Aleksandr Golovin illuminated the last FIFA World Cup
He discusses Russia’s battle with Croatia for a place at Qatar 2022
Ronaldinho, Messi, Mbappe and Miranchuk are also on the menu
The performer’s feet were balletic. Moscow was abuzz. The world was wowed. It was a throwback to the early 20th century – the last time the city had been the overwhelming talk of the global entertainment industry. Back then, Anna Pavlova had enraptured the Bolshoi Theatre, and exploded the popularity of ballet outside Europe, with her inimitable depiction of The Dying Swan. Now, over a century on, eyes from all corners of the globe – 3.572 billion, more than half of earth’s population, watched the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ – were transfixed on its Opening Match. Saudi Arabia must have wished Aleksandr Golovin was in pointe shoes rather than customised cleats. The man from shivery Siberia was sizzling. He registered two assists, exquisitely helped set up another, and scored a sumptuous free-kick in a 5-0 victory. He created more goalscoring chances in a World Cup game than any Russia or Soviet Union player since data began being recorded at Mexico 1970. He completed more passes, won possession back more times and covered more distance than any other player at the Luzhniki Stadium.
It was a chef-d'oeuvre that helped Russia revel in an unforgettable campaign – and left Golovin itching for more. Russia are two points clear of Croatia, and which of them seizes Group H’s automatic ticket to Qatar 2022 will be determined when they scrap in Split on Sunday. The 25-year-old chats to FIFA about the upcoming showdown, the class of Luka Modric and the last World Cup. FIFA: Can you tell us about growing up in Siberia and the difficulties you faced? Aleksandr Golovin: The weather in Siberia is difficult and harsh. You only play football on the street for three months a year because the rest of the time there is a hockey rink. You cannot play outside and so switch to futsal. But I think that, when you live in freezing conditions for eight-to-nine months per years, it develops your character, hardens you.
Who were your heroes growing up? As a child, I really liked Ronaldinho. When I was a small child, I watched a lot of videos with his plays on the internet. I also really liked Cristiano Ronaldo during the period when he played for Manchester United. In the opening match of the 2018 World Cup, you got two assists, played a big role in Russia’s second goal, and scored a brilliant free-kick to seal a 5-0 victory. Can you describe your emotions after that game? We were very pleased. Before the start of the tournament, not very many people believed in us. We played two friendly matches that were disappointing, both in terms of the quality of the game and the result. This game was very important, it helped to get us support from the whole country and to believe in ourselves that we could do it. It probably gave us impetus for the rest of the campaign. Russia were eliminated by Croatia on penalties. What did you think of that game? I remember that match well, I remember the good and bad moments from my performance. This match was the worst for me in that tournament in terms of quality. I remember that in extra-time, we managed to equalise and it went to a penalty shootout, where we were unlucky. That was more of a lottery, and we didn’t have the luck on our side.
What do you think of Luka Modric? Modric is a very strong footballer, one of the best in his position in the world. He thoroughly deserved to be named the best player in the world after the World Cup in 2018. In my opinion, every year he proves that he is among the top three midfielders in the world. Are you confident Russia will get the result they need in Split on Sunday, and what must the team do to achieve it? We must devote ourselves to the game, be 100-per-cent dedicated, be compact in defence and, at the same time, not be afraid. We must act as one team – all play together, not individually.
How would you describe Aleksandr Golovin as a player and how good can you become? I’m fast with good passing, but I need to improve upon my defensive game. Everyone can keep on improving endlessly. We really want to qualify for the World Cup, and this is probably my dream now. What’s Valeri Karpin like as a coach? He is a very demanding coach. The head coach of the national team should be like that. His understanding of football is such that he wants his team to play without being afraid. This coincides with my desire. I also like it when my team goes for it and is not afraid.
What do you think of Aleksei Miranchuk? Moving to Atalanta, he became faster and physically stronger. He began to work more on his defensive game. You can see that he’s changing into the player the Atalanta coach wants him to be. What about Artem Dzyuba? Recently Dzyuba broke the record of Oleg Veretennikov for the number of goals in the Russian championship. This is a very cool achievement for Artem. He is in good shape. I can only congratulate him.
If you had to pick just one nation, who is the favourite to win the 2022 World Cup? That would be France. Who do you think is the best player in the world right now? If we’re talking about the last decade, then it’s Lionel Messi. But if we’re talking about today, then I would say it is Kylian Mbappе. PSG with him and PSG without him – there’s a huge difference.