One in 144.3 Million: Igor Akinfeev Carrying Russia in World Cup

Igor Akinfeev
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JUNE 5, 2018: Russia's goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev in a friendly match against Turkey at VEB Arena (Arena CSKA) Stadium. The game ended in a 1-1 draw. Sergei Bobylev/TASS (Photo by Sergei BobylevTASS via Getty Images)

MOSCOW, RUSSIA (June 12, 2018) — Igor Akinfeev has a chance to change his history.

Akinfeev, the long-time starting goalkeeper for the Russian Men’s National Team, doesn’t have the most positive history in the FIFA World Cup.

Who can forget back in 2014, when Russia featured in the World Cup for the first time since 2002 and faced South Korea. The two sides, both drawn in a group that also featured Algeria and Belgium, ended up not advancing.

One in 144.3 Million: Igor Akinfeev Carrying Russia in World Cup

However, Russia had a chance to advance.

The fact that they didn’t rested on Akinfeev. The goalkeeper has committed one of the worst goalkeeper gaffes in World Cup history.

In the 68th minute, with the match still scoreless, Lee Keun-ho blasted a shot at Akinfeev. The goalkeeper held out his arms to stop the ball, but it ended up bouncing off his hands and into the back of the net.

After the goal, Akinfeev laid on the ground, hands covering his face.

That memory has been cemented in the minds of 144.3 million Russians for four years now. However, this year’s World Cup is different.

While Akinfeev is still the number one goalkeeper for Stanislav Cherchesov, Russia’s latest head coach, this year’s roster is different and the location is different.

This year, Russia is hosting the biggest football competition.

The Pressure

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding Russia’s winning bid to the World Cup. Aside from normal controversy surrounding President Vladimir Putin, all eyes are on Russia to host a successful tournament.

This isn’t Russia’s first time hosting a major tournament.

Back in 2014, the country — specifically the city of Sochi, down south — hosted the Winter Olympic Games. However, this is the first time Russia is hosting a summer-based tournament (aside from the Confederations Cup).

Akinfeev and the Russian National Team are currently training at Federal Sports Centre Novogorsk in Moscow. The Russians will feature in group stage matches in the cities of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Samara.

Russia was drawn into a group with Saudi Arabia, Uruguay, and Egypt. The entire tournament will kick off on Thursday when Russia kicks off against Saudi Arabia.

While Russia didn’t make it out of the group stage in 2014, the pressure is a whole lot different this year.

Last year, Russia did not make it past the group stages in the Confederations Cup. Instead, players like Fedor Smolov, Aleksandr Samedov, and Yuri Zhirkov left the pitch with tears and disappointment.

Aside from the Confederations Cup crash, Cherchesov kept his job — and Akinfeev remained in goal.

Positive Reinforcements

Akinfeev picked up confidence after the Confederations Cup with his club.

Ever since 2003, Akinfeev has been with CSKA Moscow. His entire career has been spent in the nation’s capital, where the goalkeeper has made 397 appearances. His appearances are the most in club history.

Akinfeev was sent to Russia’s capital when he was only four, joining CSKA Moscow’s youth teams. He was only 16-years-old when he made his senior debut.

Ever since 2008, the club has made appearances in the UEFA Champions League. However, for the last five years, CSKA Moscow has never made it out of the group stage.

There is a silver lining. On July 25, 2017, during Champions League qualifying, Akinfeev ended his 11-year clean sheet drought.

His last Champions League clean sheet came in November 2006 against Arsenal. CSKA Moscow earned a 2-0 victory against AEK Athens.

“Of course, all the team congratulated Akinfeev,” Viktor Gancharenko, CSKA Moscow head coach, said to the club’s official website. “Every run has a beginning and an end. We knew that this series has to end one day. The players supported Akinfeev, but naturally that wasn’t easy for him. Hopefully, he would feel free of the burden now.”

“He had broken all the records, and this run had to be stopped as well.”

Will Russia Make It Out of Group A?

Uruguay has a history of success in the World Cup.

La Celeste had two early World Cup victories, back in 1930 and 1950. The victory in 1950 is hard to forget — especially for Brazilian fans. Uruguay captured the title on Brazilian soil. Legendary Brazilian forward Pelé described the defeat as heartbreaking in his memoir, Why Soccer Matters.

Clearly, losing a World Cup on home soil is devastating. But, Russian national team fans should be realistic. Russia is in the same tournament as powerhouse teams like Brazil, Germany, France, and Spain.

However, it’s not unrealistic for Russia to make it out of their group. Russia should capture a victory over Saudi Arabia in the first match of the World Cup.

Meanwhile, matches against Egypt and Uruguay are question marks. Akinfeev needs to be spot on and perfect in these matches. Uruguay has talented strikers and it’s still up in the air to whether Mohamed Salah will be available when they take on Egypt.

Russia can’t just sit back and defend. It’s on striker Fedor Smolov to score goals, as he has been one of the most proficient goal-scorers in the Russian Premier League for Krasnodar.

There is a strong chance for Russia to advance to the knockout rounds. With a nation — and an entire world — watching them with precision, Russia has a lot of pressure.

It’s time for Akinfeev, the captain, to lead his team to the promised land.

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