Russians dare to dream

Russians dare to dream

Russian football fans celebrate their team's victory against Egypt at the Fan Zone in Rostov-on-Don on June 19, 2018. AFP

Russia can afford to dream.

The host nation defied critics and confounded expectations by easing past Egypt 3-1 on Tuesday, all but assuring their place in the last 16 of a World Cup for the first time since the Soviet era.

The free-scoring Russians have lifted the home fans, who in turn have inspired the men in red on the pitch, for so long under-achievers at the highest level.

"Can you believe it?" Moscow's Sport Express newspaper asked.

"We waited a very long time for this," said Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov.

They certainly have.

Russia's football team have been the poor relations of the nation's ice hockey sides and Olympic legends, whose victories have long been a source of huge national pride.

President Vladimir Putin said that he expected Russia to lift the golden World Cup trophy when he helped secure the hosting rights in 2010. But he arguably had to say that.

He was being wildly optimistic but the players gave the fans precious little reason for hope as the World Cup approached -- coming into the tournament as the lowest-ranked nation, down at 70th in the world.

Russia were winless in seven games ahead of their opener, with almost their entire defence out with injuries.

They had managed just one shot on target in their last two warm-ups and were getting whistled off the pitch by frustrated supporters.

The nation was preparing for the worst by the time the World Cup kicked off last week but instead, Russia ripped up the form book and performed a miracle.

They put five goals past Saudi Arabia, with two-goal Denis Cheryshev emerging as an instant star, before limiting Egypt's star forward Mohamed Salah to just one goal from a penalty kick in their second game on Tuesday to stand on the brink of qualification.

Fans who had been pleasantly surprised after the performance against Saudi Arabia are now starting to believe, wondering how far this group of players can go.