- The star Russian striker has been chatting with FIFA.com
- He spoke about the experience gained at the Confederations Cup
- Smolov: “Our group at Russia 2018 isn’t the toughest”
Only two months remain until the start of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ and the excitement is growing among the home fans ahead of the Opening Match between the tournament hosts and Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium. Russia desperately needs a hero, someone who can inspire the Sbornaya to new heights at the World Cup and bring the country some long-awaited football joy. Fyodor Smolov – without question the team’s main hope at the tournament – is certainly a candidate to fill that role.
Yet it was only a few short years ago that the 28-year-old Krasnodar front man was one of the most criticised figures in Russian football and the butt of many jokes. All that has changed, however, and the insulting memes and open derision about his previously unimpressive scoring record are a thing of the past. And here are the reasons why:
Reason No1: Smolov is Russia’s most consistent striker
Smolov has developed into an unstoppable force up front, topping the Russian Premier League scoring charts for the previous two seasons and well in the mix to win the award for the third time running this campaign. The versatile striker also scored five goals for the Russian national team in 2017, more than any other player.
“It’s much easier to get to the top than to stay there,” Smolov said in an interview with FIFA.com. “Firstly, at a certain point your motivation drops because you think that you’ve already made it. Secondly, your opponents start to adapt to your game and treat you differently. I see it with myself; defenders never leave me alone now, which wasn’t the case before. It’s much harder to maintain your standards in such circumstances, but I’m trying.”
So, is he playing the best football of his career at the moment? “Hardly,” smiled the centre-forward, who has bagged over 60 goals in three seasons for Krasnodar. “I’m planning to peak at the World Cup.”
Reason No2: Invaluable experience at the FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017
Russia fans fondly remember the opening match of last year’s Confederations Cup, as the Sbornaya confidently dealt with New Zealand. Smolov managed to get on the scoresheet in that 2-0 win and was voted Man of the Match. Unfortunately, from that moment on things stalled for the hosts, and subsequent losses against Portugal (1-0) and Mexico (2-1) meant they went out of the Tournament of Champions at the group stage.
“Clearly we lacked experience,” the striker continued. “We were never outplayed; our opponents just punished our mistakes. The little details cost us. For example, in the second half against Portugal, I could’ve scored a header. I was genuinely one or two centimetres away from making a proper connection. I know I could’ve got in position earlier, but even still… I think this experience will work in our favour at the World Cup. Lapses in concentration or slow decision-making is simply not acceptable in tournaments at this level.”
Reason No3: Special motivation
Smolov has long dreamed of testing himself in one of Europe’s top leagues. The striker has steadily been heading in this direction for a few seasons now and it seems only a matter of time before he gets his wish.
“In 2016 I received an amazing offer from China,” he revealed, “but I realised that if I signed, my chances of playing in a top European league would vanish. How could I put money before my dream?
“European clubs in the Champions League are sceptical about Russian players, but I think that if the Sbornaya perform well at the World Cup, it might change attitudes to our footballers. All the guys could have a real opportunity to move to some of the continent’s best championships. I think everybody in the team wants this.”
Reason No4: He is ready to take on responsibility
March was a tough month for the Russians. As well as going down to painful 3-0 and 3-1 defeats to Brazil and France respectively, they suffered a serious injury setback when Aleksandr Kokorin tore a cruciate ligament and was ruled out of Russia 2018, robbing them of one of their key players in attack.
“I was very upset when ‘Sasha’ got his injury,” said Smolov, who captained the side in the friendly against Les Blues. “We’ve known each other for a long time and played in the same team when we were kids. It’s always been easy playing with him and we were looking forward to reigniting the partnership at the World Cup. It’s a shame what happened.
“But I’m ready to take on more responsibility myself during games. I’m one of those players who actively gets involved in play and cares about the result. I want our performance to be as good as possible at Russia 2018, especially as it’s on home soil, which means we’ll have the support of the whole country, and our group isn’t the toughest. Of course, Uruguay are one of the best national teams in the world, but the game against them is the final one in the group and we can achieve our objectives in the first two fixtures. I’m optimistic.”
Reason No5: A player who never gives up
During his career, Smolov has had to cope with his fair share of hardships: lengthy dry spells in front of goal, relentless criticism from the media, and exclusion from the squad for Brazil 2014 to name a few.
“I had a complex relationship with Fabio Capello,” the striker said of the former Russia head coach. “On the one hand, I made my debut for the national team under him, but on the other, it was unpleasant and really hurt when he suddenly didn’t call me up for the World Cup in Brazil, despite the fact I’d never been out of the team for the year and a half before. However, I’ll always remember some of the advice he gave me: ‘Don’t ever pity yourself. Work hard regardless of whether you’re in pain or not.’ When things get difficult, I just remember his face and I’m able to break through the barrier. Capello’s words have really helped me in life and I try to never give up.”
Did you know?
Smolov scored both Russia’s last goal in 2017, when he equalised in the 3-3 draw against Spain, and their first in 2018, when he found the net against France.
Would you rather…?
Play New Zealand in the opening match of the Confederations Cup 2017 or Saudi Arabia in the Opening Match of Russia 2018?
“The Saudi Arabia game is much more important and the burden of responsibility is completely different. Then there’s the fact that the Saudis are a much tougher prospect than New Zealand.”
Win the Golden Boot at the World Cup, and go down in history like Oleg Salenko, but not make it out of the group, or reach the knockout rounds while not at your best?
“Of course, I’d prefer to get out of the group. It’s much better when the whole team are on form and not just one individual.”
Edinson Cavani, Mohamed Salah or Luis Suarez?
“Suarez is the best. I’ve been an admirer of his for a long time. Apart from his goals and assists, he works so hard and does so much for the team, pressing defenders, troubling his marker and creating space.”