The last 16 fixture between Russia and Spain is special for Aleksandr Mostovoi, because those are the two teams he supports at the World Cup. He is Russian, of course, but – having spent eight magnificent years between 1996 and 2004 at Celta Vigo, and scored no less than 72 goals in 288 matches for the Galicians – he feels a bit Spanish too.
“It is difficult when those two sides meet. I would prefer Russia to win, but if Spain win – I want them to go on and lift the trophy”, he says in an interview in a cosy Japanese restaurant near Luzhniki stadium.
But are the hosts capable of beating the favourites on Sunday? "Well, this is a home tournament, and everything is possible in 90 minutes in Moscow. They can do it. The support will be strong, and this is our opportunity to achieve a massive result at the World Cup. Probably the only opportunity. Russia won't stand a chance in Qatar in 2022," Mostovoi says.
The pessimism ahead of future tournaments is significant, because the Tsar of Vigo, who was considered one of the most technically gifted players of his generation in La Liga, is highly critical of the current generation in Russia.
"They all get incredibly high salaries in the local league, don't make any progress and can just sit there and smoke cigars. There is no motivation to move to top leagues in Western Europe, and the national team suffers as a result. They feel untouchable at Russian clubs, but there are hundreds like them in Spain, Germany or Italy. If the likes of Daler Kuzyaev or Ilya Kutepov go to a quality league at their current level, they are certain to fail," the former midfielder claims.
The ex-star is sceptical about the potential of the biggest Russian hope – Aleksandr Golovin: "I am not sure about all those Juventus and Arsenal rumours. He is still unproven at the high level, and we will have to see if he can really make it. He could be overhyped".
There is some bitterness in his voice, and you can feel that Mostovoi is rather jealous of the conditions the new generation gets. "They get pampered in every possible way. Everything is done for them. I wish we got such treatment in our days. We had to beg for a decent pair of socks without holes instead. If only the conditions were right in the 90s, we could have achieved some truly brilliant results, because we all played in top leagues and knew what it takes to perform at the highest level".
Mostovoi's own experiences at the World Cup were hugely disappointing. Ahead of the 1994 tournament, he initially joined a group of rebels who refused to go to the United States unless the coach Pavel Sadyrin is replaced. Eventually, he chose to come back, but only took part in one fixture and the squad atmosphere was truly disastrous. "We were just a bunch of tourists," he says. Before of the 2002 World Cup, he was still supposed to be the brightest star and the leader, but injury prevented him from playing a single minute as Russia crashed out at the group stage again.
In fact, the Russians qualified for the last 16 this month for the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and Mostovoi would have liked to belong to the festival. "Sergei Ignashevich came out of international retirement at the age of almost 39, because he knew he had nothing to lose against Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Berezutsky twins didn't, and I am sure they regret it now. I wish I could come back too. Against the Saudis I could even play in goal. They didn't have a single shot on target," the 49-year-old says.
The 3-0 defeat against Uruguay helped Russia to understand their real level, but it turned out for the best, because the hosts are now on the "easier" side of the tournament. "Whoever wins would face Croatia or Denmark in the quarterfinals, and that is tolerable. The rivals in the semifinals would be beatable too – the strongest option are England. Spain are clear favourites to reach the final now, and should be favourites to win the trophy too," Mostovoi says.
He doesn't think that sacking Julen Lopetegui two days before the World Cup started damaged Spain's chances. "The coach is not really important these days. He is not on the pitch and can't win matches. Fernando Hierro, who was a magnificent player in my days, has almost no coaching experience, but Spain finished top of their group nevertheless. That is because they have good players, and that is why I rated them highly ahead of the World Cup," Mostovoi claims.
Actually, the ex-star is proud of his predictions, especially regarding Germany: "A month ago, I said that Brazil, Spain and France are the biggest favourites, followed by Belgium and Argentina. I really expected the World Champions to fail. The Germans have no decent centre-forward, and Mesut Ozil has been dead for three years at Arsenal already. He just walks on the pitch. They could never succeed with such a team, even though going out at the group stage is still surprising".
What are his predictions for Sunday, then? "Spain should prevail, but hosts should never be discarded. I will support whoever wins it from Monday on," Mostovoi promises.
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