Russia’s win against Spain last Sunday in the World Cup round of 16 is the kind of upset we ordinarily celebrate: a gritty, unfashionable team stifled an implacable opponent through great teamwork and smart coaching, advancing by virtue of a thrilling penalty shootout on home soil nonetheless. Discipline and determination elevated Russia, while hubris sent Spain packing—it’s the same script as the Miracle on Ice, or as former NHL goalie Ilya Bryzgalov put it: the “miracle on the soccer field.”
And yet this amazing result leaves most of us kind of ambivalent. Surely much of that reaction is due to Russia’s reemergence as a geopolitical villain in Vladimir Putin’s second presidential tenure. Sometimes national sports teams are purely political organizations, but not always. Indeed, in this very World Cup, Egypt star Mohamed Salah threatened to retire from international soccer in protest after his team arranged a photo op with him and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
But it doesn’t help that Russia is a catastrophic bore to watch. Mountainous striker Artem Dzyuba is kind of fun, if not a world-class goal scorer, and marauding midfielder Alexander Golovin will surely parlay this World Cup into a move to a big club in western Europe. But that’s about it.
Managers sometimes coach like they look. The professorial Arsène Wenger taught an intelligent, cultured approach to the game. Pep Guardiola, who looks like an Armani model, coaches with great flair and style, while Diego Simeone, musclebound and clad in black, coaches Atlético Madrid to run like hell and strangle opposing breaks in the cradle. Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov looks like a steamfitter, and Russia plays the same blunt, pragmatic style of play you’d guess from looking at his zaftig frame.
Against Spain, that style was executed to near perfection. When Spain are at their best, a massive possession advantage leads to incisive runs and passes into the box, but occasionally they possess the ball for possession’s sake, and a spear without a tip is just a stick. Russia was happy to let Spain doodle harmlessly around the edge of the box, and after 120 minutes of somnambulant nullity, beat the Spanish on penalty kicks. It sucked, unless you’re a pro-Russia or anti-Spain partisan. Even Russia supporters were sometimes less than thrilled.
Game is humongously boring.— bryzgoalie30 (@bryzgoalie30) July 1, 2018
It wasn’t always this way. Russia are emerging from a decade in the international wilderness, in which they won one game out of nine matches in three international tournaments from 2010 to 2016. But in Euro 2008, a skilled, cunning Russia squad swashbuckled to a surprise semifinal appearance, with a scrappy squad that was easy to root for and played like we’d want an underdog to play.
England’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008 was such an earthshaking event in the English-speaking soccer world that it’s easy to forget that the tournament, hosted by Austria and Switzerland, was probably better off without them. The two teams that qualified ahead of England, Croatia and Russia were two of the darlings of the tournament. Croatia, under excitable former West Ham defender Slaven Bilic, beat Germany in group play and went on to lose a quarterfinal thriller on penalties to Turkey.
Russia’s improbable journey to the semis was set in motion two years before the tournament. In 2006, Russia hired then-59-year-old Dutchman Guus Hiddink to manage the national team. After two decades managing in the Netherlands and Spain, Hiddink spent the 2000s as an itinerant miracle worker for unfancied national teams, leading South Korea to the semifinal of the 2002 World Cup, then in 2006 taking Australia to the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time. Russia’s road to Euro 2008 was rocky: Despite drawing Croatia twice and splitting against England in the qualifying rounds, Russia also took just one point from two games against Israel and needed a final-game England collapse to sneak into the tournament, where they were the lowest-seeded team.
And they arrived in Austria for the group stage short on attackers. Aleksandr Kerzhakov, Russia’s leading scorer in qualifying, was left out of the squad after a poor season with Sevilla and Dynamo Moscow. Zenit St. Petersburg striker Pavel Pogrebnyak picked up an injury in a pre-tournament friendly and was likewise left out of the squad, while playmaker Andrey Arshavin made the team, but was suspended for the first two group-stage games after taking a red card in the final qualifier against Andorra.
But the team Russia sent to Euro 2008 featured a number of players who were old enough to be battle-tested on the biggest stage but also young enough not to know to be intimidated by superior opponents. In 2008, as in 2018, Russia brought only one outfield player based outside Russia, midfielder Ivan Saenko, but unlike in 2018, Hiddink’s Russia squad was full of players who’d either been tested against the best or would soon earn transfers to bigger-name clubs.
