Every year, the extreme weather conditions in Russia force the country’s Premier League into a three-month winter break. Inconvenient as such a lengthy period of down-time may be, it also provides players with the opportunity to rest and recharge their batteries - a respite that could prove vital in a FIFA World Cup™ year.
With the domestic action set to recommence in Russia shortly, FIFA.com caught up with Ecuadorian winger Cristhian Noboa to chat about the immediate challenges facing his club Dinamo Moscow as well as getting his thoughts on the forthcoming showdown in Brazil.
On 9 March fourth-placed Dinamo face city rivals CSKA, who are just one rung further down in the standings. Yet rather than looking over their shoulders, Noboa and Co. are intent on catching the leaders. “We’re only five points off top spot and there are 11 games still to play,” said the midfielder. “We’ve got a good team with great players so it’s up to us.”
While Noboa is focused on the upcoming encounter, he admits his mind inevitably wanders towards the World Cup, which is now less than 100 days away: “At this stage I can’t deny that you start thinking about performing well for your club to make it into the national team and be part of the World Cup. It’s what every player dreams about. You want to do everything you can to get there.”
Ecuador coach Reinaldo Rueda selected Noboa for 13 of the country’s matches during South American Zone qualifying, with only five players appearing more often. Nevertheless, the 28-year-old is taking nothing for granted. “Every time I’m called up it’s like it’s my first time again,” he said. “I always try to do my best so that I can keep being invited back. I’m extremely proud to wear my country’s shirt.”
His death was very hard to deal with. We hope that up there he’ll be with us in every match. We know he’s looking out for us.
Noboa’s first call-up to La Tri came in 2006, although he did not make the final cut for his country’s World Cup squad in Germany that year. “I was with Emelec at the time and as the matches were shown in the mornings we’d watch them together and then train afterwards,” Noboa said. “There was a huge party when we reached the knockout rounds. Getting past the group stage is our main aim again this time and if we can do better than we did in Germany, that’d be fantastic. That’s the mentality we’re going there with.”
While coach Sixto Vizuete fielded Noboa during South Africa 2010 qualifying, it is under Rueda that he has become a mainstay in the national team. “The coach made huge changes in bringing in a new crop of players,” Noboa said.
“You have to admire that because it’s very difficult to successfully do that in such a short space of time. On top of that we’ve learned a lot from him in terms of tactics and technique on the ball, as well as keeping possession and staying compact at the back. Tactics are his strong point.”
Group E challenge
Ecuador were handed an unenviable draw for the group stages in Brazil, where they will play Switzerland, France and Honduras. “We’ve been pitted against strong teams,” Noboa said. “It’s a tough group but it’s manageable. Every opponent is difficult so we’ll be treating each game like it’s a final, right from our first match against Switzerland. We want to show what we can do and what we’re there for.”
The tournament will have extra significance for Ecuador, who intend to dedicate their participation to a departed team-mate. “It’ll be a tribute to Cristian [Benitez],” said the Guayaquil native. “His death was very hard to deal with.
"It was a heavy burden to carry because he was our striker, our colleague and our brother and it affected us a lot. We hope that up there he’ll be with us in every match. We know he’s looking out for us. The harmony, friendship and togetherness in our squad have been crucial in helping us keep going.”
From Russia with love
Overcoming adversity is something Noboa knows plenty about. Despite being confronted with considerable challenges as a 22-year-old when he joined Rubin Kazan in 2008, he still helped the club win a first league title and also played in the UEFA Champions League.
“The process of adaptation was really difficult,” said Noboa, who has been at Dinamo since 2012. “I didn’t know anything about Russia but I wanted to develop as a player. The opportunity arose and I took advantage of it as best I could. I’m very happy to be here.”
His strategy for settling in revolved around “forgetting about the cold, how difficult the language is and the cultural differences and just focusing on football and working hard. It was tough but the best thing you can do is focus on the positives.”
Noboa now appears to be perfectly integrated into Russian society. He married Olga Romanova in 2010 and the couple have two children who are “50 per cent Ecuadorian and 50 per cent Russian. I call them my mixed-race Russians,” Noboa said affectionately.
“At first Russians are a bit cold and stand-offish. They don’t trust anyone but when you win them over then they open up completely. They don’t have the same kind of Latin closeness. They need more time to open up and the key is to give them the time to do so.”
That wisdom has served Noboa well, both in his private life and with his team-mates. “You find the right balance by staying calm, being patient and being willing to understand each other,” he continued. “The most important thing is to keep an open mind because deep down we’re not all that dissimilar, even if our traditions and the way we act are different.”
Having now spent six years in Russia, Noboa can speak about the country’s footballing development with a weight of authority: “It’s going through a period of huge growth and a lot of top players are coming here. The pitches have improved and they’re working on creating the infrastructures for the next World Cup."
Even after such a long period in one place, Noboa is not thinking about a change of scenery just yet. “I’m happy at the club and we want to finish top and reach the Champions League,” he said.
“Why should I think about anything else? The main thing is the World Cup and I need my rhythm to arrive there in good form. After that we’ll see what options there are and what the best thing for my career is.”