Russian pensioners seek World Cup breakthrough

Moscow: The collapse of the Soviet Union delivered a political blow to the country and undermined Russia`s football team.

Shorn of players from the former Soviet Republics -- with whom they had reached three quarter-finals and the 1966 semi-finals -- they have failed since 1990 to qualify for three finals and in the two they did reach, in 1994 and 2002, they went out in the first round.

Now an ageing squad will be tasked with breaking new ground in Brazil in June.

Fortune has favoured them with a kind draw in Group H where aside from the highly-rated Belgians there are Algeria and South Korea, both of whom Fabio Capello`s men should beat.

The Italian coach can get on with planning for the finals despite two United States senators demanding FIFA bar Russia from the finals after President Vladimir Putin`s annexation of Crimea.

Few people believe FIFA would impose such a punishment on the hosts of the 2018 finals, unlike the former Yugoslavia who were expelled from 1992 European Championships and not allowed to participate in qualifying for the 1994 World Cup because of the Balkans War.

"Sport is out of politics, for me. I don`t understand when someone boycotts a competition," Capello told CNN in March when asked about the US senators demand.

Capello can take confidence from the qualifying campaign where they edged Euro 2012 semi-finalists Portugal into second place.

But he will be relying largely on the same team that predecessor Dick Advocaat took to Euro 2012 and flattered to deceive after they went out in the group stage despite opening with a 4-1 victory over the Czech Republic.

The talent of Alexander Kerzhakov -- the only one of the squad with World Cup experience having made one appearance as a substitute in 2002 -- Roman Shirokov, Igor Denisov and Yuri Zhirkov is not in doubt.

But they have also shown a tendency to crack under pressure and fight among themselves.

Not even their advancing years -- all will be 30 or older by the time the finals begin -- has seemingly improved this facet of their characters.

Shirokov has on more than one occasion been disciplined for making controversial statements while Denisov refused to play at Euro 2008 because he said his pride had been hurt at only being called up at the last minute.

Age too is a concern in defence where captain Sergei Ignashevich is 34 and his central defensive partners, one of the two Berezutski twins Alexei or Vasili, are 31.

This is an area that the pacey South Koreans could expose. It is the lack of young talent coming through that has taxed Capello`s mind, for while exciting playmaker Alan Dzagoev is young -- he will turn 24 on June 17 -- he is not a new face on the international scene having made his debut in 2008.

"They (Russian club managers) need to prepare the under-21s, under-20s to find new players," Capello told CNN.

"I need to speak with the managers. We need to put some young players in the first team. This is the problem.

"We`ve got seven foreign players every game, and four Russian players. If one of the best players is injured, we lose a lot."

With Capello having signed a contract that will see him through to the 2018 finals he can turn his mind to that goal after Brazil. In the mean time the short term goal will be for the `dribble of pensioners` his 30-somethings to at the very least reach the uncharted waters of the knockout stages.

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