Last Chance Saloon for Russia at Luzhniki

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Russian sports is glaringly absent from this blog. Though I’m a big fan of sports my interest is solely on American professional sports, specifically basketball and baseball. I’ve been tempted to comment on a few Russian sports related stories, especially Andrei Kirilenko’s threats to dump the NBA and his lucrative $63 million contract with the Utah Jazz to return to CSKA Moscow. Kirilenko apparently fell back in love with European ball when he helped Russia win the European tournament and was named MVP this summer. There is no doubt that AK-47 can dominate far more in Europe than he can in the States. Kirilenko’s possible move also seems to be spurred by a bit of nationalist calling. “I would like to be where I am needed and right now I feel that my country needs me,” Kirilenko told Sport Express.

Alas, basketball is not the sport in Russia. It’s football. This is why I’m happy to post this article that Ger Clancy, aka the Irishman sent me about Russia’s upcoming showdown against England. According to Kommersant, tickets for the October 17th match went in a matter of hours. Ten thousand people stood in the rain to snatch up one of the 6,800 tickets on sale at Luzhniki stadium. 570,000 people applied directly to the Russian Football Union for one of the 74,000 available seats.

What is more is that where there are victories in sport, politics is never too far behind. In an attempt to capitalize on Russia’s success on the football field, United Russia has made sure that some of its high profile members will be seated in Luzhniki’s VIP box seats looking to bask in any television camera rays. How Russia’s political parties utilize sport is an interesting topic in and of itself.

But putting that issue aside for now, let’s turn to the real matter at hand: the upcoming match itself.

Last Chance Saloon for Russia at Luzhniki

By Ger Clancy, the Irishman

The Head Coach of the Russian national football team, Guus Hiddink, is a man under pressure. After overcoming a shaky start to his first campaign in charge, including two draws with table-toppers Croatia and a good victory in Skopje, Hiddink is now facing a must-win situation against England in Moscow. Russia’s collapse last month at Wembley has left them two points behind England and anything less than three points for the Russians at Luzhniki Stadium will almost certainly lead to elimination from Euro 2008. Hiddink was hired as Russia coach in the summer of 2006, following a solid performance as boss of Australia in the World Cup, as well a semi-final run with South Korea, in 2002, and Holland (his native country) in 1998. His appointment was high-profile and is widely believed to have been for a six-figure sum. Hiddink’s brief was very simple; drag the Russian national team out of second-world football status. The main reason for his appointment was his ability to make do with limited player resources, as he has done with both Korea and Australia. Although Hiddink has four year contract with the Russian Football Union, ostensibly aimed at preparing the Sbornaya for a crack at a World Cup quarter-final in 2010, failure to reach the European Championships will be more than a disappointment. The disaster at Wembley was a trip down recent memory lane for them and their poorest performance since their 7-1 dismantling in Lisbon under Georgy Yartsev in 2004. But Hiddink can only work miracles with the willing and the believers. The question is can Russia find a resilience and consistency that no Sbornaya has shown since the late 1980s?

Soviet, and later Russian football, has never fully recovered from defeat at the hands of Holland in the final of Euro ’88. At the time the team was loaded with superstars including Vasily Rats, Igor Belanov, Anatoli Demianenko, Renat Dasaeyev, Sergei Alyenikov, Alexander Zavarov and Oleg Protasov. Belanov scored four goals at Mexico ’86 and was crowned European Footballer of the Year six months later. Dasaeyev was widely considered the best goalkeeper in the world at the time. The rest of the team was renowned and feared across Europe. At the height of their powers in 1985, on the way to the World Cup in Mexico, they beat England 2-0 at Wembley in one of the best away performances of the whole decade, and they routed Hungary 6-0 at Irapuato at the finals. Their counter-attacking style was awe-inspiring. The team routinely conceded control of midfield to the opposition and defended using a high-back line a few yards from their box, with a sweeper behind. The Soviets could play percentages with the opposition for two main reasons: the presence of Dasaeyev in goal and Khidiatullin at sweeper, neither of who were easily beaten, and their own potency in attack. They scored countless goals by dispossessing the opposition near the Soviet eighteen-yard line, followed by a lightning break-out up the field of only two or three pin-point, long range passes and a clinical finish at the other end. This was the last golden age in Soviet football.

