Russia's Fyodor Smolov celebrates after winning the group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia which opens the 2018 soccer World Cup at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, June 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

Smolov back in Samara, where he scored his 1st club goal

June 24, 2018 - 9:46 am
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SAMARA, Russia (AP) — Russia forward Fyodor Smolov is back in Samara, the city where he scored his first league goal in 2008.

He's not very sentimental about it, though.

"That was 10 years ago, and now we are playing here at the World Cup and that's a different situation," said Smolov, who is a member of the Russian squad that will face Uruguay on Monday in their final group match.

It's uncertain if Smolov will start in Monday's match.

The tattooed 28-year-old Smolov started in his team's 5-0 victory over Saudi Arabia in the opening match of the World Cup. He came in as a substitute in the second match, a 3-1 victory over Egypt, but he was shown a yellow card in the 84th minute.

On Sunday, Smolov laughed when a reporter suggested his appearance at a pre-match news conference surely means that he will start. Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov joked: "I have a feeling Fyodor has asked you to ask that."

But the coach refused to talk about his lineup for the match against two-time champion Uruguay, the toughest test for the resilient Russians this far into the tournament.

"This is a World Cup tournament and we have to realize very well what we are doing. Today we still have time to discuss, to see and fine-tune with each and every player," the coach said through a translator. "Tomorrow we will see it."

Russia went into the World Cup as the lowest-ranked team in the field at No. 70. But wins in the first two group matches have sent the Russians into the knockout round for the first time in the post-Soviet era.

The match against No. 14 Uruguay, which has also secured a spot in the next stage, will determine the final finish in Group A. Both teams go on to face the top two finishers from Group B, which includes Portugal and Spain.

Smolov has 12 goals in 34 appearances with the national team. Cut from his academy team and faced with early struggles in his club career, Smolov has been the top scorer in the Russian league for two of the past three seasons. He currently plays for Krasnodar, but there are rumors linking him to West Ham.

He's also one of the most recognizable faces on the Russian team: For a time he was married to Russian television star Victoria Lopyreva. Going into the World Cup, he recounted his story in a Nike ad with the catchphrase "Never Ask" and he appeared on the cover of Russian Vogue.

As an 18-year-old, he scored his first goal with Dynamo Moscow at Krylia Sovetov Samara on Sept. 27, 2008. He also has family in the city, which sits on the Volga River some 650 miles southeast of Moscow.

"I have some special memories and I hope their support will help me tomorrow," he said.

When Smolov was asked about what it means for Russia to advance to the second round of the tournament, he responded in English. He seemed to indicate the team's success is as much a surprise to them as it is to the rest of the world.

"Me and the whole squad are happy that we have a chance to represent the country," he said. "You know, before the World Cup we had some not-really-good results in friendlies. But we're very happy that we're already in the playoffs and we're looking forward to go as far as we can."

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