Igor Akinfeev is widely regarded as the best Russian goalkeeper since Lev Yashin and Rinat Dasayev. He made his first-team debut for CSKA Moscow when he was 16, and now, at 26, is one of the national team's most experienced players. In October 2012, he set a new national record by going 708 minutes without conceding a goal. In his country's colours, Akinfeev has recorded clean sheets since August 2011.
The keeper preferred not to discuss the records he had set, but was is more than happy to reflect on Russia's successful start to the qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, in which they have won their first four matches without conceding a goal. For Akinfeev, much of the credit for this goes to their new coach, Fabio Capello.
"Capello is a top specialist," Akinfeev said. "He goes about his work really well and I think anyone would be able to see that. The thing with Capello is that he has achieved results not only in Italy and in Spain, but here in Russia as well."
"The main characteristics of his management style are firm discipline, great organisation and minute attention to detail. At first, the scrupulousness with which he went about his business might have struck some people as a bit odd, but over time it has become clear that in football there is nothing so trivial that it doesn't matter. I have to admit that I like working with Capello, it gives me a lot of pleasure. But there's no relaxing when he’s around. If you lose concentration for just a second, he'll have someone taking your place in the national team."
By the end of 2012, Russia found themselves comfortably leading their Brazil 2014 qualification group, having opened up a five-point lead over Israel and Portugal. Such has been their form that fans are starting to look forward to their team gracing the FIFA World Cup for the first time in 12 years. For now though, Akinfeev is reluctant to speculate about what Russia might achieve in Brazil, preferring instead to focus on the team's short-term objectives.
"First thing's first, we still have to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil,” he insisted. “All Russia's toughest qualifiers still lie ahead. That includes Northern Ireland in Belfast in March, our away match in Portugal and a tough game in Baku. Moreover, you have to set your targets based on the strength of the team. We're not Spain yet, so we can't expect to win every tournament, and we're not the Italians, who are capable of reaching finals whatever form they're in. We have to take a realistic view of our chances, and so the first thing we need to do is earn the right to go to the World Cup."
Coming back stronger
Looking back at Akinfeev's achievements in 2012, it is fair to say that he had a successful year. Yet it all started with him recovering from a serious injury he picked up during the Moscow derby between CSKA and Spartak. The shot-stopper damaged his cruciate ligaments, and was ruled out for at least six months. Despite the grim prognosis, a mixture of arduous rehabilitation and self-discipline helped him return to action in the spring, several months earlier than expected.
"When a sportsman picks up an injury, particularly a serious one, it's always really tough psychologically," Akinfeev admitted. "In those instances, I always draw energy from my friends and family, who are ready to help me whenever I need it. The whole time I was injured, there was one thought that kept me going: the sooner I recover, the sooner I can make it back out onto the pitch. During my months on the sidelines, I started looking at things differently. When you play for one of the country's top teams, when you win trophies and earn recognition, you quickly get used to that. It feels as if that's the way it's always going to be. But football isn't that simple. During their careers, players face lots of trials and tribulations. For me, that means injuries, and I've had to overcome them. To get through that and to get back to my previous level was, for me, the ultimate motivation. Now I appreciate every training session, every minute I spend on the pitch for club and country."
On 20 March 2012, a month before his return to action, Akinfeev was appointed the first ambassador for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia. At a special ceremony, the goalkeeper was presented with his ambassador's certificate by the chairman of the Russia 2018 LOC, Vitaly Mutko, who pointed out that "Igor is as a genuine role model for millions of Russian boys, and epitomises all the best qualities of a man and a sportsman".
Akinfeev himself admitted that becoming the first Russia 2018 ambassador has had a profound effect on him. "The LOC's offer to become an ambassador came out of the blue, but I didn't have to think twice and agreed right away. For me, it's a massive honour, a source of pride and a great responsibility. I have to admit that it was particularly touching for me to receive the offer just as I was in the process of recovering from my injury. Usually, at times like those, everyone forgets about you for a while. But in this case, not only did they remember me, they handed me this really important mission! I was pleasantly surprised, and it gave me a new lease of life. To me, it meant that I had actually achieved something with my performances.
"I always try to live up to this honour and status by behaving the right way, both on the pitch and off. I think World Cup ambassadors should embody everything that's best about football, and fight some of the negatives which, unfortunately, you sometimes see in the game. Above all, you have to influence the atmosphere in the stands. At the moment, things aren't going so well in that respect. If we want football to develop, we need to improve the situation straight away. I think that some work's already being done to deal with this."
Dreaming of Russia 2018
The opening match of Russia 2018 is just over five years away, and the host nation is now focusing on intensive preparations for the tournament. Five stadiums scheduled to host Russia 2018 matches are in the process of being built, and work has begun on the design of the remaining seven arenas. The government is preparing to give the go-ahead for a programme of investment in infrastructure ahead of the tournament. Against that backdrop, there is ever more debate about how the FIFA World Cup could change or even transform Russia.
"For the whole world, and even for people living in our country, Russia will be seen from an entirely new perspective," said Akinfeev. "As footballers, we often travel around the country, but even we can't imagine just how rich and colourful Russia is. Thanks to the World Cup, hundreds of thousands of tourists from right around the world will be visiting Samara, Nizhny Novgorod, Rostov-on-Don and the other cities. As they follow their national teams, supporters will have the opportunity to learn about the culture and everyday life of Russia's cities. I'm sure that they will be left with really warm and vivid impressions of Russia, and many of them will want to come back here again and again."
"Last of all, for me, as a footballer, it's particularly important that the country will be getting a new sporting infrastructure, and this will also mean that thousands of kids will have the opportunity to take up football. There'll be new stadiums, which we don't have enough of at the moment, and that will mean that Russian football can continue to make rapid progress. Once the new stadiums are in place, we can expect to see sell-outs again, with more women and children coming to matches."
In 2018, Igor Akinfeev will be 32. As a goalkeeper, he should still be at his peak and enjoying a period in his career when he can benefit most from his physical condition and vast experience. Not that anyone would call him inexperienced today. This year, he will be celebrating the tenth anniversary of his first-team debut. Yet his desire to lead his national team out at a FIFA World Cup on home soil, to the strains of the Russian national anthem, is as strong as it was ten or 20 years ago, when it was just the dream of a talented teenager at CSKA's football academy.
"I'm aware that, at the moment, it's still just a dream,” he said as our interview drew to a close. “There are still five years to go until the World Cup, and that's a long time for a footballer to get through and to keep performing at the same level. All I've done so far is to take the first small step along that road. To play in a World Cup is a dream for any player who wants to achieve something big in football. At the moment I'm feeling proud of my country, and proud of the fact that Russia has earned the right to host such a massively important tournament."