For Andriy Arshavin, a visit to Johannesburg brought the inevitable thoughts of what might have been. When the Arsenal and Russia playmaker passed through South Africa's biggest city to lend his support to his country’s bid to host the FIFA World Cup™ in 2018, it served, not surprisingly, as a reminder of what he was missing.
"When I look around here I see everything that reminds me of the World Cup," said Arshavin, part of the Russia side upset by Slovenia in the play-offs. "You switch on the TV and everyone is speaking about it. It is difficult but not as tough as it was straight after we lost in Slovenia. Time is a healer but, of course, I would prefer to be here to play football. In Russia there are a lot of people watching the World Cup. The bars and restaurants will be full but there is some bad feeling because we didn’t qualify."
Like anybody in love with football, Arshavin, now 29, has his memories of watching the FIFA World Cup as a boy. The first he recalls was the 1986 event in Mexico. "We waited for a long time to watch the games because there was a big time difference with Mexico. I was only five but I remember watching the USSR games on a black-and-white TV." Four years on he was at a summer camp during Italy 1990 – and recalls seeing the Final in the sick bay. "If I’d not been ill and had been with the other children, I’d have missed the game as it was late and the teachers wouldn’t have let me watch it. We had to be in bed at ten o’clock whereas in the sick bay I was able to see it."
Twenty years on and that little boy who watched Germany beat Argentina is now one of Europe’s most exciting attacking footballers, the star of Russia’s run to the semi-finals of UEFA EURO 2008. Given his regime of training and playing, he admits he does not watch too much football on TV during the season, but the FIFA World Cup is an exception. "The World Cup is a special event with the best players here to show the best of their abilities and represent their countries," said Arshavin, looking tanned and relaxed after a holiday in Miami.
This brings with it a different kind of pressure and Arshavin offers an insight. "International games are different. Sometimes the level of club matches is higher but everyone is playing for his own country and it is a different emotion. It is difficult to explain but you have to feel it.” In his case this means representing over 140m Russians. "I have behind me one of the biggest countries and everyone is pushing you to win."
Pushed on the players he expected to shine in South Africa, Arshavin suggested the usual suspects. "You must expect something from [Lionel] Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, [Wayne] Rooney, and some players from Spain and Italy." As for the teams he expected to challenge for the Trophy, he listed "Argentina, Spain, Holland, Portugal, Brazil", then laughed when realising he had forgotten to mention England. "They are favourites!" As for Russia’s conquerors Slovenia, he does not expect them to provide a banana skin for Group C favourites England, when the countries meet in their final pool match. "I am not expecting Slovenia to surprise anyone."
New way forward
Russia’s defeat by Slovenia brought to a close Guus Hiddink’s reign as coach, and the installation of Dick Advocaat as his successor. Arshavin has not yet spoken to Advocaat, whom he played under at Zenit St Petersburg, winning the UEFA Cup in 2008. "I already spoke with him a lot when I was in Zenit!" he joked, but he knows there is serious business just around the corner. Russia open their UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying programme in September and October with three away matches and a home meeting with Slovakia, another team here in South Africa. Arshavin sees a good start as vital if they are not to miss out on another big tournament. "If we do well we have a good chance to qualify."
Another goal for the new campaign will be to win his first trophy with an Arsenal side who have now gone five seasons without silverware. Where does he feel Arsenal must improve? "There is no big difference between the successful teams and the teams who are close and Arsene (Wenger) says the same. It is important to be better at particular times – if you are better at the key moments, you get success." Arshavin explains that playing under Wenger – as with Hiddink – helps brings the best out of him. "There are a lot of good players but there is a small difference between top, top class and good class. If a coach believes in you so much, you can do even more. I don’t speak a lot with Arsene, but I always feel support from him."
It would help Arsenal, though, if they could keep hold of Cesc Fabregas. The Arsenal skipper is the subject of strong interest from Barcelona as he prepares for Spain’s opening 2010 FIFA World Cup game against Switzerland. Not surprisingly, Arshavin hopes the Spaniard will stay. "As an Arsenal player, I like him and we need him because he is our best player and our captain but it is his decision. In modern football everyone goes somewhere and most clubs sell their players but personally I would like him to stay." Spoken like a man eager to avoid any more might-have beens.