ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia: Like any football-mad kid, Maksim has been struck by major World Cup fever: He’s watched all the games, has supported - and been disappointed by - his favourite team Spain, and cheered at the sight of idols Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi gracing the grass right here in his home country of Russia.
Yet something has also changed for the seven-year-old boy from the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. He might wear his Real Madrid and Barcelona jerseys less, and ask his dad to buy him a CSKA Moscow one with “Golovin” on the back. And if once he didn’t think much of his own national side, today he feels nothing but “big, huge” pride for them.
Enquire why and “vera”, or belief, is the word echoed by Maksim and his pals Danil, Arseniy, David and Kamil. Together they train at their neighbourhood branch of the Junior global football school chain. Together they unanimously and instantaneously yell “Da!” when asked if they would like to be professionals some day.
All over Russia, hundreds - if not thousands - of kids like them have been stirred by their compatriots’ thoroughly unexpected, spectacular and history-making run to the World Cup quarter-finals.
In Maksim’s quiet Rostov suburb of Strelkovoi Divizii, membership at his Junior school recently climbed to more than 300 from the steady 20 or so since it opened doors in 2015. Now, during the tournament itself, there has been a growing list of parents wanting to sign their kids up, said trainer Ruslan Borkhoev.
Some key figures predicted as much even before the first kick-off. “The World Cup will of course influence the future development of football in Russia,” said Aleksandr Alaev, director-general of the Russian Football Union. “Because the children will see the atmosphere, they will see how the games are played, and maybe in future they would like to become professional football players.”
State Duma sports committee deputy chair and former footballer Valery Gazzaev boldly said: “Magnificent infrastructure has been built, a huge number of facilities have been built … I assure you that in four, eight years maximum, the level of football in Russia will be very high and we at such prestigious tournaments will be one of the favourites."
And after Russia bowed out of the last eight in a gut-wrenching penalty shootout loss to Croatia, prime minister Dmitry Medvedev himself declared: "We will simply have a different type of football after this … I am absolutely certain.”
IN SEARCH OF LEGENDS
Yet for too long, the largest country on the planet has perhaps endured a dearth of world-class footballing superstars.
Lev Yashin remains the exception, with a FIFA award named after perhaps the greatest goalkeeper of all time - and the only of that playing position to ever win a Ballon d’Or. With the original “Black Panther” between the sticks, the Soviet Union won a 1956 Olympic gold medal as well as the inaugural European Championship in 1960.
During the post-Yashin, post-Soviet era Russia’s next most recognisable name was one Andrey Arshavin - at least in 2008. That year, the cherubic winger led local side Zenit Saint Petersburg to an improbable UEFA Cup title before transferring his heroics toward the national team’s third-place finish at the Euros.
Arshavin was rewarded with a move to London giants Arsenal the next year, but his star shone all too briefly and after Russia’s failure to qualify for South Africa 2010, he quietly slipped into the wilderness.
There was a tinge of promise when Russia won the 2013 European under-17 title, but just one from the squad has made his mark since: The aforementioned Aleksandr Golovin, who barely three days from concluding a promising World Cup campaign is already said to have agreed a deal with English club Chelsea.
The midfielder, just 22, was part of a handful of names on the lips of every Russian these last few weeks. His flashes of brilliance helped the lowest-ranked (70th) team at the competition sweep aside minnows Saudi Arabia and Egypt, hold mighty Spain and Croatia to draws in regulation time and, ultimately, defy the odds by reaching the last eight.
Modern Russia’s best international showing ever has continued to reverberate around the nation and in the city of Rostov, Borkhoev could only express his sentiments by repeatedly uttering “unbelievable”.
Said the football coach at Junior: “The kids, even the smallest at three-years-old, know all the World Cup teams. Every day they talk about how they saw this match, and tried to copy that player … The energy and enthusiasm is just sky-high.
“And they also seem aware of what a monumental event the World Cup is - that it will influence not only the kids already with us, but also those who will come to us one day.”
CRACKING THE BIG LEAGUES
Founded in Saint Petersburg, Junior has 420 branches worldwide - including in Singapore - with some 45,000 kids enrolled in Russia. It is just one brand in a sprawling Russian web of both football and general sports schools producing droves of young footballers year on year.
But those hoping to turn professional would do well to look away from the domestic leagues, according to player and union leader Aleksandr Zotov. He related to the Associated Press a clutch of factors including “chronic financial instability” and short-term thinking of local clubs, favouritism by coaches and the physical demands of flying across Russia’s time zones to play matches.
Local footballers are also valued and paid a lot more than European sides would table for them, and even assured of playing time due to league rules allowing clubs to field only six foreigners at a time.
Zotov said this has led to arrogance and laziness both. It could also explain, at least partially, why those who ventured abroad have floundered. Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko, Yuri Zhirkov and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov never settled in England, while Russia’s all-time top scorer Aleksandr Kerzhakov barely made a dent in his Spanish stint with Sevilla.
Such history, however, has had no bearing on the ambitions of Borkhoev’s kids at Junior. “They watch the Spanish and English leagues regularly, and always ask me how they can play there,” he said.
While not the same as a professional football academy, Junior has members opting to train as many as five days a week and also boasts of partnerships with clubs like the local FC Rostov and Dutch institution Ajax Amsterdam.
From Junior’s modest Strelkovoi Divizii branch, three have since joined the youth setup of 2016 Russian Premier League runners-up FC Rostov: Dan Maligin, Kirill Merzlikin and Viktor Rachkovan.
“Junior, Rostov, Chelsea!” said Borkhoev, gesturing up the rungs of a ladder. “Of course, it’s hard to say whether the kids will end up at Manchester United or Chelsea, as much as they would love to.”
He added: “Often, it’s the parents who think their kids don’t have any chance of success and are against it. But then there are cases where they see how football fills their kids with hope; how it’s something important to them; how the emotions are real.
“Here there are kids who truly dream of scoring goals like Ronaldo or (Paul) Pogba, who dream of it as their destiny.”
Borkhoev then turns to Maksim, grinning. “Right? Or do you just want the money, the nice car and apartment, the girls?
“No,” the boy quickly cries out. “I just want to score more goals, cool goals, take great penalties, corners, and play better. That’s what I’d like most!”
Nearby, six-year-old Danil perks up and chips in: “And help Russia win the World Cup!”