Two things caught the eye as Denis Cheryshev took his place at the news conference after Russia’s opening World Cup fixture, in which he scored a magnificent brace in the host’s 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia.
Firstly, he was astonished and unprepared. After all, Cheryshev wasn’t expected to be at the tournament. Pundits were surprised to find his name in Stanislav Cherchesov’s preliminary squad, and he was initially supposed to be left out in favour if Dynamo Moscow’s rising talent Aleksandr Tashaev. Cheryshev eventually made the cut but was seemingly nowhere near the starting lineup.
However, when Alan Dzagoev was injured in the first half against the Saudis, the coach changed the tactical plan and put Cheryshev on the left wing, moving Aleksandr Golovin into a more central position. The result was extraordinary. Out of the blue, Cheryshev has become a World Cup star.
The second thing that was apparent at Cheryshev’s news conference was that he has a very significant accent when speaking Russian, as if it weren’t his mother tongue. It is, of course: Cheryshev was born in Nizhny Novgorod before the Soviet Union broke up, but he barely remembers that. The family move to Spain in 1996, when Cheryshev was 5, because his father Dmitry — a decent striker in his own right — signed for Sporting Gijon on his way to becoming a local Asturian legend. Six years later, the son “returned the favour.” Denis was accepted into the Real Madrid academy, and Dmitry subsequently got a job as a youth coach at Los Blancos.
While growing up in Madrid and dreaming of playing in the famous white shirt, Cheryshev thought of representing Spain too. Even after getting a call-up from the Under-21 Russia team, he insisted: “I don’t close the doors on La Roja at all. I am more Spanish than Russian because I spent all of my life in Spain.”
That is absolutely true, and Cheryshev possesses Western mentality. He is totally different than the rest of the Russian squad because he grew up in totally different surroundings. Unlike the other Russian stars, he was educated at a top academy and is used to playing in a top league. The pace and quality of La Liga aren’t even comparable to the pedestrian Russian Premier League. Cheryshev is exactly the type of a player Russia had been desperately missing for a long time, ever since their players stopped moving to Western Europe, spoiled by enormously disproportionate salaries in their homeland.
Fabio Capello knew it. As a matter of fact, the Italian specialist heard about Cheryshev’s potential as a youth player when working at Real Madrid in the 2006-07 season. When Capello was named Russia coach in 2012, on a long-term contract that was supposed to run until the World Cup on home soil, the winger was most definitely in his plans. He even took a rather unusual decision to bring Cheryshev, who wasn’t fully fit, to the World Cup in Brazil four years ago without including him in the squad, so that he trained with the team and gained experience at the tournament.
Capello also urged Cheryshev to change clubs because it was nearly impossible to compete with Cristiano Ronaldo for a spot on the left flank at Santiago Bernabeu. Carlo Ancelotti, who coached Real at the time, wanted to keep the Russian and convert him into a left-back so that he served as Marcelo’s understudy. Listening to the national coach and his own wishes, though, the winger refused and preferred to join Villarreal on loan. A very positive season prompted Real to bring him back, but then a very bizarre incident occurred.
In Madrid, Cheryshev will be forever remembered as the man in the middle of a bureaucratic fiasco. In December 2015, Real let him play against Granada in a Copa del Rey fixture, not understanding that the winger was suspended due to his receiving three yellow cards at Villarreal in the competition during the 2014-15 season. The FA expelled Los Blancos from the Cup, and the reaction was furious. It wasn’t Cheryshev’s fault, but fans partly blamed him, and luck definitely wasn’t on his side — yet again.
It would be difficult to find a less fortunate player in La Liga, as far as injuries are concerned. Health issues totally ruined Cheryshev’s loan spell at Sevilla in 2013-14 and prevented him from playing at the World Cup. They also prevented him from properly finishing a decent spell at Villarreal in the following year. He then barely featured during the short loan adventure at Valencia in the beginning of 2016 after the Granada disaster. Eventually, Villarreal bought Cheryshev for €7 million in the summer of 2016, but surgery meant that he missed almost all of 2017.
Capello would probably have tolerated all of that, but luck wasn’t on Cheryshev’s side in that respect as well, and the Italian was — quite rightly — fired in 2015. Without him, the Spaniard’s chances of making an impact in the country of his birth seemed rather low. Leonid Slutsky didn’t count on him, and it took Cherchesov a lot of time to fully understand his value too. He was considered unreliable and injury-prone, but everything had changed by early 2018.
Finally, at long last, Cheryshev stayed fit for a few months and played well for Villarreal. National team coach Cherchesov called him up, and while the journalists expected him to be released sooner rather than later, the winger proved to be the most hard-working player in the squad. The Western European mentality added a new dimension to Russia, and Cherchesov was convinced.
Luck finally was on Cheryshev’s side when Dzagoev was injured in the opening fixture, and now he is in the spotlight for the right reasons for the first time in his life. At the age of 27, his time has finally arrived. His first goal against the Saudis was good, the second was breathtaking, and he is certain to star against Egypt on Tuesday in St. Petersburg.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced international football journalist who writes for ESPN, Blizzard, Guardian and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @yokhin.