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Jun 19, 2012

Russia heaps scorn on team

"We hoped for better, but it turned out as it always does." So said former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in July 1993, though not after something as trivial as defeat in a major football tournament, but following a disastrous monetary reform. Every Russian knows this phrase, and not just because of the circumstances in which it was spoken, with Russia suffering a crippling financial collapse not long after, but because it so neatly summed up a Russian-eye-view of the world.

It's hope that kills you. Disappointment is never far off.

The latest disappointment for Chernomyrdin's countrymen to bear was Russia's exit from Euro 2012 at the group stages on Friday, an elimination that was frankly unfathomable for many even after the final whistle blew on its 1-0 defeat to Greece in Warsaw. When the draw for Euro 2012 was made last December and Russia was pulled out of the hat alongside Poland, Greece and the Czech Republic, even the usually humorless Russia coach Dick Advocaat afforded himself a childish grin. This was going to be easy, and the first game of the tournament, in which Russia wiped the floor with the Czechs, winning 4-1 when it could have scored 10, only served to emphasize that point.

Instead, the old demons resurfaced. In contrast to previous tournaments, many Russians had afforded themselves some optimism ahead of Euro 2012. Gone were the bad old days of 1999 when, in the 88th minute of a must-win qualifier for Euro 2000 against Ukraine, stand-in goalkeeper Aleksandr Filimonov allowed a weak Andriy Shevchenko free kick to slip through his grasp. Long past was 2002, when Junichi Inamoto's goal knocked a talented Russian side out of the World Cup at the group stage, causing a riot in Moscow which left two dead. But defeat to Greece on Friday in Warsaw brought back those familiar feelings.

"A scar on the heart," boomed Sport Express, the nation's largest sports daily newspaper. "Also-rans," was the headline offered by Sovetsky Sport. "You stare, you think, you suffer," Sport Express lead columnist Evgeny Dzichkovsky said of his feelings in the aftermath of the defeat to the Greeks. "You can't do anything about it."

But along with the disappointment there has been anger, among fans, journalists and former players, at the manner of Russia's exit. This, after all, was a generation of whom so much was expected -- Advocaat had said in the lead-up to the tournament that his team’s aim was to win Euro 2012. Five of the 11 who started the match against Greece had featured in Russia's Euro 2008 semifinal against Spain. In short, they should have been more than capable of victory. "Not getting out of this group is a catastrophe," Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, overlooked by Advocaat for Euro 2012, said. "Now we're no better than, say, Ireland."

As far as this European Championship is concerned, there is no more scathing a comparison.

But that anger has been compounded by the reaction of some members of the Russia squad to its elimination. As early as the final whistle, the Russian squad invited opprobrium by walking straight off down the tunnel, rather than running over to its fans to thank them for their support. Those who were questioned about this after the match were quick to apologize, explaining that their personal feelings of disappointment had got the better of them, but by then the damage was done.

Then there was the postmatch press conference, where to incredulity from the Russian press pack, Advocaat stated that he was "satisfied with his work” and that Russia "had played well."

"He must have been watching a different game," former Spartak Moscow president Andrey Chervichenko commented in response, and he wasn't the only one.

Most damaging of all were comments made by captain Andrei Arshavin, a player who had faded so badly in the 1-1 draw with Poland, admitting he felt tired, that former Russia international Andrey Kanchelskis suggested he should have been dropped against the Greeks. After returning to the team base at Warsaw's Hotel Bristol, Arshavin was dragged into an argument with a fan in the lobby.

"The fact that we didn't live up to your expectations isn't our problem," Arshavin told him. "It's yours." Cue widespread condemnation.

"A person who allows themselves to speak like that should not have been named national team captain," another former international, Aleksandr Mostovoi, retorted.

So, amid all the recriminations -- which, incidentally, show no sign of abating for the foreseeable future – what’s next for Russia? Advocaat is already gone, having signed a one-year deal to coach PSV Eindhoven in his native Netherlands. In any case, his position was untenable, with nearly unanimous agreement that the Dutchman should carry the majority of the blame for such a poor showing. "He could neither motivate a team, nor pick one," striker Dmitry Bulykin, another shunned by Advocaat, told Sovetsky Sport, no doubt grinning like a Cheshire cat.

The attacks on the coach weren't limited to his tactical decision-making, though that has long been questioned, from his tendency to pick favorites to his inept tactical meddling in the second half against the Greeks. But the criticisms don’t end there. Why did Russia base itself at the Bristol, Warsaw's most expensive hotel, right in the middle of the Old Town, instead of more modest and more isolated surroundings? Why was there only one training session a day when the players were showing fatigue late in games?

Nobody will mourn Advocaat's departure, but Russia now has a major decision over who to replace him with. Foreigner or a Russian? Someone with experience or with fresh ideas? All options are apparently on the table. One suspects, though, that with a home World Cup in 2018 on the horizon, any potential candidate should be prepared to set aside the next six years.

In the meantime, other heads will roll. Arshavin has done his case for continued inclusion in the squad incredible harm, both on and off the field. Things have gotten so bad for him that a deputy in Russia's Duma (parliament) has proposed banning him from receiving commercial endorsement earnings as punishment for the Euro 2012 fiasco. Fast losing friends in Russia, and about to return to Arsenal, a club that apparently no longer needs or wants him, Arshavin's future looks bleak. Other players well into their 30s, including old heads Igor Semshov and Konstantin Zyryanov, have probably played their last game at the international level.

But with pessimism the order of the day, some Russians are looking even wider than a mere generational shift, calling for changes at the top of the Russian Football Union (RFU), which hired Advocaat. The most positive thing that most Russians are currently saying about Sergey Fursenko, current head of the RFU, is that at least he didn't offer Advocaat a contract extension.

Others have gone further. "A disgrace is the $7 million contract with Advocaat, in a country where there isn't enough money for medicines," wrote Viktor Shenderovich, a liberal-leaning writer and satirist. "A disgrace is the abuse directed at a black Czech Republic defender. A disgrace ... is that our sporting bigwigs neglected to take Kerzhakov and Co. to bow their heads at Auschwitz."

Then again, perhaps the grim mood was best summed up by the Kommersant newspaper. Their headline the day after Russia's elimination? "We hoped for better, but it turned out as it did in Poland."

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