Stanislav Cherchesov: A Story of Resilience and Courage
Joel Amorim charts the career of the veteran of two World Cups who now bears the responsibility of leading the host nation at Russia 2018.
23 years ago, in June 1995, Stanislav Cherchesov took part in one of the most memorable matches of his long career as a goalkeeper. The venue was the Rudolf-Harbig-Stadion in Dresden, and Cherchesov was a leading figure at local club Dynamo Dresden, who were playing their last top-flight game in that emblematic stadium before relegation to the third tier of the German football pyramid due to financial irregularities. Their opponents in that historic encounter were the all-powerful FC Bayern München, who – despite having failed to win the Bundesliga title that season – were determined to claim the two points from their visit to Saxony. Dynamo were in dire straits and fully aware of their fate that day, but Cherchesov put in an outstanding performance, almost thwarting the visitors. After a handful of excellent stops, “Stani” (a pet name given to Cherchesov by Dynamo’s supporters) was unable to deflect a powerful effort by Marcel Witeczek from outside the box in the 88th minute, allowing FC Bayern to win the match 1-0. Much has changed since those days, and Cherchesov has now replaced his trademark of wearing white socks over black trousers with an expensive designer suit to lead the Russian national team from the dugout at their home World Cup.
In August 2016 Cherchesov was named the new head coach of the Sbornaya, and on that day the former USSR, CIS and Russia international embarked on what is surely the most demanding challenge of his entire career. It is easy to see that Cherchesov, now 54, has a Herculean task on his hands; we need only to consider Russia’s recent performances in international competitions. The Sbornaya have only appeared at three World Cups since the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1994, 2002, 2014), and their overall performances have been mediocre at best. The statistics are quite clear: two wins from nine matches have transformed Russia into an underachieving and vulnerable team when compared, for example, to Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s mechanised Soviet Union.
Perhaps discouraged by this recent track record, supporters are still unsure as to whether Cherchesov is the right man for the job. This scepticism is easily understandable given that Russia’s last World Cup campaign in 2014 was a total disaster. Led by the charismatic Fabio Capello, the Russians failed to win a single match and the football they produced was somewhat embarrassing, almost amateur-like. The Sbornaya (and their supporters) left Brazil with neither fame nor glory and without any reasons to believe in a brighter future. Capello himself appeared to be first in line in second-guessing the team and hopelessly dragged himself on until July 2015, when he finally reached an agreement with the Russian Football Union to leave his position.
A bad situation got even worse, and the lack of ideas at Russian football headquarters was so blatant that, in a desperate move, the RFU turned their attentions to Leonid Slutsky, appointing him as the new head coach in August 2015. The change failed to produce the desired effects (if any effects at all) and Slutsky ended up leaving the national team just ten months later, after another disappointing campaign at EURO 2016 in France. Cherchesov’s time had finally come, and the former international goalkeeper was ready to take on the challenge. After a victorious stint in Polish football, where he won the league and cup double with Legia Warszawa, he grabbed the opportunity to return home with both hands and started his slow but steady revolution of the Russian national team.
After several inconsistent performances in friendly matches, the first major test for Cherchesov’s Russia came at last year’s Confederations Cup. Playing on Russian soil in front of thousands of disheartened supporters, the Sbornaya managed to deliver some quality performances against all odds. A win against New Zealand on the opening day of the tournament was a much needed confidence boost for the players, who gave their all in the other two group games against Portugal and Mexico, although they failed to register another win.
In football, nothing is immediate – it takes time for a team to adapt to a new game style and especially to demanding tactics such as those Cherchesov wants to implement. During Capello’s and Slutsky’s managerial reigns, Russia played a 4-2-3-1 formation, and on occasions the classic 4-4-2, but a three-man defensive line was not tested. Cherchesov was bold enough to implement a 3-5-1-1 formation, well aware that such a style would probably cost him some unpleasant defeats, and that good results would not be instantaneous.
