Three-time quarter-finalists and one-time semi-finalists Russia – they finished fourth in 1966 – have endured what must have seemed like an eternal wait to return to the FIFA World Cup™ finals since their last appearance, at Korea/Japan 2002. Back then, a teenage Aleksandr Kerzhakov came on as a substitute for the final eight minutes of the team's last group-stage fixture, a 3-2 loss to Belgium that condemned them to exit the tournament at the first hurdle. Little was he to know that it would be quite so long before he would get another bite of the World Cup cherry.
Having seen Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010 pass him by, now he finally has the chance to make up for lost time. "It was a party, just like it will be in Brazil, with swarms of Japanese people out in the streets to welcome us," the sole survivor of Russia's last outing on the world stage reminisces to FIFA.com. "I remember that, and of course our bad results."
Time heals all wounds, or so the expression goes, and Kerzhakov is not bitter, but rather adamant that Russia must do better this time round. "Personally speaking, I have nothing to prove," he claims. "But we want to make our long-suffering fans happy. Thanks to this World Cup, we have the opportunity to win over our supporters again and give them something to cheer about."
The Sbornaya faithful have not had much to shout about since 2002 and there is a good deal of scepticism in some quarters regarding the team's chances of success in Brazil. "I would have liked our supporters to have reacted with more excitement when we qualified by winning our group," the Zenit St. Petersburg forward laments. "[Instead] there was an air of pessimism. Not among all the supporters, but among some, and that took us a bit by surprise. We expected more people to come to watch our matches prior to heading off for the World Cup, but what can we do? We will try to win them over with our performances here."
We are bidding to win this tournament. All of our players have been thriving in Russia, but people outside the country don't know us.
Kerzakhov is hopeful that the time is ripe for Russia to make their presence felt again after such a long absence. "We are bidding to win this tournament," the former Sevilla man proclaims. "All of our players have been thriving in Russia, but people outside the country don't know us. What's important, though, is that our coach, Fabio Capello, knows us and our strengths. We know what we're capable of and if everyone plays to the best of their abilities, we will succeed."
Despite the passage of time, the 31-year-old has shown no signs of slowing down and remains at the peak of his powers. He is the most prolific scorer in Russian football history, with 213 competitive goals, and has lifted numerous trophies, including a Russian Premier League, a Spanish Cup and a UEFA Europa League. The evergreen marksman, who burst onto the scene some 13 years ago, has a simple explanation for his longevity: "The secret is to never tire of working hard," he explains. "As you grow older, you have to be even more diligent and take better care of your body and health. I'm the same player I was when I made my debut, only more experienced. I know what the score is with a footballer's career and no one else is going to take responsibility for looking after me. Staying at the top of your game is down to you and you only."
The generation game
Now Kerzhakov is revelling in a senior role, having himself benefited from advice from the likes of Valeri Karpin, Viktor Onopko, Yuri Nikiforov and Aleksandr Mostovoi as a youngster. "They helped me settle in very well, despite the age difference," he recalls on the subject of his introduction to the international set-up. "There was no backstabbing or one-upmanship and this attitude helped me feel at home. No one has asked me to perform this role, but it's important to help the younger players to feel at ease, so I try my best to do so."
While the 81-cap forward has seen his playing time limited at club level owing to competition from Hulk and Salomon Rondon, his experience is a priceless commodity for a young Russia team that is short on star names, but not on quality. "We have balance throughout the side. We don't have any stand-out strengths, but we have no weaknesses either," he notes. "We don't have any stars like Messi or Ronaldo, we're not reliant on any one player," the stalwart continues, before adding with a smile, "Though obviously there would be no complaints if we had a Messi or Ronaldo in the team."
With no FIFA Ballon d'Or winners to call on, Russia will instead be looking to potential stars in the making like Alan Dzagoev and Aleksandr Kokorin. "There is a generational shift underway," explains Kerzhakov, one of the few remaining representatives of the old guard. "Sometimes this is a quick process, while other times it can be slower. In our case it has taken a while, but it is happening now and that's a good thing – especially for me, because I'm still in the team!" And there is no reason why this old-timer shouldn't keep clocking up international appearances for some time to come.