It is hard to consider Russia, the largest country in the world, the most populated nation in Europe, and the epitome of a geopolitical villain as an underdog. However, when it comes to football, Russia is for once the runt of the litter.
Since the Soviet Union’s disbandment in 1991, Russia have failed to make it out of the group stage in 6 of the 8 tournaments they have competed in, not even qualifying altogether for 4. Farcical defeats, bust-ups between teammates, and a million signatures to disband the national team after a dismal Euro 2016 are just some highlights of Russia’s recent history in international football. Amongst a seemingly never-ending cycle of tournament disappointment and humiliating off-field antics, Russia did have their one moment in the sun though: Euro 2008.
A scintillating Andrey Arshavin, a miracle worker in manager Guus Hiddink, and a giant-killing in the elimination of Netherlands, for footballing neutrals, Russia’s run to the semifinals in Euro 2008 truly had it all. To fully appreciate how Russia, a side who hadn’t even qualified for the World Cup in 2006, could find themselves a game away from a European final two years later, one must start at the very beginning.
On April 10, 2006, Guus Hiddink was announced as the new head coach for the Russian national team. The first foreign manager to take over the side that was at the time ranked 37th in the FIFA World Rankings, Hiddink had a monstrous rebuild on his hands, however, if anybody could turn a peripheral international side into a competitive tournament outfit, it would be the 59-year-old Dutchman.
Having brought South Korea to a World Cup Semi-final in 2002, the highest achievement of any Asian side to date, Hiddink was already building quite the reputation in his first job in the international scene. His achievement 4 years later with Australia was perhaps even more impressive though, coming within minutes of a quarterfinal before a controversial penalty kick 8 minutes from time saw eventual champions Italy advance into the next round. Inspiring unthinkable success in two countries previously non-existent in the footballing landscape, it was only right that Russia would seek his services after their own barren stretch.
Unlike at Australia and South Korea where continental qualification primarily meant trips to remote nations and long bus trips, Russia would need to see off the likes of Croatia and England to book an improbable ticket for that summer’s tournament. With just the top two teams out of the 7 qualifying groups joining hosts Austria and Switzerland in the finals beginning in June, Russian fans were already beginning to look around for a nation to adopt in that summer’s tournament, with their own likely to be spending June on the beaches.
However, against all the odds, Russia were entering the last matchday in a favourable position for qualification, coming from behind to beat England in front of 80,000 in Moscow to sit one point behind The Brits with a game in hand. That match in hand would be a rather innocuous trip to Tel Aviv, a chance to face off with an Israel side who had no hopes of qualifying for the Euro’s anymore and a far more winnable fixture than the one they had just overcome versus England.
Yet disaster is always not far away when it comes to Russian football, in this instance coming in the form of a nonchalant Sergei Ignashevich. Dallying on the ball, unfazed by the presence of Omer Golan bearing down on him, Ignashevich turned over possession, allowing the hosts a 92nd-minute winner that put the cards back in favour of Steve Mclaren’s Three Lions. Though not the sucker blow that Hiddink experienced less than a year earlier with Australia, the steely faced expression on the Dutchman’s face says it all, for Russia the hopes of Euro 2008 were all but gone before they had even begun.
However one needs to remember we are talking about England here. Though The Russia national team may have their shortcomings and embarrassments, The Three Lions practically invented the slogan of failing on the international stage. Having already experienced a schooling by Croatia, and embarrassing 0:0 draws at the hands of Macedonia and Israel, it was far from unreasonable to bet on the likes of Rooney and Lampard spending the summer in front of the TV approaching the reverse fixture versus group winners Croatia on the final matchday. Slaven Bilic’s side too were not exactly willing to let points go, eager to make amends for their elimination at the hands of England in Euro 2004 that still hung over the national team like a dark cloud.
As it panned out, the match between England and Croatia would have all your favourite features of an England collapse, as a sold-out Wembley witnessed a calamitous goalkeeping error and the fleeting hope of a resurgent comeback cancelled out when Mladen Petric put Croatia 3-2 up late in the match.
1400 km away, in front of 500 spectators instead of the 88,000 that packed Wembley Stadium that Wednesday evening, Russia completed their end of the bargain, beating Andorra 1:0 to book their ticket for that summer’s tournament. On the same night as England were almost dragged off the pitch amidst a hostile Wembley crowd, Russia were celebrating in the tiny country of Andorra, launching their manager Hiddink into the air in celebration as they prepared to face a tournament that would quite literally change the perception of football in the nation.
Russia were in a state of euphoria having qualified for the Euro’s, however, what awaited them in Austria would quickly silence any of those who believed England was to be the greatest side Russia would face through this year-long adventure.
