ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – What a transformation. Russia's World Cup soccer team, metamorphosed from national laughingstock to heroes of the motherland in less than a week.
And no one is more stunned than their own fans.
Chants of "Ro-see-ya! Ro-see-ya!" reverberated through the St. Petersburg Stadium and along the nearby wind-whipped shores of the Baltic on Tuesday after Russia beat Egypt 3-1.
"Incredible!" said science student Daniil Stefaychuk. He went into Tuesday's match dreaming of a tie, and left with his voice sore from screaming with excitement.
Even in a World Cup full of surprises, Russia's team stands out. The lowest ranked team heading into the World Cup , Russia is now all but guaranteed to advance to the second round.
That's a first for post-Soviet Russia, and a big boost both to fans and to President Vladimir Putin, who wants the tournament to improve his country's image.
Russia's 5-0 win against Saudi Arabia in the World Cup opener last week might have been a fluke. But Tuesday's win against the stronger Egyptian team showed the Russian players "the experience, the skills, the energy" to go much farther, said St. Petersburg company manager Alexei Ivanov.
He claims fans deserve some of the credit: "When you're among your own, you're more confident."
Yet he was among those with little hope for the team going into the World Cup. "It seemed like they absolutely didn't know how to play," he said. His laugh echoed with relief.
With a satiric song and goofy video games, Russians openly joked about their team and its coach ahead of the tournament.
The teasing got so bad that a conservative lawmaker is drafting a bill to ban mockery of the team, arguing that they're "fighting for the honor of our country."
Fans seem to think that's going too far. "Constructive criticism helps," said sports instructor Andrei Ushakov.
A week ago, there was an undercurrent of self-deprecation and defensiveness in the Russian fan mood. By Tuesday night, that had vanished, replaced by an assertive swagger.
Crowds draped in white-blue-red Russian flags sang folk songs and whooped wildly in the marbled corridors of the St. Petersburg subway.
So what's next for the team? "Victory, only victory," Ushakov said.
Karen Arutunian, who is about to turn 8 years old, isn't so optimistic.
Arutunian successfully predicted Tuesday's result, unlike anyone else in his family. He thinks Russia's next match, against Uruguay next week, will end in a tie.
"We won't win. But it doesn't matter. We're making it out of the first round," he said.
"It's the best feeling."
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