The Maracana is a place that has helped create many a legendary figure of the game. Its iconic stands have held millions of fans over the years who have watched their idols shine for club and country, while images from its games have been beamed into homes around the globe, from Australia to Zimbabwe.
It now looks set to be a key venue in deciding where the latest set of would-be heroes for a generation of young Russians sit in history, as they step out on to the hallowed turf facing a tough and testing encounter against Belgium in 2014 FIFA World Cup™ Brazil Group H. Having not featured in the competition since 2002, these 23 domestic-based players have the chance to leave an indelible mark in the memories of youthful football fans who had not seen their countrymen perform on the global stage before their trip to South America.
Discovering the World Cup for the first time is an occasion that Sergey Ignashevich, centre-back for the Eastern Europeans, remembers fondly, back when his love for football was blossoming during Italy 1990. “In childhood we would watch football with friends, we would watch the World Cup. Straight afterwards, we would come out into the yard to try to repeat what we had seen,” the imposing defender recalled in conversation with FIFA.
“We would imagine that we were [Diego] Maradona, [Roberto] Baggio, [Marco] Van Basten and other great players. And straight afterwards, we would come out to show each other how to attack a ball, how to throw it above one's head, imitating and trying to be like them. But we didn't ever have such down-to-earth thoughts like that we would want to play in the World Cup.”
He no doubt hopes that, with the Russian flag flying in Brazil, kids across the country back home will be pretending to be the likes of Alexander Kerzhakov, Victor Fayzulin and perhaps Ignashevich himself. The white, blue and red of Russia will also surely be furiously waved in front of many a television set too, just as the CSKA Moscow man did 24 years ago. “I prepared myself for that championship. I drew flags of all the national teams on a piece of paper," he said, mapping out his fresh-faced enthusiasm.
“I watched all the games in a row. For example, if there was a match between Argentina and Cameroon, I drew the flag of Argentina and the flag of Cameroon. And in front of the TV, would hold a piece of paper with a flag of Argentina, the team I was supporting at that time.”
We would imagine that we were Maradona, Baggio, Van Basten... but we didn't ever have such down-to-earth thoughts like that we would want to play in the World Cup.
But if that boy had been told he would be one day playing in the same arena where the likes of Brazilian and world stars of the game had trodden, Ignashevich doubts the ten-year-old Muscovite would have believed it. “In our childhood we could hardly dream of playing at this stadium... It's world famous. This will be a special event for all of us in our football career.”
While the occasion is huge, the game itself is not lacking in importance. From the Russian perspective, defeat would leave progression from the group stage out of their hands. They have not achieved this since 1986 – when still appearing as the USSR. “The match, of course, will be very difficult and very important for us. And I don't doubt that we will give our all and I am confident will play better than in the match against [Korea Republic],” Ignashevich said.
That game in Cuiaba did not all go according to plan, as a mistake by Igor Akinfeev saw them go behind, before a late Kerzhakov goal rescued a point, but the 2018 hosts had struggled prior to that as well. “Nervousness prevented us [playing at our best]. I think in the first half we made many unforced mistakes which was unusual for us. And I first of all put it down to nervousness.
“But we showed our character only after [going behind], when we understood that everything was slipping through our fingers. [Fabio] Capello has been saying today that, now we have experienced the level of the World Cup, that nervousness we talked about should disappear.”
While the cacophonous atmosphere provided by the Maracana can invoke nerves in even the biggest stars, there will be a legion of ten-year-olds, 7,000 miles away, who will be full of trepidation as Ignashevich lines up too, hoping he and his team-mates can give the Russian fans a memory to savour.