Russian soccer needs revolution
By JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press
The Russian soccer team is on its way home, Pravda is screaming for reforms and once more a fascinating story in world sport is being played out.
The Russians are able to pull it off in just about every other sport, but can't win the big ones in soccer.
Euro 2004 is one. After winning the first in 1960 as the Soviet Union, they've never been able to repeat.
Their record at soccer's big blowout, the World Cup, is even worse. The closest they ever came was in 1966 in England, when they lost 2-1 to Portugal in the game for third place.
Last time they made the Euro final was in 1988, when they lost to the Netherlands.
Witnesses to Russian dominance in everything from hockey to gymnastics over the years are disguising their disappointment well. It looks good on them.
Still, how come a nation that has mastered every sport it deemed a good propaganda vehicle cannot manage it in soccer? It's not as though it hasn't made every effort.
It has tried the packed-team approach, once placing the majority of the national team on Moscow Dynamo in the same way they used to man the Red Army hockey team. It has tried fear. And this time, the players were promised a million Swiss francs a victory.
Part of it relates to history. It hasn't favoured Russian soccer.
Before the collapse of communism, Russian players performed in their own national league. An elite level, to be sure, but lacking that spotlight that hardens the skills of Western European players, the unforgiving world of top-level professional soccer.
Since the end of Lenin's failed dream in 1991, it has been the reverse. Dick Howard, between duties yesterday as an analyst for TSN's Euro 2004 broadcasts, touched on it over the phone.
"The Russian players have come into the top professional leagues, but now there's a problem getting them all together at the same time," Howard said.
If there are any parallels to what is going on in Russia, the best is in Canadian hockey.
Just as any Canadian international defeat is greeted by hand-wringing and demands for a complete review/overhaul of the game, the Russians are appalled at the two-and-out that greeted their footballers and are demanding answers.
Soccer is by far their most popular sport, as evidenced by the national outrage at times such as this. One recalls the 1980 Olympics in Moscow when the Soviet team finished behind East Germany and Czechoslovakia.
Lenin Stadium erupted in ear-piercing abuse when their team marched up for their bronze medals.
"I would trade every gold medal we've won in this Olympics for the football gold," one member of the organizing committee said.
This team didn't help itself from the outset. Russia lost one of its most important players earlier when Spartak Moscow captain Yegor Titov was banned after testing positive for a stimulant.
The next upheaval came when veteran Alexander Motsovoi was sent home after a run-in with coach Giorgi Yartsev. A player in the Spanish league, he beefed about training methods and maybe, at the age of 36, his outburst spoke volumes about Russia's problems.
One thing is certain: not too many foreigners, any sport, are feeling sorry for them.