RUSSIA entered the World Cup as one of the lowest-ranked teams taking part, with little hope and even fewer expectations. Football’s showpiece tournament was the biggest sporting event the country was hosting since the breakup of the Soviet Union yet the team was what many labelled as the worst in the history of Russian football. It was that team which exited the tournament with its heads held high on Saturday, setting a benchmark for the Russian teams that take part in the World Cup in future.

Such was its run that it sparked hopes that it might go all the way, to its capital of Moscow, to the grand Luzhniki Stadium for the final on July 15. It went down right to the minor details for them to go out but luck didn’t favour them when Igor Akinfeev got a hand to Luka Modric’s penalty in the penalty shootout, extinguishing the nation’s hopes in Sochi.

Sochi is a city which evokes memories of Russia’s worst-ever sporting scandal. The Black Sea resort is where Russia rigged the 2014 Winter Olympics in its favour with its state-sponsored doping programme. Now, it will be remembered for a brave performance from Russia in a World Cup quarter-final. Where they almost, almost, contrived to find a way through to the semi-finals. Where they gave it their all, yet returned empty-handed. But critically, they changed the opinion of their people.

“We have managed to reverse the nation’s opinion of us,” said Russian coach Stanislav Cherchesov at the press conference room of the Fischt Stadium — the venue for the opening and closing ceremony of the now discredited 2014 Games — after his team had lost to Croatia 4-3 on penalties after a 2-2 draw in extra-time. “Most importantly, we believed in ourselves. It’s impossible to make someone admire you, the only thing you could do in this situation is to deserve respect by working hard. And this is exactly what we did.”

They earned the respect of the home nation but their run to the quarter-finals also raised eyebrows. People still remember what happened when Russia hosted a huge sporting event the last time. It ended in a disgrace.

Earlier this week United States Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart accused the Russians of playing the same old trick, saying: “We’re fools to believe it’s any different this time around from what happened in Sochi”.

Take into account that Russia have run farther than any other team at the World Cup, it adds weight to Tygart’s accusation.

At the same time, though, there can be an argument that Russia’s run, which also kept the local interest going right till the last three games, was fuelled by what Cherchesov said. Belief. Before the tournament, there was talk of ‘making the nation proud’.

The 5-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia in the opener did exactly that. And as the public began believing, the results came. Victory against Egypt followed before a defeat against Uruguay. Then, in the most sensational upset, they sent the whole of Russia, into delirium when they knocked out Spain in the last-16 on penalties.

There was more delirium when Denis Cheryshev put them ahead in Sochi with a sensational strike and then when Mario Fernandes headed the last equaliser in extra-time to take it to penalties. This time, though, penalties proved to be their undoing. “It’s a pity that we lost,” said Cherchesov. “I think we deserved more, we played against a good team with good players. It went largely as planned. I’m thankful to players for this tournament, to all fans for their support.”

Proud as he was of his players, he was also critical. “Emotions alone are not enough,” he said. “We made lots of mistakes. Some things needed to be changed. There were lots of moments that we couldn’t expect, and the opponents forced us into making mistakes.”

After Fernandes’ leveller, it seemed Russia had all the momentum going into the shootout but they were forced quickly on the backfoot when Fedor Smolov saw his effort saved by Danijel Subasic.

“Unfortunately, I made the mistake and I bear full responsibility,” he told reporters. “I want to thank all the players, the coaching staff and all the people of the country. This World Cup will long live in my memory.”

Despite Smolov’s miss, Russia were level at 1-1 after four penalties. Fernandes missed Russia’s third and Modric scored despite Akinfeev having touched Modric’s penalty onto the upright but it still went in. Midfielder Alan Dzagoev kept asking the crowd to keep roaring but they were eventually silenced once Ivan Rakitic’s penalty hit the back of the net with the defeat ending the international careers of veteran defender Sergei Ignashevich, 38, and forward Alexander Samedov, 33.

“I’m a bit disappointed but we demonstrated that fans can be proud of our team because we played good football,” Samedov said. “It’s a pity it ended this way. It’s hard for me to make any comments. We were just one step away from the semi-finals.”

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2018