Euro 2008 came on the heels of a renaissance for Russian club soccer: CSKA Moscow won the UEFA Cup in 2005, as did Zenit in 2008, and Hiddink’s squad was heavy on players from both teams: goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, who was just 19 when he backstopped CSKA to European silverware, was (and remains) Russia’s no. 1 keeper, shielded for both club and country by defenders Sergei Ignashevich, Yuri Zhirkov, and twins Vasili and Aleksei Berezutski. From Zenit, Hiddink took Arshavin, reserve goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev, midfielder Konstantin Zyryanov, and defenders Roman Shirokov and Aleksandr Anyukov. Lokomotiv Moscow forward Dmitri Sychev was Russia’s breakout star at the 2002 World Cup, when at age 18 he parlayed a one-goal, three-assist performance into a move to Olympique Marseille.
Russia got crushed, 4-1, in their first game against Spain, but strung together two shutout victories, 1-0 against defending champion Greece and 2-0 against Sweden after Arshavin’s return to the lineup, to qualify for the quarterfinal against the Netherlands.
The Netherlands were drawn into Euro 2008’s group of death, along with Romania and both of the finalists from the 2006 World Cup: Italy and France. The Dutch steamrolled the group, beating Italy, 3-0, and then routing France, 4-1. That year, the attacking force that would later lead the Netherlands to the final of World Cup 2010 was hitting its prime: Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart, Ibrahim Afellay, Dirk Kuyt, and Arjen Robben. But they also retained a few key veterans: striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, left back Giovanni van Bronckhorst, and goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar.
With their speed, quality on free kicks, willingness to shoot from anywhere, and van Nistelrooy’s prowess in the box, the Dutch could conjure a goal out of nothing from anywhere on the pitch. In three group-stage games, all wins, they scored nine goals and conceded just one.
Hiddink’s game plan for Russia against the Netherlands relied on funneling Dutch possession to the few players who weren’t so dangerous on the ball: defensive midfielder Nigel de Jong, center backs André Ooijer and Joris Mathijsen, and especially right back Khalid Boulahrouz. The 26-year-old Boulahrouz was a center back who was deployed as a right back because the Dutch, apart from van Bronckhorst, didn’t really have any attacking fullbacks to choose from. Boulahrouz started against Russia just two days after his newborn daughter, born four months premature, had died in a Swiss hospital.
By forcing play to the right side of the Dutch defense, Russia also allowed Zhirkov, an extremely attack-minded left fullback, to contribute to the offense, while Arshavin, playing in a free role as a support striker, drifted over to wherever he could find space.
Within the first five minutes, a Boulahrouz turnover led to a Russian attack down the left. In the sixth minute, Zhirkov tested van der Sar with a long-range, bad-angle free kick. Russia never really pinned the Netherlands back the way tiki-taka style possession or gegenpressing forces the opponent into its own territory. Instead, the Russians would gain possession at around midfield, then find space for a through ball, a long-range shot, or a cross into the box, then drop back and defend from midfield again.
The midfield of Zyryanov, Saenko, Igor Semshov, and 32-year-old captain Sergei Semak would constrict to slow down the Dutch attack, then win the ball back for a breaking fullback—usually Zhirkov but sometimes Anyukov—to charge forward with the ball, or hand it over to Russia’s two key attackers: Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko.
Arshavin was the romantic ideal of the talismanic playmaker: skilled, shifty, daring, undersized at 5-foot-8 while wearing a uniform that was at least two sizes too big, and deeply, profoundly, gloriously weird. Arshavin’s style of play was short on fear and big on artistry. He had a nose for finding the ball in open space, and no matter how disadvantageous his position, he’d find a way to shoot or deliver a killer pass. Less than a year after Euro 2008, Arshavin made his big move to Arsenal of the Premier League and continued to create moments of magic, most notably a four-goal performance against Liverpool at Anfield.
Arshavin’s dribbling style always left him a little out over his skis, and during his time with Arsenal, he ran a question-and-answer feature on his personal website, in which he responded to questions like “What does space smell like?” with “Space smells of eternity.”
Pavlyuchenko, starting up top in the absence of Kerzhakov and Pogrebnyak, was Russia’s most dangerous player. Van Basten pushed his backline high up the pitch, but his defenders were neither big (Ooijer was the tallest at just more than 6-foot) nor particularly fast. Pavlyuchenko, at a lean, quick 6-foot-2, had no problem getting behind Dutch defenders to test their offside trap, nor outleaping them for balls in the box.
