World-famous ice hockey player and Russia forward Alexander Ovechkin has recently been named as the latest 2018 FIFA World Cup™ Ambassador. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com after his appointment, he explained why this tournament is important for him as a fan and spoke about the time he met Lionel Messi.
The Washington Capitals captain also revealed that his preferred position on the football pitch is goalkeeper and hinted at a sporting bet he has with footballers from the Russian national team.
FIFA.com: Your mother won Olympic gold in basketball twice and your father played professional football. Why did you choose hockey?
Alexander Ovechkin: Our family wasn't the kind where people made decisions for me. Fate turned out in such a way that I became a hockey player. My mum never forced me into basketball. My dad used to play football for Dynamo Moscow but got an injury that forced him to end his career. He also never told me that I had to play football. When I was young, I was constantly playing all kinds of sports in the yard – football, basketball and hockey. However, when the time came to choose, I decided on hockey.
Football is the number one sport in Russia. Why then have Russian hockey players historically had much more success than its footballers?
I'm sure that if the aim was to find 11 football players in such a big country, then this would be done. I've never doubted that we have talented and competent guys who could bring success to the national football team.
So that means they're more scrupulous at unearthing new players in hockey?
It's not that they're more scrupulous. It's just that in hockey young players have more options of where to train and where to play.
Is Russia 2018 a chance to bring the sport to a new level or an opportunity for the current players to show what they've got?
Russia needs to set up football schools and academies so our young generation can grow up without being distracted by all those bad things that are so easy to find on the streets. The country needs to act skilfully and thoughtfully. The World Cup in 2018 will help draw even more attention to football.
You played at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014; how did you cope with the heightened expectations and being in the spotlight as the host nation?
Playing at home is always an advantage. The supporters drive you on and want you to get the result, although of course if it doesn't end well in 2018 it will reflect badly on the players. However, this is life – you have to keep looking forward and making progress.
What would a successful tournament be for the Sbornaya at their home World Cup?
Getting out of the group stage would already be a step forward for our country because we didn't make it to the knockout rounds at Brazil 2014. After that, it's up to fate to decide.
There's a photo of you and Lionel Messi on your Instagram. How did you meet him?
It was in Washington D.C. Argentina had come for a pre-season tournament or a friendly, but in any case they were in the city. Someone from my club phoned me and said there was a chance to meet Messi. Of course, I couldn't let that opportunity slip by. We met, swapped shirts and he gave me a football.
Why is he your favourite player?
I actually support two teams: Barcelona and Dynamo Moscow. Therefore, every Barça player is an idol of mine, but regardless of where Messi plays I'll always admire him. Mind you, I hope he never leaves Barcelona.
Speaking about Dynamo Moscow, you once said that you dream of playing for the club. Now the team is in the Russian Football National League (Editor's note: Russia's second division), is that dream still alive?
It's alive but I don't think it will ever come true. Dynamo have a different job right at the moment, more important ones than letting Ovechkin play.
Could you have imagined yourself in professional football?
I could've played but I doubt I would have achieved anything big. Sometimes I'm invited to take part in charity matches or I simply play with friends, but this is amateurish stuff. I like to go out onto a pitch and knock a ball about. By the way, football is a key part of the warm-up for hockey players. However, playing the sport professionally would have been unlikely.
You feature in a couple of football videos, including one where you're doing kick-ups. What's your personal record?
I never try to set records at this, but I can do about 20 kick-ups.
Have you ever thought about throwing out a challenge over football tricks to your fellow hockey players?
I don't have anything like that with hockey players, but I've got a bet with Russia footballers Denis Glushakov and Igor Akinfeev. It's to do with football, but we haven't managed to do it yet.
Is it a penalty shoot-out contest?
It's our own private bet, so I cannot say.
You often play in goal in football, so Akinfeev is your main competitor.
No, I'm clearly not Igor's competitor. Everyone has their job and something they like to do. When I play football, I like it most when I'm in goal because you get a lot of injuries in football, so it's better to be a goalkeeper. It's safer.
Which other Russian footballers do you speak to?
I know a lot of guys from the national team and I get on with all of them. I've seen Artem Dzyuba a couple of times in Saint Petersburg and we chatted.
What do you think about Stanislav Cherchesov as head coach of the Sbornaya? He used to coach your team, Dynamo.
I was happy with his appointment, but the most important thing is that he gets results, Russia make progress and we don't get any more of what we used to have. As for whether he's a Spartak man or a Dynamo man, it really doesn't matter.
Are you planning on going to matches at Russia 2018?
Absolutely! Especially since it's a huge event for our country. New stadiums and training grounds are being built in many cities right now. Every day I go on sports websites and see that this is all people are talking about. Moreover, Russia don't need to go through qualification to get to the tournament; we are already guaranteed to play at the World Cup in 2018. Put simply, I'm delighted for the fans and for the country.
Which other countries would you like to watch?
If a team qualifies, it means they're good enough for fans to go to their matches. For many, this opportunity comes around once in a lifetime and everything will be fantastic here. Speaking about individuals, it would be really interesting to see [Cristiano] Ronaldo live again. I've watched him once before in the UEFA Champions League Final at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow when he was at Manchester United.
What advice do you have for the foreign tourists coming to Russia for the World Cup?
Enjoy Russian culture and visit the landmarks wherever you go. Every city in Russia has something to see: there are museums and cultural opportunities everywhere. They should definitely walk around and soak it all up.