(Reuters) - Russia striker Fyodor Smolov has undergone a dramatic career turnaround from laughing stock to national icon and his under-performing nation will look to him to fire them out of World Cup Group A and avoid an embarrassing early exit as hosts.
Smolov looked like he would never fulfill his early promise after a measly return of five league goals in his first seven years as a professional and he hit a low when he was relegated with Anzhi Makhachkala in 2014.
The heavily-tattooed player was left out of the 2014 World Cup squad by Fabio Capello and was criticized for having a celebrity lifestyle due to his relationship with television presenter Victoria Lopyreva.
He got his mojo back in a stint on the edge of Siberia at Ural, becoming a hero for helping to save the club from relegation. His exploits earned him a move to Krasnodar, where he developed into a clinical and prolific striker.
Smolov became the Russian Premier League’s top scorer in 2015-16 with 20 goals and took the accolade again the following year with 18. He managed 14 goals this season, one fewer than Spartak Moscow’s Quincy Promes.
The powerful forward has scored six goals in his last 11 games for the national team including two in a heartening 3-3 comeback draw against Spain in November and one in a 3-1 defeat by France in March.
As well as his goals, fans admire the 28-year-old Smolov’s passion for the national team, which was on display as he cried on the pitch following the hosts’ exit from the Confederations Cup after they lost to Mexico.
Russia have not made it out of a World Cup group stage since the collapse of the Soviet Union but they have a chance if Smolov can replicate his club form this June, when he will be hoping to turning last year’s despair into joy.
Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Ed Osmond