To kick off the tournament, under the twilight sky of Innsbruck’s Tivoli Stadium, Luis Aragones’ Spanish outfit lined up alongside Hiddink’s XI. Perhaps the greatest iteration of any La Furia Roja side that would dominate international football for the ensuing 6 years, Russia were to be one of the first to experience the products of a revolution in Spanish football. There in the opening fixture of Group D, The eventual champions didn’t disappoint, coming out 4-1 victors, with the exceptional duo of Fernando Torres and David Villa showing more than glimpses of what was to come over the ensuing 3 weeks.
Though the scoreline reflected the same old Russia, the performance from Hiddink’s men was far from the calamitous showing at previous international tournaments. Playing offensive football, Russia came inches away from equalizing when Konstantin Zyryanov skewed a sitter onto the post in the first half. Whilst the miss from Zyryanov proved fatal after Villa doubled the lead shortly before halftime, Hiddink’s men continued to form dangerous attack’s through the second half, all despite the absence of their talisman Arshavin who was serving a 2 match ban he had acquired in the final qualifier.
Spain were always going to be the hardest task in Group D, however, the calibre of opposition wasn’t ready to ease up any time soon, with reigning European champions Greece presenting a must-win fixture just 4 days later.
Although few had expected Greece to offer anything other than a defensive display of mind-numbing solidity, with manager Otto Rehhagel determined to achieve success with an ageing backline that lifted the title 4 years earlier, no one could foresee a wounded Russian side to come out with as much attacking flair as they mustered that evening. Even as the eventual 1:0 scoreline seemed to tell the tale of a marginal victory in the Russian’s favour, the affairs on the floodlit pitch of Red Bull Arena were one of complete one-sided dominance, with Hiddink’s side running rings around the Greek defence from the first minute to the last.
Apart from some torrid finishing, Russia had displayed a perfect match, capped off with Zyryanov’s 33rd-minute strike that atoned for his shortcomings in the opening fixture. With the winds in their sails, and the return of Arshavin imminent, Russia were due to return to Innsbruck the following Wednesday, with a showdown for second place with Sweden imminent.
Like Russia, Sweden was entering the final matchday on 3 points, though the Blågult’s (Blue & Yellow’s) better goal difference meant a draw would fall in their favour. However, Sweden were far from a side built to defend a 0:0, with a 36-year-old Henrik Larsson and 26-year-old Serie A footballer of the year Zlatan Ibrahimovic forming a formidable striking duo capable of breaking down any defence in the world. As the game promised, attacking flair and excitement was on full display, with an attempted scorpion kick from Ibrahimovic just 2 minutes in setting the tone for the affair.
The Inter Milan striker set the tone, yet it was Arshavin who ultimately conducted the orchestra, doing as he wished with the ball, changing the pitch in front of him as if he were Picasso painting a canvas. After Roman Pavlyuchenko put Russia in front at halftime Arshavin’s brilliance finally had its worthy culmination shortly after the start of the second 45.
Darting into the box with all the energy he could muster, Arshavin poked in a low cross to put his nation two to the good. As the travelling Russian fans went ecstatic in the stands and teammate Pavlyuchenko slipped over his own feet in pure jubilee, Arshavin remained cool as a cucumber, celebrating with the typical unfazed style that would become a trademark later in his career at Arsenal. With one finger to his mouth, Arshavin wheeled off in celebration, as if scoring in an international tournament to secure your sides first-ever knockout stages was the most normal Wednesday evening imaginable.
Any sceptic in Russia who still believed this was going to be the same old horror show was firmly turned into a believer after that display against Sweden. With the positive showing against Greece supplemented with the return of Arshavin, Russia were beginning to look more like outsiders for the title than cannon fodder for Europe’s elite. However, between Russia and any meaningful hopes of an appearance in the final on the 29th of June lay the most colossal task yet: The Netherlands.
With the mixture of an attacking force entering their prime and seasoned veterans like Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Edwin van der Sar, Netherlands went into that as a favourite for the title. Add to that victories over World Cup finalists France and Italy in the group stage, and the narrative clearly pointed towards Russia being just another pit stop for The Oranje en route to the Semis. When the likes of Wesley Sneijder, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, and Rafael van der Vaart lined up for the national anthems, it seemed impossible to predict which of these Dutch superstars would be the one to grab the headlines. Yet the orange-clad stands were soon to find out who the true talent on that evening’s pitch would be; a scruffy haired baby faced assassin by the name of Andrey Arshavin.