After carrying play throughout the first half and forcing van der Sar to make a fingertip save off another Arshavin attack down the left in the 31st minute, Russia finally forced Netherlands manager Marco van Basten to take Boulahrouz off the pitch in the 54th minute. His replacement, John Heitinga, fared no better.
Immediately after the substitution, Arshavin nearly scored on a free kick from an impossible distance and angle. Russia recovered the ensuing goal kick, and Arshavin drew Heitinga up the pitch and fed an overlapping and consequently wide-open Semak, who crossed to Pavlyuchenko for the opening goal.
While the Netherlands searched for an equalizer—a search that for the most part meant Sneijder shooting from greater and greater distances—Pavlyuchenko terrorized the Dutch backline, and it’s only some poor finishing from Russia’s midfield that kept them from adding a second before van Nistelrooy equalized in the 86th minute.
But it was only a temporary reprieve for the Dutch, as Arshavin created two characteristically Arshavinish goals in extra time: the winner, in which he dribbled to the goal line, then chipped a parabolic cross over Heitinga and van der Sar to a late-arriving Dmitri Torbinski at the back post.
Then, just four minutes later, Arshavin snuck past the Dutch backline on a throw-in and banked a shot off Heitinga’s foot and through van der Sar’s legs, then peeled away with his finger to his lips—his signature goal celebration—ran to the corner flag, and tugged at the Russia badge on his jersey. It was the high-water mark of Russian soccer in the 21st century.
By beating the heavily favored Dutch, Russia earned a semifinal rematch with eventual winners Spain, who once again torched Russia, this time by a score of 3-0. Arshavin, Pavlyuchenko, Zyryanov, and Zhirkov made the all-tournament team, and several Russia players scored big-money moves to clubs in England: Pavlyuchenko to Spurs, winger Diniyar Bilyaletdinov to Everton, Arshavin to Arsenal, and Zhirkov to Chelsea.
But after Euro 2008, it fizzled out. In club soccer, CSKA made a run to the Champions League quarterfinal in 2010, but they and their rivals Zenit, despite spending big on managers—Luciano Spalletti, André Villas-Boas, and Roberto Mancini—haven’t achieved much in the way of continental success since. Hiddink returned to Russia in 2012 to helm Anzhi Makhachkala, a club from Dagestan, a region of Russia that’s been scarred by civil war in the 21st century. Russian oligarch Suleyman Kerimov attempted to turn Anzhi into a European power by pouring huge amounts of cash into the club, attracting Hiddink, Samuel Eto’o, Roberto Carlos, Zhirkov, and other star players, but to no avail. Hiddink failed to qualify for Euro 2012 with Turkey, then failed to qualify for Euro 2016 with the Netherlands. Russia was his last miracle run.
Pavlyuchenko, Bilyaletdinov, and Zhirkov all enjoyed inconsistent stays in England, and to a certain extent, so did Arshavin, though he reached loftier personal highs before returning to Zenit in 2013. Akinfeev never became the world-class keeper he was supposed to be, and as his generation of players—in their mid-20s for Euro 2008—aged out of the team, the following generation fizzled out. CSKA midfielder Alan Dzagoev was supposed to be the next big thing, but he never reached his potential. Real Madrid academy product Denis Cheryshev didn’t stick at the Bernabéu, though he has scored three goals at the 2018 World Cup, while injuries have plagued Zenit striker Aleksandr Kokorin. Russia failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2010, and suffered group-stage exits in Euro 2012, World Cup 2014, and Euro 2016. To understand why, one need only look at the team sheet and see that Akinfeev, Zhirkov, and the 38-year-old Ignashevich are still starting 10 years later.
An overachieving host nation is a World Cup tradition: England and France won their only titles on home soil, Hiddink’s South Korea went to the semifinal in 2002, and in 1994, the U.S. not only won their first World Cup game in 44 years, but also advanced to the knockout stage. Russia find themvelves one winnable game, against a Croatia team that underwhelmed in the round of 16, from a World Cup semifinal.
In 2018, we have a successful but bus-parking Russian national team and a neo-Cold War geopolitical climate. It’s bittersweet to look back at the young Arshavin and be reminded that it wasn’t always so.