The Soviets waltzed to the final of Euro ’88, thumping Holland, England and Italy on the way. However, a Gullit-Van Basten inspired Holland were reborn in the final and beat them 2-0, ushering in a new superpower in European football. From there onwards the decline began. The Soviets qualified for Italia ’90 but were unceremoniously dumped out in the first round out by Romania and Argentina. The defeat to Romania in particular had huge effects on the European landscape. Not only did it signal the end of the road for the USSR as a football power, it shifted the balance of soccer dominance in Eastern Europe from Moscow and Kiev to Bucharest and to a lesser extent Sofia, Belgrade and Zagreb. A re-built Soviet team qualified impressively for Euro ’92 in Sweden (playing there as the CIS) only to tamely bow out at the hands of an already-eliminated Scotland. By this time the Soviet nation had collapsed and at start of the 92/93 season, for the first time ever, a Russian national team was attempting to qualify for a tournament, World Cup USA ’94.

The tale of woe since the birth of the Russian national team has been almost unrelenting. Russia have qualified for four tournaments in the period 1992-2006, and failed miserably on all of the occasions to get out of the first round. Almost always rumors of trouble within the camp surfaced in newspaper articles. This was especially true of 1994, when a players’ spat with coach Pavel Sadyrin soured morale in the team. Both reigns of Oleg Romantsev ended in scandal and recrimination over favouritism to Spartak players and dire performances on the pitch. Their exit from the World Cup in Korea-Japan in 2002 was especially shambolic. The defeat to Japan (which may or may not have helped ignite a drunken riot in Moscow) and the astounding collapse against Belgium brought Russian football to new lows. The incidences where they failed to qualify for tournaments at all were even worse. A last-minute goalkeeping disaster against Ukraine in 1999 not only dumped Russia out of Euro 2000, it gave four points out of six to their bitter rivals. It should also be noted that Russia failed to qualify for France ’98, meaning they went six years without reaching a major tournament – an unheard-of situation for fans of the old USSR in the 1980s.

Russia’s poor showings in the last 15 years are down to a number of factors. In 1992, it was widely thought that the backbone of the Soviet/CIS teams had been Ukrainian and hence any Russia team would struggle without stars from Dynamo Kiev. But this has not been borne out by results. Not only have Russia been awful, Ukraine have been too. Ukraine qualified for nothing until Germany 2006 and even then was one of the poorest teams at the tournament. Their second-round match with Switzerland was probably the single worst finals match ever played. Also, in 1990-1992, the Soviet team disintegrated – there were almost none of the eighties superstars left at that stage. Poor coaching of the national team, in particular a failure to either control strong personalities in the dressing-room or inspire players on the field, has certainly contributed. It is also plain that Russia has been without world-class footballers in key positions for a long time (in particular on the left) and this will hinder any coach. But the chief protagonists in this long dark period are the players themselves. With the possible exceptions of Victor Anopko, Alexei Yevseev and Alexander Mostovoi , no Russian player has performed consistently well through the course of a whole qualifying tournament and finals. It is time the players themselves stood up and firmly took responsibility for their own performances on the field. Through 15 years of dark times, coaches, tactics and all types of variables have changed, but poor showings from the players have remained the same. The match at Wembley was a nightmare from Russia’s past. However, England are already missing players through injury for the rematch in Moscow including Emile Heskey, who tormented the Russians last month. A draw will not be a disaster but realistically Russia need to win if they wish to progress. Both Arshavin and Sychov are dangerous forwards and if the Berezutskiis and Malafeev can hold it together at the back, Russia may just get the three points they need. If the Russian players themselves can get their act together, Hiddink, as wily a coach as one could find, can lead them at last into a new future.

Russia vs England, 17th October 2007 Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow 19:00 MSK.