How the unflappable Igor Akinfeev cemented himself in Russian football folklore

How the unflappable Igor Akinfeev cemented himself in Russian football folklore

Awaking across Europe on the morning of 1 July, fans were left to reflect on what would supposedly be a relatively calm day of World Cup action. Following the eliminations of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, alongside their Portuguese and Argentine teammates the day before, this Sunday was supposed to be a day of rest.

The opening fixture of Russia against Spain was little more than a write-off. Whilst Russia had impressed in their 5-0 opening day win over Saudi Arabia and surprised many to even get out of the group, this was where the journey would end. A 3-0 loss to Uruguay seemed to confirm the pre-tournament sentiment from the host nation that this squad was not good enough.

Admittedly, Spain had misfired themselves throughout the tournament, being poor for periods of the pulsating draw with Portugal and lucky to get any result in the final group match with Morocco. But surely the likes of Andrés Iniesta, Diego Costa and Isco would surely be too strong for the Russians. After all, Iago Aspas’ late equaliser against Morocco to clinch top spot was supposed to have secured the under-performing Spaniards an easy path through to the quarter-finals.

Taking the lead after just 11 minutes via a Sergei Ignashevich own goal, it appeared to be as straightforward a game as many predicted. However, Spain failed to make their landslide share of possession count, and Artem Dzyuba’s penalty just before half-time changed the dynamic of the game.

The Russians displayed incredible defensive organisation to repel the constant pressure of their opponents in the second half and into extra time, with captain Igor Akinfeev central to this. With just four minutes of normal time left, he got down superbly to deny Iniesta, then diverting the follow up from Aspas away from danger. Going into extra time, the CSKA Moscow goalkeeper made a smart reflex save from Rodrigo, and with a hint of fortune got Russia through to penalties.

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It is here that he would cement his place in legend. With Russia scoring all four of their spot kicks, Akinfeev proved the difference. After going the wrong way for both Iniesta and Gerard Piqué’s efforts, he dived to his right to deny Koke and put the hosts in command. Sergio Ramos smashed the ball past him shortly after, however Aspas found his effort stopped by the feet of Akinfeev. Named as man of the match, it was a long overdue glory for the Russian on the big stage.

Akinfeev’s professional career began some 16 years earlier when he was named on the bench in July 2002 for a Russian league match with Krylia Sovetov. Aged just 16, it was a clear sign of trust from Valeri Gazzaev, personally believing the player who had been at CSKA since the age of four would become something special. Less than a year later, Akinfeev made his debut against the same opponents, saving a penalty from playmaker Andrei Karyaka and keeping a clean sheet in a 2-0 win.

Akinfeev ended that season with 13 appearances to his name as CSKA won the title. Possessing superb reflexes, one-on-one ability, handling and positional acumen, it would take Akinfeev less than a year to make become CKSA’s undisputed first choice. In the 2004 season he restricted Veniamin Mandrykin to just seven appearances, three of which came in the wake of a late red card for Akinfeev. Again coming against Krylia, with 11 minutes left to play Denis Kovba equalised, following which Ognjen Koroman booted the ball into Akinfeev’s face. Incensed, Akinfeev’s reaction would spark a mass brawl for which referee Sergey Lapochkin sent him off.

Regardless of this rush of young blood, less than a month later, Akinfeev made his debut for Russia, starting in a friendly against Norway in 2004 just three weeks after his 18th birthday. Making him the youngest player in the history of the Russian national team, a record that still stands today, he would later be included in the Euro 2004 squad by Georgi Yartsev, although found himself an unused substitute throughout the tournament.

Spurred on by this, over the next few seasons Akinfeev would see his stock rise. By the end of 2005 he was his nation’s undisputed number one, displacing the far more experienced Sergei Ovchinnikov, and praised for his unflappable maturity. Despite predictable comparisons to the legendary Lev Yashin, Akinfeev never appeared to let such praise go to his head, winning two more league titles, two domestic cups and the 2005 UEFA Cup. His role in all of these triumphs saw him crowned the nation’s best player in 2006.

