MOSCOW - Russia's hosting of FIFA's (International Federation of Association Football) Confederations Cup from June 17 to July 2 and the World Cup championship in 2018 is reigniting hopes in the country for football (soccer).
The last time Russia made the world's top four was in 1966 when it was part of the Soviet Union.
Watch: Russia's Hosting of FIFA Tournaments Reignites World Cup Hopes
Russian football gained global recognition during the 1966 World Cup when the Soviet Union defeated Italy, Chile, and Hungary to take fourth place.
Half-a-century later, the few living players from that championship have yet to see Russia return to the top four.
“When there was the world championship in England, the coach said, 'Thank you guys, we won't achieve such a success for the next 50 years.’ So, 50 years passed,” said Vladimir Ponomarev, USSR defender in the 1966 championship.
Fans have high hopes
Despite Russian football's struggle since, die-hard fans have high hopes for the tournaments.
“That's why we are faced with big problems when they show negative results," said Lokomotiv Football Club's Maksim “Loko” Shataylo. “Sometimes it may result in such extraordinary situations because the fans become too upset. They believe too much, they hope too much! I believe in the better. We'll definitely be in the top eight,” adds Shataylo.
As host of the FIFA tournaments, Russia's national team automatically qualifies to compete.
Russia's star players say their goal is clear.
“Of course, it is to get to the final game, step by step," said Spartak Moscow Football Club Captain Denis Glushakov in May comments to the press. “We'll play the first and the second match and only then I may tell you whether we get to the final or not.”
Passion is lacking
Ponomarev says Russian football lacks the passion it had during Soviet times.
“But we'll keep working and growing. We'll keep training and that will allow us to get on the same level as great European teams,” said Ponomarev. “So far, we are not much valued. The Confederations Cup matches will show us the level of Russian football.”
The Confederations Cup will also test how well Russia itself is prepared for next year's World Cup championship.
“As for the world championships and the idea that so much effort is put into winning them without a result, I think that after the world championship of 2018 there will be a breakthrough in football here,” says Shataylo. “It will become more popular. New stadiums, new infrastructure are under construction. It will be more convenient to move around the country to see the matches. The fans will love this country and football, and all will be well.”
Meanwhile, Ponomarev continues to support Russian football and the next generation of players by offering advice to amateur teams and coaches.
“We must start small. We must start with our small footballers who train here,” he said.
But as for hosting the upcoming FIFA tournaments, he adds optimistically, “For me it will be a success. Fifty years have passed. It's time to get to fourth place. It would be superb for all Russian fans! They would be absolutely happy.”
Field is set
For the host Russian team, its Confederations Cup Group A opener will be played on Saturday (June 17) against New Zealand in St. Petersburg. Wednesday (June 21) the Russians play in Moscow against Portugal, and the hosts final group match is against Mexico in Kazan on June 24.
The other four teams in the tournament — Cameroon, Chile, Australia and Germany — are in Group B. After round-robin play, the first and second-place teams in each group advance to the semifinals, with the championship match in St. Petersburg July 2. The tournament winner will receive $5 million, and the runner-up $4.5 million.
Olga Pavlova and Ricardo Marquina Montañana contributed to this report.