"The spirit of football is alive in this city", says Frank Vercauteren, head coach of Samara-based club Krylya Sovetov, and he knows what he is talking about. The city on the Volga is getting ready to host football fans from all over the world during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, and its citizens have plenty to draw from when it comes to discussing local football history.
Krylya Sovetov FC (the name literally translates as "Wings of the Soviets") were founded in 1942 during World War II, after footballers from Moscow had been evacuated to Samara. Since then, the club won the USSR First League (the second-highest division in the former Soviet Union) on five occasions, and during the post-Soviet era have gained a firm foothold in the Russian top flight. Indeed, in 2004, the club rose to the biggest success in their history when claiming third spot in the Russian Premier League.
Krylya have always enjoyed fervent support from their fans, a factor which has helped lure genuine footballing stars from abroad, including stars of the World Cup stage such as Czech striker Jan Koller, Algerian goalkeeper Raïs M'Bolhi, Larry Kingston from Ghana and South Africa's Matthew Booth.
"I can see that people here are genuinely interested in football, and not just the game in Samara," said Vercauteren, speaking to **FIFA.com**. "They keep asking me about Belgium, they can remember big moments in Belgian football history. It is also very pleasant to see so many young fans, as a love of football runs in the family here, from fathers to sons and from mothers to daughters."
*Help arriving from Belgium
*Come 2014, however, the club had fallen on hard times and for the first time were relegated from the Russian Premier League. The task of returning the club to the highest tier was handed to Vercauteren, a key player in Belgium's run to fourth at the 1986 World Cup – his country's best ever performance at the finals.
But could the second division of Russian football be seen as an odd chapter in the career story of a coach whose CV features spells in charge of Anderlecht, Genk, Sporting Lisbon and Belgium?
"Making the move to the Russian National League (second tier) didn't embarrass me, as the club showed me they had an ambitious project," he explained. "The main thing that struck me was their overwhelming desire to return to the highest division. For me, it was much more interesting to be chasing a title than be fighting to finish 12th or 13th. That's why I accepted this offer."
I can see many things changing for the better as we get closer to the World Cup.
And just one season proved enough for the Belgian tactician to guide the club from Samara back to the Russian Premier League.
"For me, it was pleasant to find that players in Russia take on board any training instructions with no fuss. When they need to do gym work there is no problem, when they need to do repetitive running drills there is no problem either," he explained. "What the coach says goes, with no complaints. They have a very professional approach, which is not always the case in other countries. On the flip side, they will simply do what the coach says. Sometimes you're hoping to initiate a dialogue but you find its a one-way conversation."
Last season, upon their return to the Premier League, Krylya not only held their own but bloodied the noses of some big-name clubs, recording memorable wins over heavyweights CSKA Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg on the way to a ninth-placed finish.
"It was cool that we won matches against teams like CSKA and Zenit: these were really great moments," said Vercauteren. "On the other hand, we should have picked up more points against 'weaker' teams. We probably could have finished higher up, however, taking into account it was our first season back in the elite division, I'm satisfied".
**With the new season in the Premier League starting shortly, Vercauteren and his charges are aiming to do even better this term.
"We have a good team and when I say 'a team', I mean players who really know each other well and are well organised and disciplined, especially in defence. We are perhaps not yet the most attractive team from an attacking point of view, but we will look to work towards that in the coming season."
Krylya are ready to regain a strong foothold in the Russian top flight again and will be aided by a new stadium, the Samara Arena, which is being constructed for the 2018 World Cup.
"I can see many things changing for the better as we get closer to the World Cup," said Vercauteren, on the impact already being made on the city by 2018's footballing fiesta. "The airport has changed а lot in one year, the roads have got much better now, new buildings are popping up here and there. Many positive changes have occurred since I first came to Samara."
What is more, the fans that will come from all over the globe in 2018 will have no shortage of interesting things to do in Samara.
"Given its size, Samara can't be expected to compare to Moscow or Saint Petersburg, but everyone who comes here will discover a thriving social scene, good food and beautiful natural areas," Vercauteren concluded. "There are so many interesting places to explore, especially when you give the local people the chance to show them to you."