Who could believe that Igor Akinfeev became the tragic figure for Russia on his World Cup debut? There were problems everywhere for Fabio Capello ahead of the start of the tournament, but one position was absolutely certain and considered Russia's undisputed point of strength: the goalkeeper. The CSKA Moscow custodian, vastly experienced and very cool under pressure, was expected to save the day if needed. He has ruined the day instead. And how!
Akinfeev made a very poor start to the second half, failing to deal with shots by Ki Sung-Yeung and Kim Young-Gwon properly and only catching them on his second attempts. But even given that uncharacteristic nervousness the whole country was in state of total shock when he committed an incredible blunder. The star keeper tried to catch a routine shot by Lee Keun-Ho instead of punching it away for a corner, and let the ball bounce off his hands into the net. As Akinfeev lay on his back, coming to terms with the disaster, every single Russian fan immediately remembered the most traumatic goalkeeping error that's hounded them for almost 15 years.
We are talking about Aleksandr Filimonov, of course.
In October 1999, Russia played Ukraine in Moscow on the last day of Euro 2000 qualifiers. Having started the tournament with three successive defeats, the Russians miraculously came back with six wins in a row, including the legendary 3-2 triumph over France in Paris, and needed three more points to qualify for the tournament. The Ukrainians needed to win themselves, and it was a very tight and dramatic evening.
Russia were better but failed to find the net until Valery Karpin scored from a free kick with 15 minutes to go and sent the crowd at Luzhniki stadium into wild celebrations. It was about to become the sweetest and most important win in the history of independent Russia, but they still needed to protect the lead.
With two minutes to go, Ukraine won a free kick that didn't look dangerous at all -- far from the goal and near the touchline. Andriy Shevchenko was supposed to deliver a cross but gambled on a curling shot that should have been easily punched away by Filimonov. He tried to catch it while moving backwards instead and that was a grave mistake. The keeper dropped the ball into his own net. The game ended 1-1, and Russia dropped from top of the group to third place, crashing out.
That was the single most tragic moment Russian football has ever experienced. Now Akinfeev has come up with a mistake that could become equally disastrous. If Russia fail to qualify for the second round from their group because of that goal, it will be remembered as a huge stain on Akinfeev's nearly-spotless career record thus far.
Luckily for Akinfeev, Russia at least managed to salvage a point thanks to Aleksandr Kerzhakov's historic moment of his own. Having been benched by Capello, the veteran striker was sent onto the pitch when his team was behind, and used his predatory skills to net an equaliser just three minutes later. It was Kerzhakov's 26th goal for Russia, level with Vladimir Beschastnykh on the top of the all-time scoring list for the national team.
The goal came when Russia abandoned their rigid game plan and sent everyone forward, creating chaos and making Korean defenders uncomfortable. That's what was desperately missing for Russia for much of the game. Capello's team passed the ball around pretty well, but there was absolutely no improvisation in the final third of the pitch. Every player tried to follow his instructions, and that meant zero surprises for opponents. Korea's defence is far from solid, but they managed to comfortably deal with very predictable moves, while Aleksandr Kokorin wasn't sharp and mobile enough.
Only when the players felt that failure of massive proportions was in the cards, they started moving faster and became inventive. Alan Dzagoev, who is not trusted by Capello in the slightest, came on during the second half and proved an important figure in midfield, his shot eventually leading to Kerzhakov's goal. The goal was organized by substitutes, despite Capello and not thanks to him.
That's what Russia must do in the next two games from the start. They possess talent and potential, but Capello turned them into tin soldiers who rarely dare to think for themselves. If Akinfeev's mistake will make the coach and his troops change their attitude forever, it might well be remembered as a turning point for the better, not the worse.