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Russia's World Cup Performance Is Surprising Fans And Critics


A few days before the World Cup began in Russia, a member of the Russian soccer team addressed the nation with a request. He asked for less negativity toward the team which has long disappointed its fans. Fast forward to the team's actual performance, which has been shocking the nation. NPR's Alina Selyukh sent this report from Samara, Russia.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Russian).

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: All the talk around Samara today was about the incredible heat wave - 95 degrees - right in time for the matchup between Russia and Uruguay here at the brand new arena built for the World Cup. It's almost three hours to the match, but fans are already rolling into the stadium, arriving by bus, by tram. I've seen a few Uruguay fans, but it's mostly Russians. It's super-hot, barely a cloud in the sky. The sun is beating down. But fans are turning up completely decked out in funky hats, face paint and wrapped in flags. One person enduring the hot air was Rafael Hafyatullin.

RAFAEL HAFYATULLIN: (Speaking Russian).

SELYUKH: He's 77 years old and tells me he's not going to the actual game. He just lives nearby and simply wanted to take in the atmosphere around the stadium.

HAFYATULLIN: (Speaking Russian).

SELYUKH: He says he started watching soccer obsessively during this year's tournament, which is taking place in his own country. And today's match is a big one. Russia faces Uruguay after demolishing Saudi Arabia and Egypt, first 5-0, then 3-1. Sure, both of those teams are pretty weak, but Russian team was considered even weaker. But after only two games, Russia managed to qualify for the knockout round of 16 for the first time since the Soviet era.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) As always, honestly, we thought we'd be out for the first match.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Through interpreter) Something like that, something like that.

SELYUKH: Darya Nefyodova and Valentina Kuzmina came to the fan zone to watch today's match against Uruguay on a massive TV screen.


SELYUKH: The fans were greeted by some traditional Russian folklore and a volunteer with a water hose.


SELYUKH: They're spraying us with water so we don't pass out.


SELYUKH: The game with Uruguay proved more stressful than cheerful.


SELYUKH: Uruguay scored early, and then a Russian player was ejected, leaving his team one man short for the rest of the game. In the end, Uruguay netted three goals. Russia came close but didn't get any. Dima Semyonov was so sad he almost didn't want to talk to me.

DIMA SEMYONOV: (Through interpreter) How can I not be sad? We lost. Even though the match doesn't matter so much, it sucks.

SELYUKH: The match doesn't matter so much because Russia progresses to the next level anyway, though of course the competition is only going to get harder. But after months of complaining about their team, now Russians are eager to say maybe there's a chance they'll actually get somewhere. Alina Selyukh, NPR News, Samara. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.
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