Russia will try to keep their unlikely dream alive on Saturday when the host nation face Croatia in their first World Cup quarter-final since 1970.
It has been an enchanted summer for the world’s largest nation as it hosts the biggest event in sport.
Russia’s once-hapless team have suddenly turned into giantslayers who dispatched 2010 champions Spain in the last 16 and are now seriously contemplating reaching the July 15 final.
The World Cup itself has been blissfully free of the hooligan battles and racist monkey chants that blighted Russian domestic league and international matches.
And President Vladimir Putin has managed if only briefly to stem the tide of Western media criticism by presenting Russia as a fun-loving and welcoming place.
“Many stereotypes about Russia have simply collapsed,” Putin told a group of high-profile former players at a Kremlin reception on Friday.
European bookmakers still expect Croatia and their elegant midfielder Luka Modric to prevail in the quarter-final in the balmy Black Sea resort of Sochi.
But Russia’s players are exuding a breezy confidence that comes from having avoided the fiasco many fans had initially feared.
“Even before the tournament started, we all knew we could reach the final,” said star midfielder Alexander Golovin.
“Now, we are seriously counting on it.”
Few Russians agreed with Golovin when they entered the tournament as its lowest-ranked nation and without a win in eight months.
A thumping start in which Russia scored eight goals in wins over Saudi Arabia and Egypt generated mostly surprise and relief.
A 3-0 loss to Uruguay that gave Russia the unenviable matchup with Spain was met with resigned shakes of the head from fans familiar with defeat. -AFP