Russia Sport Football Euro 2008: Russia’s Resurgence

Euro 2008: Russia’s Resurgence

The Russian football team has struggled to find its feet following the break-up of the Soviet Union. The handful of major tournament appearances they have managed mostly ended in disappointing first-round departures.

2008 was a rare occasion when Russia did make a major impact. Built around an exciting new generation of technically gifted players, they won plaudits for their free-flowing, attacking football.

A “New Golden Generation”

Russia’s squad was overwhelmingly made up of players based in the Russian League. This meant that the outside world was largely unaware of the talent it contained.

Amongst these was Roman Pavlyuchenko, Yuri Zhirkov and Andrey Arshavin. 24-year-old Pavlyuchenko had been Spartak Moscow’s top scorer for the last five years and had a canny knack for getting goals on big occasions. Zhirkov, a versatile left back, had been instrumental in guiding CSKA Moscow to UEFA Cup glory in 2005.

Perhaps the most talented of the crop was the captain Arshavin. He provided the creative outlet for the team in a number 10 role, and was noted for his dribbling and passing ability. He had been one of Zenit St Petersburg’s star players when they stormed to a UEFA Cup victory that year.

They were coached by the respected and decorated Dutch manager Guus Hiddink, who six years earlier had guided South Korea to an unexpected World Cup semi-final on home soil.

Despite obvious talent in the group, Hiddink’s Russia had struggled in the qualification campaign for the tournament. A 3-0 loss at Wembley and a defeat to Israel had left them on the precipice. However, they managed a spirited win against England in Moscow thanks to a brace from Pavlyuchenko, which was ultimately enough to see them through to the finals in Austria and Switzerland.

Nevertheless, Russia were considered distinct outsiders and never seriously predicted to make much of a mark.

The Tournament

Russia were at an instant handicap for the tournament. Their talismanic captain Arshavin had been suspended for the first two matches of the group stage against Spain and defending champions Greece.

The impact was evident. Russia were underwhelming in their first match and slumped to a 4-1 defeat against the highly fancied Spanish side. This made their clash against Greece in Salzburg crucial. In a cagey encounter, Zenit central midfielder Zyryanov grabbed the only goal of the match to give the Russians victory.

This meant they went into their final group stage clash against Sweden knowing that victory would take them into the quarter-finals. Arshavin was now back in the fold, and he instantly provided the spark that Russia were previously missing.

A perfectly capable Swedish side were made to look utterly out of their depth as Arshavin breached their defences time and time again. He played a large part in the move which resulted in Pavlyuchenko’s goal on the 24th-minute mark.

Arshavin then put the result beyond doubt, exquisitely volleying a measured cross from Zhirkov. The score was 2-0, and Russia had finally made the knockout stages of a major tournament.

Their opponents in Basel were Holland, Guus Hiddink’s homeland. Holland were famous for inventing the fluid “total football” approach. However, on the night, Russia schooled them on how to play attractive football.

In what will go down as Russia’s best performance of the modern era, they utterly dazzled the Dutch. Pavlyuchenko scored a stunning volley in the 56th minute to give the Russians a deserved lead. Holland managed to claw themselves back in it against the run of play though. Van Nistelrooy scored a late header to send the game into extra time.

Russia were undeterred. They continued to attack at a blistering pace, and Arshavin provided the decisive moment of brilliance, setting up Torbinski’s goal to make it 2-1. Four minutes later, Arshavin sealed the tie, slotting the ball past the helpless Dutch goalkeeper from close range.

The result sent shockwaves across Europe, and Russia had become the dark horses of the championships. It also sent the Russian public into ecstasy, as fans across the country came out onto the streets to celebrate. For the first time in twenty years, they were in with a real chance of becoming champions.

Unfortunately, they were not able to repeat their heroics in the semi-final against Spain. Spain, packed with talents from the legendary Barcelona side, swept aside Russia 3-0. It was no shame for Russia, however.

Spain would go on to become one of the greatest international sides of all time, winning in 2008, becoming World Champions in 2010 and retaining their European crown in 2012. They were always going to be tough to compete with. Ultimately Russia could look back with pride, knowing they electrified the tournament and put in their best ever post-Soviet campaign in a major tournament.

What Happened Next

Russia’s impressive performances had raised the attention of scouts across Europe’s major clubs, and many of the stars of Russia’s campaign found themselves the subject of high-profile transfers abroad. However, few really managed to successfully establish themselves.

Yuri Zhirkov was bought by Chelsea for a £18 million fee, making him the most expensive Russian player ever. He did not live up to his cost and, after two seasons on the fringes at Stamford Bridge, he was back in Russia. Similarly, Pavlyuchenko never lived up to his hype at Tottenham. The striker spent four years at White Hart Lane unable to become a first team regular and was eventually sold to Lokomotiv Moscow.

By far the greatest expectation was around Arshavin. He stood out as one of the players of the tournament, attracting interest from the likes of Barcelona. It was Arsenal that signed him in the end. He had his moments at the Emirates, but ultimately proved too inconsistent to truly cement his place in the team. In 2012, he returned to Zenit.

© Sathesh Alagappan

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