Within 5 minutes of the kickoff in Basel, Arshavin picked up where he had left off 3 days earlier, driving at the Dutch defence, and earning a dangerous freekick after being sliced down by a lunging Van Bronckhorst. This would become a recurring theme, with Arshavin constantly flirting between either wing, giving both Van Bronckhorst and Khalid Boulahrouz a torrid time as he drifted by them for the umpteenth time.
Even as the halftime whistle blew, with the sides split goalless, a clear pattern was beginning to emerge, reinforced when shortly after play resumed Arshavin was felled down in the box, only for referee Lubos Michel to deny the Russian’s a clear penalty. Minutes later Dutch manager Marco van Basten was forced into his first precautionary measure, relieving Boulahrouz from his nightmarish evening after the fullback picked up a well-earned yellow card for his latest hopeless lunge.
But as in the previous match when Arshavin’s tormenting presence tore open the Swedish backline, it would be Pavlyuchenko who would get the first goal of the evening. As the waves of Oranje supporters sank in disbelief, Pavlyuchenko beat the coat of arms on his heart, sending the travelling Russian supporters into blind joy for the third time in two weeks.
What was at the time of Pavlyuchenko’s goal in the 56th minute a hopeful dream, a date in the semifinals was becoming more and more of a reality as the minutes ticked by. With Arshavin continuing to shred any number of opponents put in his path, and Netherland’s collection of attacking talent hopelessly looking for an equalizer through long-range pop shots and set pieces, Russia entered the final 5 minutes with one foot in a semifinal fixture versus Italy or Spain.
The Dutch though weren’t willing to let go so easily, with a brilliantly flighted Wesley Sneijder freekick landing on Van Nistelrooy’s head to equalize in the 86th minute. It was time for the Russian’s to feel the pit of despair, minutes away from a victory against one of the greatest sides in Europe, and now facing the monumental task of another 30+ minutes against a rejuvenated Dutch outfit.
For many this seemed to be the inevitable end of what had already been a fairytale run, Russia had come further than anyone could have imagined, establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with, but ultimately unable to see off a truly big side.
Arshavin had other ideas though, entering the final thirty minutes with the same energy he had displayed in the previous 90. After dishing out a delicious cutback 6 minutes into the restart, only for Torbinski to squander the next great chance the Russian’s created, another 6 minutes later Arshavin finally got the fitting resolution to his creative endeavours.
Driving down the left flank, leaving the now hopelessly lost Andre Ooijer in his wake, Arshavin dipped a floated cross to the far post, graciously met by the sprawling leg of Torbinski who refused to make the same mistake twice, this time jutting in ahead of the backpedalling Edwin Van Der Saar to put the Russian’s back in the driver’s seat.
Surely by now, Hiddink’s side had learned from their mistake in regular time, dropping everything back to defend with all their might instead of searching for a third goal? WRONG, With Arshavin latching onto a quickly taken long throw from Anyukovs, before driving a couple of steps into the box and smashing the ball between van der Sar’s legs to give the Russian’s a 3:1 advantage.
The crown on top of a performance befitting a king, Arshavin sauntered over to the Dutch fans behind the goal, with his finger to his mouth possessing the nonchalants and composure unbefitting of an international footballer who has just run 120 minutes up and down a pitch before firing his nation into a semi-final.
Audiences had officially become enamoured by Hiddink’s ferocious attacking football. As Russia lined up alongside their group D counterparts for the second time in the semifinal, even the smuggest Spanish supporter didn’t predict a fixture of the same one-sided dominance that the 4-1 victory in the group stages had portrayed on the surface.
Yet the ultimate 3-0 scoreline in favour of the Spanish was an understatement to the eventual champions’ dominance, with Aragones’ side dictating the tempo and flow of the game for the entirety of the second half, carving out chance after chance as Russia chased after possession to no avail.
With the injury forced omission of David Villa shortly before the end of the first half, Aragones opted to bring on an additional midfielder in Cesc Fabregas, switching the traditional 4-4-2 to a more fluid 4-2-3-1. This proved a masterstroke, one which completely nullified the threat of Russia on the counter, and allowed Spain’s flawless midfield to run the show in Vienna.
Though the Russian’s bowed out second best under the floodlight pitch of the Ernst-Happel Stadium, Hiddink and his squad had put Russia on the footballing map, ridding the national team of the ridicule and mockery their qualification mishaps and tournament embarrassments had made standard practice. Even as the likes of Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko moved to Premier League giants Arsenal and Spurs, and 10 years later a young squad qualified for the World cup quarterfinals on home soil, the true highlight of Russia’s footballing history remains those three weeks in Austria and Switzerland.