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The 2007 season brought an impressive run in the Champions League, with Akinfeev going 362 minutes without conceding a goal, helping the side to impressive wins over Arsenal and Hamburg. Such was his leadership, in the absence of Sergei Ignashevich, the 21-year-old would deputise as captain. Unfortunately, a rupturing of his cruciate knee ligament in the second half of a 1-1 draw with Rostov in May 2007 would keep Akinfeev sidelined until the penultimate weekend of the season, with his absence widely viewed as main reason CSKA didn’t retain the title.

An impressive return in 2008 saw Akinfeev cap off another cup final success with a key role at that summer’s Euros. Unfancied at the start of the competition, he played every minute as Russia surged to the semi-finals, eventually exiting to Spain. Two clean sheets in the group wins over Greece and Sweden sat alongside a smart stop from Ruud van Nistelrooy in the quarter-final triumph over the Netherlands. The tournament served as the perfect platform for Akinfeev to unveil his talents to a wider audience.

Such performances prompted talk of a move to either Bayern Munich or Manchester United, but the man appointed CSKA captain in 2008 failed to follow teammates Andrei Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Yuri Zhirkov westwards. Nevertheless, Sir Alex Ferguson was wholesome in his praise of Akinfeev after a 3-3 draw at Old Trafford in November 2009: “I have to say he is a fantastic goalkeeper. He is athletic, with a powerful build, and his distribution is good. He really saved CSKA from a big defeat against us, he was outstanding.”

Despite this, several high-profile errors for Russia, in a Euro 2012 qualifying match against Slovakia and friendly with Belgium, put his place in doubt in light of competition from Zenit’s Vyacheslav Malafeev. Further difficulty came when he reaggravated his cruciate injury following a clash with Spartak’s Welliton in August 2011, forcing him to miss eight months of the season. Despite recovering in time for Euro 2012, he was unable to dislodge Malafeev and sat on the bench for the three group stage matches in Poland and Ukraine.

He would bounce back again, though, just as he had done six years previously, with an incredibly successful season in 2012/13. CSKA won their first league title in seven years, with Akinfeev keeping 16 clean sheets and conceding just 22 goals. He was also the difference in that year’s cup final, repeatedly denying Samuel Eto’o before saving from former teammate Zhirkov and Jucilei in the shootout defeat of Anzhi. After the match, Akinfeev was characteristically modest, putting the saves down to luck before praising the work of his outfield teammates.

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Nevertheless, it was now time for Akinfeev to be in the spotlight and the influential captain was voted Russian Footballer of the Year for the first and so far only time in his career. He also contributed greatly to getting his nation to the 2014 World Cup, conceding just four goals in 10 matches as Russia finished above Portugal in qualifying.

The next season he won the league again, breaking Yashin’s clean sheet record in the process. In February 2014, as if to almost rule out any move in his career, Akinfeev signed a five-year extension through till 2019. On course to at least see out that deal, it means the one-club man has now been associated with CSKA Moscow for 28 years.

Two notably poor tournaments in 2014 and 2016 have served to dampen the opinion of Akinfeev, with notable errors against South Korea and Algeria, alongside a terrible performance in a 3-0 loss to Wales two years later seeing calls to drop him. Once again he displayed incredible mental strength to come back, becoming the all-time leading clean sheet holder both for Russia and in the league in 2016/17.

He also kept another clean sheet in November 2017, against Benfica, to end an unwanted record of 43 Champions League appearances and over a decade without one in Europe’s premier competition. Meanwhile, in the wake of Roman Shirokov and Vasili Berezutski retiring in the months following the Euros, Akinfeev was named Russia captain in November 2016. Guiding the nation at the 2017 Confederations Cup and at the World Cup in 2018, he has served to lead by example.

Most people thought the chance for Russia’s most talented goalkeeper in a generation to be remembered had long gone. Indeed, Akinfeev himself said this in 2006: “In Russia when you turn 30 everybody forgets about you.” He’s 32 now, and his heroics against Spain have ensured that he isn’t likely to be forgotten any time soon.

By James Kelly @jkell403

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