Mustaches, silly songs defuse tensions at Russia's World Cup

Russia players arrives at the official training session of the Russian team one the eve of the group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the 2018 soccer World Cup at Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov arrives at the official training session of the Russian team one the eve of the group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the 2018 soccer World Cup at Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
In this photo taken on Sunday, June 10, 2018, Egyptian national soccer team player and Liverpool's star striker Mohammed Salah, right, and Chechen regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov, greets soccer fans as they arrive to attend the Egypt national soccer team training session in Grozny, Russia. Egyptian national soccer team will compete in the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The 21st World Cup begins on Thursday, June 14, 2018, when host Russia takes on Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo)
The Russian soccer team warm-up during the official training session on the eve of the group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the 2018 soccer World Cup at Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
A statue of Lenin stands outside the stadium after the official training session of the Russian team one the eve of the group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the 2018 soccer World Cup at Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
Russian soccer team train during the official training session of the Russian team one the eve of the group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the 2018 soccer World Cup at Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
A boy jumps into the black sea in front of the Fisht stadium, which will host some 2018 World Cup matches in Sochi, Russia, Monday, June 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
A statue of Lenin stands outside the stadium after the official training session of the Russian team one the eve of the group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the 2018 soccer World Cup at Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

MOSCOW — How bad is Russia's national soccer team? Even the ruthless leader of Chechnya couldn't coach it to victory — or so goes a satirical song buzzing around Russian social networks ahead of the World Cup.

The Chechen strongman shot back — with a goofy patriotic rap.

Instead of moping about sanctions, political repression and doping suspicions, Russians are turning to parody as they ready to host the world's most-watched sporting event.

The self-deprecating mockery is helping defuse domestic tensions around Russia's World Cup, which kicks off Thursday in Moscow with much at stake for President Vladimir Putin and his proud nation.

Video clips circulating online caricature the players on Russia's bottom-ranked team as aging, narcissistic and injury-prone.

The favored target is mustachioed Russian coach Stanislav Cherchesov. TV star and comedian Ivan Urgant is appealing to Russians to post images of themselves wearing mustaches as a show of support, and his tongue-in-cheek hashtag "Mustaches of Hope" became a quick hit.

Popular singer Semyon Slepakov has a more radical idea: Replace the coach with Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.

"Ramzan, Ramzan, Ramzan, tough like parmesan," sings Slepakov in a video released this week.

He imagines what would happen if Putin ordered Kadyrov to take over the team. Channeling Kadyrov, the singer threatens the players: "Don't forget, you only have one life."

Yet even this imagined Kadyrov — whose security forces stifle dissent and enforce strict Islamic rules in Chechnya, and whose rule is stained by reports of torture and killings — is overwhelmed by the coaching task.

"For the first time in my life, I give up," sings Slepakov's Kadyrov, pledging to go back to Chechnya where problems are easier to solve.

The real Kadryov took the clip in stride — though bristled at being compared to cheese.

On Russian social network VKontakte, he responded with a rap-like verse ending "brother, I tell you, I support my Russia all the way!"

The real coach said he hasn't heard the song and doesn't have time anyway. "I'm concentrating on work," he told reporters. Criticism "is a natural occurrence in today's world. You have to take it the right way."

Players acknowledge the barbs can hurt. Forward Artyom Dzyuba said the team resents criticism heaped on it by Russian media.

The parodies reflect a deep-seated hope among many Russians that the World Cup is a success — and a fear that something could go wrong.

Russia is on the defensive on many fronts as the tournament begins. The national team is on a losing streak so bad that few expect it to even make it past the first round, and pressure is massive for a victory in the opening match against Saudi Arabia — the Cup's second-lowest-ranked team at No. 67, just ahead of Russia at 70.

Sales of tickets to foreigners are lagging amid sanctions and tensions between Russia and the West over Syria, Ukraine and alleged Russian meddling abroad.

Security is exceptionally tight across the 11 cities hosting matches and beyond, amid concerns of hooliganism or extremist attacks. Opposition figures are facing extra pressure not to target Putin while the world is watching.

Still, the excitement is building. Red Square is hosting a mass gala concert Wednesday and Robbie Williams is headlining the opener Thursday to get the party going.

"We feel that it's going to be a great tournament. We hope that," said Venezuelan fan Daniel Vielma as he arrived Wednesday in Moscow's main international airport. "We've been to different World Cups and we have really high expectation of Russia."

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James Ellingworth and Dmytro Vlasov in Moscow contributed.

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AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

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