars, and continued to grow into being the most popular sport in the Russia Federation today. However, the party, the system, and the wars was in every aspect of Soviet life. Young living heroes as sports celebrities was a political risk for the Soviet state. Risks had to be managed. The Soviet Union put its national image ahead of everything else. They would ban their clubs playing against foreign foreign teams if they had done poorly in the past. The national team failing would have political consequences. The system ran deep, and a player could be a hero one day, and a villain the next. This would of course have been worst in the days of Stalin, but change was slow.
In modern day Russia club football is a showpiece of the oligarchs. They own the teams, throw in their money for prestige and power, and then try to beat the other powerful men. Therefore, you find a lot of money in Russian football, but often not coming though the fans’ and their pockets, but more from the owners.
The Russian National Team took years to stabilise after the break up of the Soviet Union, where players suddenly became Ukrainian, Uzbek, and many other nationalities. Players had to choose how to define their national identity, and what national team to play for. Not until their Euro 2008 semi-final run did the Russian National Team shine. They still struggle as a football loving nation with reaching the top tier of international European football, but at the same time they also never seem too far off.
Where do Russians play?
Russia is European, but they are not in the EU. Therefore their teams can have 10 foreign players in their 25 player squads, and at most 6 non-Russians on the pitch at any time. In the EU foreigners are considered non-EU players, meaning the overall talentpool for the top teams is a lot greater.
This system means Russian national team players nearly all playing in their national league. They are simply worth more to a Russian team than to a foreign team. The foreigner slots are mostly a half-half mix of Western Europeans and South Americans. Russian football is attractive, because there is good money in Russian football. Foreign talent can therefore be brought in and Russian players stay home.
Playing in Russia also means Russian players are rarely as well-known to Western Europeans as players from the major European Leagues. Russian clubs play in Europe, and they have an interesting affect in these tournaments. Weather influences football in Russia very extremely, which means if a Southern European club has to play a Russian team in winter, they might well lose a game, which could be an easy win in the summer.
Russian football is also sometimes more legend than factual to many Western European fans. We might know some of the players from the last tournament 2 years before (Euro or World Cup), have heard names of more of them, but never really grasp Russian football perfectly.
Political influence and national narrative
The Cold War is back on. Georgia 2008, Ukraine 2014, and also an expanding and improving Russian military. Populist European parties getting funding from Russia.
On the other side Putin sits, afraid liberalism and if its values might spread to Russia and undermine his power. Some Russians fear that our gay rights will undermine their traditional families. Russia represents the old values, and those a lot of Russians will defend.
Russia plays physical football, they play hard, they fight, but they also play fair, and they play attacking football. Or that is how they would like to see themselves, and that matters. There is a lot of pride involved in Russians football, and especially the national team. They fight honourably on the pitch, when they represent their country. The team rarely has clear stars (at least not before tournaments or in the same way as the Western squads), but instead it is a union, each player has a job to do. This is also how Russians want to see themselves. From the Battle of Stalingrad to the stadiums of 2018. Russian are fighters.
However, it can be too much fighting. At the Euro 2016 Russian hooligans showed off just how different they are from the Western European variety. Western European hooligans are drunk, overweight, and in an unruly mob. Russian hooligans train martial arts, use military tactics, are organised like combat units, and they only come to fight. No drink, no drugs, just fighting. Especially clashed between Russian hooligans and English fans in 2016 bring back bad memories.
But not in Russia. President Vladimir Putin stated he did not understand how a few Russians could beat up so many English. As if to ridicule the English fans, and validate the Russian hooligans. Also, Russian police are not used to having to be nice to drunk Westerners. They are going to have their hands full with a mix of culture shock and their local troublemakers. And while Russia’s image is on the line.
Group and expectations
Either Russia surprises positively or negatively. Russians themselves are going to be thinking about winning the trophy. Their group seems fairly easy. Uruguay should be their equal, but Saudi Arabia nobody expects anything from, and then Egypt seems to be all depending on Mohamed Salahs talent alone. Surprises can happen, but Russia should easily make it out of the group, unless Russia themselves mess up. If the machine works perfectly, then they are through from the group, warmed up, have the country behind them, and then no opponent will easily beat the Russians. Expect Russia to be all or nothing. Putin paid a lot of money for those shinny new Russian stadiums, especially considering Russia is under Western sanctions. Their national pride is on the line, and everyone is watching.