Russia seek redemption
After failing to qualify for the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship and suffering a dismal campaign at last year's World Cup, Russia could not afford to miss another major tournament.
Qualifying for the European Championship in Portugal was seen as paramount to maintain the country's proud football tradition so Vadim Yevseyev's solitary goal in their 1-0 playoff victory over Wales was virtually priceless as far as the sport in Russia is concerned.
For the European Championship is special for Russian fans. The Soviet Union won the inaugural European championship in 1960 and reached the final on three other occasions, the last time in 1988 when the team, coached by the late Valery Lobanovsky, lost 2-0 to the Netherlands in the final in Munich.
Russia began their qualifying campaign well, posting convincing home wins over Ireland (4-2) and Albania 4-1 under new coach Valery Gazzayev, who replaced the enigmatic Oleg Romantsev after last year's fiasco in South Korea and Japan.
But things quickly turned sour.
The Russians looked lethargic and short of ideas in their next outing, against Georgia in Tbilisi, abandoned at 0-0 after halftime due to floodlight failure and later rescheduled for April 2003.
The team did not improve over the winter, slumping to lacklustre defeats away to outsiders Albania (3-1) and Georgia (1-0) in late March and April.
In June, Russia regained some pride by fighting back from two goals down to snatch a 2-2 draw against group leaders Switzerland.
The draw in Basel, however, did little to improve Russia's chances of qualifying as they languished in third place, five points behind Switzerland and three less than Ireland, with three games remaining.
With no significant improvements in sight and players showing little desire and passion for the game, the embattled Gazzayev quit after a humiliating 2-1 home friendly defeat by Israel.
Gazzayev, who also coached CSKA Moscow, had been heavily criticised in the media for picking his own players instead of proven veterans and for poor team tactics.
But Georgy Jartcev, who took over the struggling national team in late August, turned round Russia's fortunes.
He steered his side to two wins and a draw in their final three qualifiers to secure a playoff place against Wales.
The dramatic turn-around rekindled the hopes of millions of Russian soccer fans that next year their team will no longer be among the also-rans in Europe's showcase event.