• Smolov was Man of the Match in Russia's opening win over New Zealand
  • He is top scorer in the Russian Premier League with Krasnodar
  • "We haven’t achieved anything just yet"

By Igor Borunov, with Russia

Expectations can weigh heavy on some forwards’ shoulders, but Fedor Smolov’s goal and man-of-the-match performance in Russia’s 2-0 win against New Zealand clearly demonstrated he is the not the type of striker to let nerves get the better of him.

Russia’s leading goal threat was a source of inspiration and the main reason for the party atmosphere in the host nation following their opening success at the FIFA Confederations Cup 2017.

"Clearly, this feels different," the Russia striker said in an interview with FIFA.com. "The Confederations Cup is taking place in our country, so the emotions aren’t what they usually are. Everyone wants to perform to the best of their ability.” Next up, on 21 June, Russia have the perfect opportunity to strengthen their grip on top spot in Group A when they face Portugal.

"We don’t need to add anything to what’s been said about the reigning European champions," said Smolov. "They did that all by themselves last summer. We’re preparing for the game as thoroughly as we can. Of course, they have one of the best players in the world in their line-up, but I believe we need to focus on our own performance before anything else."

Before the Tournament of Champions kicked off, Smolov publicly stated that he wanted Russia to be daring, and he stands by that declaration. "Being daring doesn’t mean going all-out in attack and forgetting about defence," he said. "You can be daring at the back too. It means being intelligent, striking on the counter and encompasses all playing styles. We will set out to play according to the coach’s instructions. Stanislav Cherchesov is making sure we’re prepared; he will give us the game plan and we’ll try to implement it."

These days, Smolov is one of the biggest footballing stars in Russia, which is quite an achievement given his much-publicised problems in front of goal three or four years ago. The change in him is even more surprising when you consider at one point he appeared to have given up on his dream of making it at the top and moved to modest FC Ural to start all over again. After a period of soul-searching, during which he even thought about turning his back on football for good, his career suddenly took off again. Two years later, Smolov is the leading goalscorer in the Russian Premier League for the second consecutive season at Krasnodar.

"I no longer think about how difficult everything was back then," the 27-year-old said. "The most important thing is that it’s behind me now and I’m happy I was able to overcome that period. I’ve changed a great deal. Everyone has testing times in their lives that build your character and make you stronger. You grow up and change your view on things, the way you behave, your approach to life and opinion about yourself."

However, Smolov cuts short any attempt to call him a national hero after the positive start to the Confederations Cup campaign and urges the Russian fans not to get ahead of themselves. "I don’t consider myself a hero at all and I also want to say that we haven’t achieved anything just yet. This was just the first match. We’ve beaten New Zealand; now let’s get ready for a tough encounter with Portugal." The follies of youth may be in the past, but this does not mean Smolov has lost his sense of fun, as he proved during the official media day before the tournament got under way. 

"I came up with the idea myself," Fyodor smiled. "I just felt like doing it for some reason. I looked at the guys: they were all posing in more or less the same way, so I decided to do something different. I don’t want to be like everyone else."