MOSCOW: Thousands of cheering and flag-waving Russian fans thanked their disappointed players on Sunday after the host nation’s fairytale World Cup run came to a crushing end with a shootout loss to Croatia.
Coach Stanislav Cherchesov led his team onto a stage to a heroes’ welcome in a Moscow fan zone on a sunny day that was meant to put a patriotic exclamation point on Russia’s ability to beat the odds.
The long-suffering Russians entered the biggest event in sport as its lowest-ranked nation but ended up coming up just short of reaching their first World Cup semi-final in 52 years.
They lost to Croatia 4-3 on penalties after extra-time ended with the sides deadlocked at 2-2 in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Saturday.
“You were not the 12th player — you were the 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th players,” Cherchesov told the crowd gathered on a scenic hill overlooking Luzhniki Stadium. “We felt your support from the first second.”
The national team has been gaining followers and drawing increasing political attention from government leaders with every win.
President Vladimir Putin has invited Cherchesov and his charges to the Kremlin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev came down into the players’ locker room after the loss.
The men in red themselves sounded inconsolable on Saturday. Their mood appeared to have brightened by the time they had returned to Moscow to greet their worshipping fans.
Forward Fedor Smolov received a rousing reception despite making a mess of Russia’s penalty kicks.
“I am so happy to be a citizen of Russia,” he told the crowd. “No other team in the world has fans like we do.”
Midfielder Denis Cheryshev dedicated his four goals — tied for second-most in the tournament behind England captain Harry Kane’s six — to “the whole country”.
“Of course we wanted to go further,” he admitted. “Thank you from the bottom of my soul -- we love you.”
Other players took turns thanking supporters before the ceremony ended with a rousing rendition of the Russian national anthem.
The entire ceremony was aired live on national TV.
“Yesterday, there were tears,” said defender Sergei Ignashevich. “I had them and the guys did. They were tears from the loss, and tears of happiness. Thank you.”
The 38-year-old came out of international retirement to play for Russia one last time after injuries depleted their defence. He called an end to his playing career earlier in the day.
Across Russia, hand-wringing fans had held their breath through extra time, hoping the team could pull off another upset. Russia entered the World Cup as the lowest ranking side, but reached the quarter finals against the odds.
Fans spilling out of bars chanted ‘Russia’, dancing in the street and singing along as music blared on Saturday night.
“Our boys, they really did great. A huge thank you to them for this tournament. What we achieved, that was so cool,” Andrey, a lawyer, said next to a street corner screen that had shown the match.
Putin did not attend the game, but watched remotely, saying the players were heroes despite the defeat and the country was proud of them, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was cited as saying by Interfax.
“He watched, he was rooting for the team. We lost in a fair and great game. They are still great guys for us, they are heroes. They were dying on the pitch, we are proud with them,” Peskov was quoted as saying.
Street parties broke out in central Moscow in scenes reminiscent of the celebrations following Russia’s shock victory over Spain last Sunday. The Kremlin likened those festivities to images of celebrations after victory in World War Two.
“It was a great match. Well done to our guys, they tried very hard... I’m really happy that we made it to the quarters for the first time in history,” said Artyom Osadchy, a student.
Russians tuned in across the country, from soldiers at their barracks in Rostov-on-Don to ballerinas in Saint Petersburg back stage. Wild animal tamers at a circus in Moscow crouched round a phone streaming the game.
“It was just that the roulette wheel was not in our favour,” said Andrey the lawyer, while other fans looked to the future on the heels of Russia’s best World Cup performance since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“You can’t take the trophy straight away. It’s the first time we’re in the quarter finals in a very long time. You can’t have everything straight away. It was a very dignified game,” Evgenia, 36, a psychologist, said.
Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2018