The clock was ticking deeper into extra time with the sides tied at one goal apiece. A last-ditch pass drifted across the face of the goal and hung suspended in the air for what felt like an age before dropping onto an outstretched boot by the far post. The net rippled and Dmitri Torbinski, the scorer, surged towards the fans in ecstasy. “I’m going to end it all right here on the spot!” cried commentator Georgy Cherdantsev.
The Netherlands – ranked eighth in the world and the easy favourites – were a goal behind and on their way out of another major tournament. Russia, the underdogs who’d arrived to little fanfare and zero expectations, were tearing up the footballing script.
Moments later, Andrey Arshavin, Russia’s star playmaker, needled an impossible shot through the helpless legs of Edwin van der Sar. “Do svidaniya!” bellowed Cherdantsev, “Do svidaniya!” That goal had put both the veteran commentator and the largest nation on earth into a state of utter elation. It was 2008 and Russia were through to their first semi-final at a major tournament since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This was the moment, the point of greatness, a peak to which none of these gifted players would ever return. At the time, the surprise of their semi-final finish eclipsed all disappointment that followed their 3-0 elimination by eventual champions Spain. Prior to the tournament, no one had even mentioned Russia. Afterwards, only the newly crowned Spain drew more attention and plaudits.
But now, over a decade removed from that spectacular night against the Dutch, we can surely ask the question: should this have been the summit? Or did this team, replete with rapacious talent, have the makings to do much more?
To even start to answer this, we need to go back in time. Although that incarnation, led by the widely respected Guus Hiddink, seemed to appear as an overnight sensation, their development had been long in the making. While the Dutchman guided the team on the last stretch towards the pinnacle of their careers, the flowering of this generation began much earlier.
We can chart the changing of the guard back to Euro 2004, where a consistently woeful Russia side served up another listless campaign. What compounded the bitterness following another ignominious exit was that this group of players had enough talent to go further and offer fans more in return for their faith.
Chief among the underachievers in Portugal was surely midfielder Aleksandr Mostovoi, who had become a fan favourite at Spanish side Celta and frequently dazzled in LaLiga. But while with Russia, his bust-up with coach Georgi Yartsev and subsequent early departure from the squad seemed to be a distillation of deeper problems that lay at the heart of the national team. Mostovoi was a relic of the previous decade and a team that never failed to underdeliver. It was time to move forward with new players and fresh ideas.
And that era was already poised to begin. Gifted young midfielder Andrey Arshavin had made his international debut in 2002 but been overlooked for both the World Cup and the Euros. He was to quickly become a new regular for Sbornaya. As were the likes of Pavlyuchenko, Zyryanov, Zhirkov, Bilyaletdinov, Anyukov, Torbinskiy and Akinfeev. By the time 2008 would come around, Russia would have almost an entirely new team to unveil, one that carried none of the baggage left behind by failures of the past.
There had also been the introduction of new management. For years, Russian players had visibly bridled beneath the heavy-handed regimes of coaches solely schooled in the traditions of Soviet sport. A generational, cultural and philosophical divide had marked the relationship between trainers and the team since the mid-90s but would only be addressed properly following a shameful 7-1 defeat to Portugal during World Cup 2006 qualification.
This result ended Yartsev’s reign and the Russian Football Union saw that it was time to look for leadership beyond Russian borders. Guus Hiddink, fresh from successes with South Korea and Australia, was the foreign coach entrusted with this gifted generation of players. He would prove to be the final piece of the puzzle.
What separated this side from previous Russian outfits was that they were the first generation fully free of Soviet shadows and represented a wider revival of the nation’s confidence and pride. Sides of the 1990s had been mired in much of the chaos that was happening at the time, becoming a mirror image of that decade’s uncertainty and sense of desperation. But this team belonged to a new century and a new Russia, one ready to take its place once again among the world powers.
Their performances in 2008 were the perfect embodiment of this widespread sense of rejuvenation. As such, the emphatically enthusiastic response to their creativity, flair and eventual dispatch of the Dutch overshadowed any discussion of tactical improvements or visible shortcomings in the immediate aftermath of their shock success. Even a television documentary celebrating their achievements was entitled Zolotaya Bronza (Golden Bronze), as though a third-place finish was both a victory of sorts and the most the side could hope for at major tournaments.
But beyond the technical wizardry of Arshavin and the brilliance of Hiddink, flaws were visible. For a side that had some of the most agile, adaptable and exhilarating attacking players in the game, Russia’s defence was still notably static. While Berezutski and Ignashevich were mostly dependable, speedy, more skilful teams often left them flat-footed. An inability or unwillingness to analyse this in the wake of unexpected triumph would pave the way for subsequent disappointments.
It is no stretch to say that Hiddink had been the catalyst, the turning point and the architect of the great shift in Russia’s international fortune. It was his appointment, the result of years of failure with previous, often well-respected Russian coaches that matched this precocious and gifted side with a coach who gave them licence to truly separate themselves from generations past and reinvent the image of the team. He understood what this team most craved: the freedom to be themselves.
