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From Russia with love… Brief stories from the World Cup

Birthday cake for Lionel Messi © AFP / JUAN MABROMATA

MOSCOW, Russian Federation, Jun 24AFP Sport takes a look at some of the stories you may have missed at the World Cup:

Messi’s 31st

His 31st birthday Sunday falls smack bang in the middle of a complex overseas work assignment for his country, but the little town of Bronnitsy is doing its best to make Lionel Messi feel at home.

Argentina’s World Cup base camp, 50 kilometres from Moscow, has organised a party — ‘Bronnitsy celebrates Lionel Messi’, a sign near Argentina’s home from home announces proudly.

A celebratory concert starting on the lakeside beach opposite will mark Messi’s birthday, with a birthday cake presentation later, says the flyer.

Tips from the top

Didier Drogba – influential figure in Romelu Lukaku’s career © GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP / Christian Petersen

Romelu Lukaku is lighting up the World Cup finals with four goals for Belgium and Didier Drogba for one could not be happier.

The retired Chelsea legend is an influential presence in the life of the Manchester United striker.

Their story began though before their paths crossed at Stamford Bridge.

“I spoke to him when he was very young,” Drogba told the BBC. “I was on the telephone to Vincent Kompany and he said to me ‘Listen, I’m with this kid and he really wants to speak to you’.

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A couple of years later, he signed for Chelsea. At Chelsea I was on the massage table and he came up to me. ‘You’re my hero.

When you were playing for Marseille, I looked up to you so much. I could tell you what shoes you were wearing for no matter what game and at what time you scored. I remember all that, he told me, because I was nine years old at the time… and I was 34!

“He’s someone that wants to learn and I’m really happy to give him advice, and I think he’s taking advice from everyone.

He’s also learning from Thierry Henry and I think when you want to be the best, you have to learn from the best.”

Russian revival

Russia forward Fedor Smolov enjoying the World Cup hosts’ change of fortune © AFP / Manan VATSYAYANA

Russians are falling over themselves praising their national team after their two big opening match wins. But just a few weeks ago, almost no one was willing to give the 2018 World Cup hosts a chance.

Riding a historic seven-match winless streak, Russian players were getting grilled in the press.

“I stopped reading the sports articles after we drew with Turkey 1-1 on June 5,” said forward Fedor Smolov. “I just accepted the fact that we were the worst people in Russia.”

China thumbs-up

Belgium’s China-based Axel Witsel © AFP

Belgium coach Roberto Martinez has issued a vote of confidence in the Chinese Super League after starting two players from the competition in the side that handed a 5-2 thrashing to Tunisia in Moscow.

At one time, a lucrative Chinese move would have been considered the end of a player’s international career but Martinez said that is no longer the case.

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“It was a worry, whether their level would suffer by going to China,” he said after starting midfielders Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian) and Yannick Carrasco (Dalian Yifang).

“But as you saw, the players have developed a stronger mentality (in China) because they become big players in big projects. I don’t think there’s anything negative about anyone going to Chinese football.”

Hands-off Uzoho

Hands off our goalkeeper Francis Uzoho Nigeria tell clubs © AFP / NICOLAS ASFOURI

Nigerian officials have reportedly issued a hands-off to clubs sniffing around their young keeper Francis Uzoho after an impressive display to keep a clean sheet in the Super Eagles’ 2-0 win over Iceland.

At just 19, Uzoho is one of the youngest players at the tournament and Nigeria’s Guardian newspaper reports an English Premier League side have sent scouts to monitor him.

But Nigeria have told them to back off, wanting Uzoho, who is signed to Spain’s Deportivo La Coruna, to focus on his World Cup campaign.

“We need total concentration to succeed in this competition,” a source close to the team told the newspaper.

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