enis Cheryshev was the player Russia chose to appear at their press conference the day before the biggest football match in the country’s recent history, a last-16 encounter with Spain at their home Luzhniki Stadium, and it was not hard to guess why.
Cheryshev, quietly spoken and with a wry smile, has emerged as the unexpected star of the Russia team at the tournament, scoring two goals in the opening match against Saudi Arabia and another against Egypt. But his personal circumstances also lend his involvement against Spain extra spice. Cheryshev has lived in Spain since he was five, came through the Real Madrid academy and has dual Spanish and Russian nationality. On Saturday he answered most questions in flawless Spanish. He stands out in a squad of largely homegrown and home-reared players – one of only two of Russia’s 23-man squad not to play in the domestic league.
“I feel half Russian and half Spanish,” Cheryshev has told El Pais in the past. “I was born in Russia and in my house we speak Russian, but I grew up here. Even though my character is Russian, rather cold, my behaviour is Spanish because I like very much to talk to people.”
Cheryshev moved to Spain in his youth because his father, Dmitry, also a footballer, signed for Sporting Gijón in 1996. Denis attended local Spanish schools and picked up football from Spanish coaches.
“His speed, technique and ball skills are unlike anyone else in the team,” said Igor Rabiner, a leading Russian football journalist. “After all, this is a guy who has gone through the Real Madrid academy from start to finish; in Russia, we simply don’t train people like that.”
Cheryshev has not quite lived up to his natural talent, mainly because of a string of injuries that put him way back down the pecking order at Madrid. In December 2015 Cheryshev finally scored his first competitive goal for the club, in a 3-0 win against Cádiz in the Copa del Rey. However, he had picked up yellow cards in the previous season’s tournament while on loan and should have been suspended. As a result of the error, Real were kicked out of the tournament.
For Cheryshev, who had never looked like being close to breaking into the Madrid first team, the incident appeared to be the final straw, and in summer 2016 he moved to Villarreal.
“He often retreated inside himself and began to think and worry about why he’s plagued by injury and whether he’s doing something wrong,” said Dmitry Cheryshev in an interview with Russia’s Sport Express newspaper. “I was a footballer too and I understand what it’s like not to play for a whole year; how much you want to get on to the pitch. But my son has a lot of patience, and it’s because of that that he’s where he is now.”
This year it seems that Cheryshev’s luck is turning. A late inclusion in the Russia squad in spring, it was touch and go whether he would make the final squad. Most Russian football journalists were expecting Dinamo Moscow’s Aleksandr Tashayev to make it ahead of him. But Cheryshev, having impressed as a substitute in a friendly against Austria, was selected. Even then he was seen as a fringe player, the sort who might, if lucky, be given 15 minutes at the end of a game to liven things up.
Instead, Alan Dzagoev got injured early on against Saudi Arabia and Cheryshev came off the bench to score two delightful goals, one at the end of each half.
“Even when Dzagoev got injured in the first game most people were not expecting to see Cheryshev, but clearly [the coach Stanislav] Cherchesov and his team were impressed by what they had seen of Cheryshev in training,” said Rabiner.
He has three goals at the World Cup, one more than he managed in 24 appearances for Villarreal in La Liga last season, and it seems he has hit a rich vein of form at just the right time. His group stage was slightly marred by the final game against Uruguay, in which he scored an unfortunate own goal before being substituted in the first half after Igor Smolnikov was sent off. But he goes into the match against Spain as a key player.
On Saturday he was circumspect and serious, playing down the significance of facing his adopted country but insisting that Russia believe they can beat anyone, even if the players know they are the underdogs. “All players have good times and bad times but we will try to be professionals and give it the best we’ve got,” he said.
His father has said Denis is in many ways more Spanish than Russian but has some strong links to his ancestral home, including his Orthodox faith. Cheryshev said on Saturday his pre-match routine involves praying before coming on to the pitch. He, like most of the 80,000 who will pack Luzhniki on Sunday evening, will be hoping for a miracle against Spain.