Russia’s performances have been severely criticised, and Cherchesov himself seems always to be facing some sort of backlash. The alleged lack of depth in the squad, together with unpopular personnel choices made by Cherchesov, have surely given the manager plenty of headaches on the road to Russia’s home World Cup. The call-up of 38-year-old CSKA Moscow veteran Sergei Ignashevich to replace the versatile Rubin Kazan defender Ruslan Kambolov (28), who suffered an injury in the last game of the domestic season, was the most recent fracturing issue between Cherchesov, supporters and the media. The omission of Lokomotiv Moscow’s Igor Denisov (34), a player with whom he had fallen out in the past, has also been a fairly unpopular decision by Cherchesov, who in this particular case insisted that he would not reconsider his decision, regardless of what people might say. Denisov’s case is not, however, the only one. When Cherchesov announced the 28-man initial squad list for the World Cup, the absence of Spartak Moscow midfielder Denis Glushakov caused quite a stir. During Cherchesov’s time with the Sbornaya, Glushakov (31) had been one of the team’s most influential players and now, due to an alleged injury, he is set to miss the Word Cup. Cherchesov failed to offer any further explanations on both counts and took full responsibility for his choices.
Stani is nevertheless a resilient man; a man of courage who keeps pushing his ideas forward, regardless of the heavy criticism. During his goalkeeping career, Cherchesov also had a few mountains to climb and, in the end, he managed to overcome them. His resilience and dynamism have certainly contributed to his interesting life story, which is filled with achievements, anecdotes and curious episodes. Back in the 1980s, for instance, Cherchesov had the enormous responsibility of replacing the legendary Rinat Dasaev in Spartak Moscow’s goal, and the truth is that he passed that test with flying colours. He pulled off some solid performances for the Moscow outfit and was the team’s number one for several years. He was an important member of Oleg Romantsev’s Spartak side in the early 1990s, and he will always be remembered for the historic 3-1 win over Real Madrid at Santiago Bernabéu in the 1991 European Cup quarter-final second leg.
Away from Spartak, Cherchesov also endured some difficulties, never yielding nonetheless. He joined Dynamo Dresden in 1993 without speaking a single word of German. Stani has an enduring connection with the city of Dresden and with the club itself; his son was born there, for instance, and Cherchesov often claims that he feels a special affinity for the city itself, for Dresdeners and of course for the club. This comes as no surprise, because he experienced some good moments with Dynamo Dresden, despite the club’s dire financial situation at that time. Yet things were not always easy for him in Dresden and, on a recent visit to the city, where he attended several events related to the club’s anniversary, Cherchesov, in near-perfect German, remembered a curious encounter he had at a local supermarket back in his playing days with SGD. While doing his shopping he accidentally bumped into an old lady who looked him in the eyes and asked: “Cherchesov? Dynamo Dresden?”, and when he nodded affirmatively, she made a gesture to insinuate that Cherchesov needed to up his game, after conceding 14 goals in just five matches.
In an interview for the club’s YouTube channel, Cherchesov remembered how difficult his first season at Dynamo was; how difficult it was to concede so many goals in just a handful of matches and how that eventually cost him his place in the team. He remembered how hard it was to be on the field without speaking German, and how difficult it was to lead the team from his post without being able to communicate with them. No matter how hard those first months in Dresden were, Cherchesov pulled through, and after learning German for six months he was able to read properly and to hold a conversation with his teammates and journalists. Cherchesov’s resilience and courage helped him to conquer these initial obstacles and, ultimately, to become one of the supporters’ most beloved players.
Cherchesov seems to have the right tools for the task of leading his country at a home World Cup, especially if his character is taken into account. Away from his duties as the national team head coach, Cherchesov is an easy-going individual and always seems to have a witty story to tell. His good spirits may not quite enable him to overcome the Herculean task he faces at the helm of the Sbornaya, but his personality and life story will surely grant him a special place in the history of modern football.