MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's national soccer team is often attacked for poor performances but players will be paying special attention to their latest critic.
With the 2018 World Cup hosts struggling on the field, Vladimir Putin isn't amused.
The Russian president said "to be honest, we haven't seen beautiful play from the national team for a long time." Putin also compared its performance with Russia's "pleasing" ice hockey team.
Speaking two days after Russia lost 2-1 to Qatar in a friendly between the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosts, Putin's remarks were reported by state news agencies on Saturday during a factory visit.
Russia has won just one of its last 10 games and crashed out of this summer's European Championship without winning a game. That prompted the resignation of coach Leonid Slutsky, but things haven't picked up under his replacement Stanislav Cherchesov, whose four games in charge have included a draw with Turkey and defeat to Costa Rica.
Despite all this, the team has been set a target of reaching the semifinals in 2018.
Of particular concern for Cherchesov is the need to revitalize a team which was among the oldest at Euro 2016, amid a lack of obvious young talent. In a sign of the audition process underway, the current squad includes five inexperienced central defenders, none of whom have played more than four times for Russia.
Recriminations followed the European Championship campaign when two players were disciplined after being filmed partying in a Monaco nightclub with champagne as the Russian anthem played, following their team's elimination from the tournament.
Russia's next game is a friendly against Romania on Tuesday in Grozny, the capital of the Russian region of Chechnya. It will be the first Russia game to be played in Chechnya, where UEFA has previously banned European competitive matches from being held due to security concerns.