The Russian national team could be forgiven for treating all matches up to the 2018 World Cup finals as a warm up for that competition. After all, the amount of money being spent on the first tournament to be held in the country will be vast and expectations amongst the Russian public will be accordingly high. Russia, however, have spent most of the last two decades or so since the break-up of the Soviet Union singularly failing to set the world of international football alight and there is little to suggest that this summer will see a significant improvement from them.
The History: They may have consistently failed to live up to billing in the World Cup, but the Russian (or, rather, Soviet) record in the European Championships since it began is as good as anybody else’s. The Soviet Union won the first tournament in 1960, and since then they have been the tournament runners-up on three occasions, in 1964, 1972 and 1988, although of course the Soviet Union teams of the time were bolstered by the involvement of other areas which are now independent countries, including this year’s co-hosts, Ukraine. Russia’s World Cup record, however, is worth examining and it is considerably poorer than their record in European competition. They have failed to qualify for the last two consecutive tournaments and haven’t got past the group stages of the competition since reaching the Second Round in Mexico in 1986.
The Team: Only two of the provisional Russian squad selected for Euro 2012 play their football outside of Russia itself, although this is perhaps unsurprising, considering the amount of money washing through the domestic game there in recent years. Captain Andrei Arshavin ended his difficult time at Arsenal this season to return to his home country to play for Zenit St Petersburg, while fellow striker Roman Pavlyuchenko did likewise, returning from Tottenham Hotspur to Lokomotiv Moscow. Those two players, alongside Alexandr Kerzhakov (also of Zenit St Petersburg) have between them scored fifty-four goals for their country. Elsewhere, CSKA Moscow’s twenty-one year-old midfielder Alan Dzagoev scored four goals in eight qualifying matches for this tournament and adds an extra dimension to their attacking options.
The Coach: Russia have been going Dutch over the last few years, with Guus Hiddink, their coach from 2006 on being replaced by Dick Advocaat in the summer of 2010. Last month, however, Advocaat gave notice of his intention to leave the position at the end of this tournament. His international coaching experience is second to none, having taken the Netherlands to the quarter-finals of the 1994 World Cup and the semi-finals of the 2004 European Championships during his two spells in charge of the team whilst having also had spells in charge of South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Belgium. In addition to this, Advocaat further cemented his reputation in Russia with a successful spell charge of Zenit St Petersburg during which he won the club the UEFA Cup in 2008 – making the club only the second Russian club to win a European trophy.
The Prospects: Russia caused something of a minor surprise by getting as far as the semi-finals four years ago before losing to Spain and there may be cautious optimism that, with a favourable draw and a highly experienced coach, the team can go that far again this time around. Qualification for these finals, however, wasn’t exactly smooth and Russia had their work cut out after a surprise defeat at home against Slovakia in their second match, but they remained unbeaten for the remainder of their qualification, taking four points from six against the Republic of Ireland (including a 3-2 win in Dublin) and winning their return match against Slovakia in Zilina. The seven match unbeaten run in their qualifying group certainly indicates that Russia can progress from a moderate group and a place in the semi-finals is far from beyond them.
The Kit: Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia has had to find a new identity as a football nation. The white shirts of its first decade and a half as an independent nation have now been replaced by red ones and, after a couple of years experimenting with designs that looked like the flock wallpaper of an Indian restaurant they have now settled on a design that is a stone cold classic – red with a diagonal blue and white sash. Of course, such is the nature of modern football kit design that this shirt will probably be returned soon and replaced with something less inspiring, so perhaps we had better just enjoy this one while it lasts.
The National Anthem: Upon the impending collapse of the Soviet Union, “Patrioticheskaya Pesnya” was chosen by Boris Yeltsin to be the new anthem for Russia, but no words were selected for this piece of music (in spite of a committee looking at over over 6,000 entries as the result of a competition to find some for it) and this new anthem failed to inspire the new country and, even though a winner - Viktor Radugin’s “Be Glorious, Russia” – was eventually selected, these words were not adopted by many as it was considered hard to remember and uninspiring. In 2000, however, new president Vladimir Putin seized this particular bull by the horns. Complaints about the national anthem had been received from several sporting sources, inclusing Spartak Moscow, the 1998 World Cup finals squad and the 2000 Olympic team, and Putin reintroduced the old Soviet anthem with revised words. This has been criticised in some quarters, with some feeling that the reintroduction of the Soviet anthem is divisive, whilst others have criticised references to God in an anthem for a country which was for a long time formally atheist.
The British Media Will Say: “I bet his name is a high score in Scrabble” (again), “They’ll be treating this as a warm up for the 2018 World Cup”, “The sleeping giants/under-achievers of European football” (now that Spain have finally started winning trophies), “Can Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko shake off the torrid time that they had in England?”, “If you provoke the Russian bear, you’re likely to get half your face torn off” (unlikely, admittedly).
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