By Max de Haldevang | Russia Expert
After a bleak 18 years in which Russia failed to progress from the group stages of either the European Championship or World Cup, no-one was expecting anything from the Russian side that assembled in Austria and Switzerland four years ago.
But the only unseeded team in the tournament sprung a surprise; galvanised by the miracle-working Guus Hiddink, they recovered from a 4-1 destruction at the hands of Spain to edge victories over Sweden and defending champions Greece and set up a quarter final against their coach’s compatriots, Netherlands. A scintillating match ensued, as then new-kid-on-the-block Andrei Arshavin tore the Dutch defence apart in a 3-1 win, which had Russian fans dreaming of their Soviet glory days.
Hiddink’s team went on to lose to eventual champions Spain in the semis but expectations had already been passed and Russian fans could feel proud of their team for the first time in decades. Most importantly, though, they had rekindled the Russian love affair with the Euros that started nearly 50 years before, when the mighty Lev Yashin led the Soviet Union to victory in the first European Championship, then known as the Nations Cup.
||FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
The Red Army's best showings at the European Championship
The Soviets suffered a barren patch in the late 70s and early 80s, failing to qualify for the tournament again until 1988. This time Valery Lobanovsky, football’s great tactician, coached them to
another final, when they came up against a Netherlands team they had already beaten in the group stages but this time were thwarted by a Marco van Basten wonder-volley.
All this makes for a record of one victory, three finals and two semi-finals - arguably better than any other country except for (West) Germany. Strangely, this is in direct contrast with Russia’s indifferent record in World Cups, where the sbornaya have only reached one semi-final.
It is difficult to place a finger on what it is about the Euros that raises the Russians’ game so much; perhaps it is the weight of this prestigious history that inspires them, or the feeling that a country more than twice the size of the rest of Europe combined ought to bring the fight to those to the west of them.
Arshavin himself summed up the importance of the tournament for Russians in an interview this week. "The most important thing in my footballing life was Euro 2008," he told Sport Express. "I still remember everything that happened four years ago in detail; not only the matches but training, coming back from
matches, even which card games we played. It was all special somehow."
Whatever it is that inspires them has clearly begun to work its magic already this year, as, after failing to qualify for the World Cup and stuttering to qualification for these championships, Russia have suddenly come to life again with the tournament in sight. They produced a thumping 3-0 win in a friendly against Italy last week, in which Arshavin, now captain, began to replicate the form he showed four years ago, giving Napoli right back Christian Maggio a torrid time.
After such a display and with much of the 2008 squad still in place and another Dutchman - Dick Advocaat - at the helm, Russian players and pundits are already touting the team to match or even better their semi-final of four years ago. What’s more, in a group in which they probably assume the mantle of star team, who’s to say that they can’t continue to pick up momentum throughout the tournament and shock a few more big names?
Follow Max de Haldevang on