But all great men have flaws and, while Hiddink had unlocked the national side in a way no one could have envisioned, he had not fully immersed himself in the country or the national game. His visits to Russian league games were rare and usually only occurred in the capital when Moscow sides or Zenit were on display.
In particular, his neglect of the then-exceptional Rubin Kazan outfit would prove especially disastrous. The hero status he enjoyed at that time, with some even going so far as to name their sons Guus, meant any suggestion that the Dutchman was lacking knowledge of any kind would have been laughable.
A seemingly simple World Cup qualifying campaign only added to the general sense of confidence around the Russian camp. Even the most cynical of Russia supporters, painfully used to last-minute disasters and tragic upsets, were feeling uncharacteristically calm. But this unfamiliar ease would not last long.
After performing well in a strong group which included a resurgent Germany, Russia would still need to topple Slovenia over two legs to confirm their place in South Africa. While nobody dismissed Slovenia, who were functional and well-drilled, this was the Russia that had devoured the Dutch just a year earlier. It seemed inconceivable that they wouldn’t summon the strength to see off their respectable but far less able opponents.
During the first leg, this manner of thinking was proved correct. Russia broke down Slovenian resolve and netted two stylish goals in front of a home crowd at the Luzhniki. There was just one minor hitch: Slovenia managed to pull an away goal back towards the end of the game. It had been a piece of slack defending that allowed them back into the match and the goal would count as double if the sides were level after both legs.
Yet still, no one was thinking that way. It had been a lapse in Russian concentration that had caused the goal, rather than Slovenian invention, and a managerial master like Hiddink would use the error to further galvanise the team for the next leg. Maribor was no easy destination but a draw would take Russia through comfortably.
But Maribor would prove to be the end. Not only of this Russian side’s attempt to reach the World Cup, but the end of its incredible journey. After Russia lost 1-0 to Slovenia, nothing would ever be as it was. Hiddink would go, Arshavin’s form would crumble for club and country, new foreign trainers would arrive then leave almost as quickly, and this generation would become as acquainted with failure as the players who had preceded them. It would all finish as swiftly as it had begun.
So, what did happen that night in Slovenia? How did the golden generation fall away so rapidly and spectacularly?
Tactically speaking, the defence had never been entirely fixed. A notable absence from that line-up against Slovenia was Roman Sharonov, Rubin Kazan’s unfashionable but effective right-back who had kept Lionel Messi at bay just that season in the Champions League. His omission after a period of superb form was proof that Hiddink’s neglect of the national league had been costly.
Beyond tactics, there were more powerful and perennial forces at work. Russia’s history of footballing catastrophe occurring in the final moments of matches was arguably more of a factor than most would want to admit. This side, though more talented than others before them, were an emotional contingent and could have allowed the spectre of bad memories to wreak havoc with their future. Even if they felt free of past shadows, they were still being followed by them.
Finally, there was complacency. The greatest enemy of any professional athlete and supplier of countless upsets over the years, a laidback idea of themselves being too good to lose might have been the central problem that night in Maribor. Even the threat of the away goal from the first leg had not been seen as a serious problem.
So confident were the Russian Football Union of success that they had even discussed offering Hiddink a contract extension prior to the second leg. There was, undeniably, a mood of general malaise during the matches against Slovenia, and that had proved this gifted side’s undoing.
Just a glance at that teamsheet tells us that this group of players were easily good enough to go to the World Cup. Once there, with the likes of Spain still in their pomp, Germany rediscovering their ruthlessness, and the Netherlands now more disciplined under Bert van Marwijk, their chances of winning would have been slim, but another semi-final finish could have been well within their reach. A more assured back-line, with the addition of mobile defenders, would only have strengthened their claim to further success.
Russia would reach the subsequent Euro 2012 and World Cup 2014 tournaments, under Dick Advocaat and Fabio Capello respectively, but their performances once there were a throwback to the disappointing 90s. Neither coach achieved the same chemistry with the side that Hiddink had and that era’s stars were already entering the twilight of their careers. In short, the moment had passed and would not come again.
When Russia overachieved at the first World Cup hosted on their soil in 2018, scarcely a player from that Euro 2008 squad remained among their ranks. Only Igor Akinfeev, arguably his nation’s biggest hero during that competition, and Sergei Ignashevich were a permanent presence throughout the games, with Yuri Zhirkov also playing a part in proceedings.
One could only imagine what the likes of Arshavin, Zyryanov, Anyukov and Pavlyuchenko might have produced against eventual finalists Croatia if still playing in their prime.
The joy of that night in Basel against the Dutch didn’t prove to be the launching of a new force in world football, but nor was it simply a lucky result or an aberrant upset. It was the culmination of years of youth cultivation, excellent coaching and the refreshing brilliance of a young and hungry group of players striving to overcome their country’s past disappointments.
This golden generation did not win gold, but they did overturn years of heartache and the feeling that failure was inevitable for Russia at major tournaments. There could have been more, undoubtedly, but what there was still fires the passion and pride of their fans to this day. That, in the end, might be more of a legacy than trophies or medals.
By John Torrie @johnltorrie