MOSCOW — It was the sort of stalwart, blood-and-guts achievement that’s commemorated here in the Russian capital with massive, broad-shouldered and square-jawed statues.
There was courage, sacrifice and suffering. There was a siege. And the overwhelmed sons of the motherland dug in and emerged triumphant against improbable odds. At the conclusion of an astonishing round-of-16 elimination of favored Spain here at the Luzhniki Stadium, the Sbornaya—the national team—carried a banner around the field reading (in Russian), “We’re playing for you.”
Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, who saved two penalty kicks in the shootout that followed the 1-1 draw, insisted that the fans deserved his Man of the Match award. Russia has a long memory. If this team, from which nothing but defeat and embarrassment was expected three weeks ago, has made its way to the World Cup quarterfinals inspired by its countrymen, then those countrymen surely will make them legendary. What happened here Sunday will not be forgotten.
As a player, Stanislav Cherchesov once helped knock Real Madrid out of the European Cup. As Russia’s coach, he managed to get his squad to commit to, and then endure, one of the most uncomfortable challenges in World Cup history. Spain was going to have the ball, and La Furia Roja would pass and probe and try to bleed the Russians dry, the dynamic tiki-taka of championships past now reduced to a death-by-1,000-cuts sort of approach.
Russia played five in the back, set an absurdly deep line of confrontation and invited the invaders to come. Spain took the lead in the 12th minute thanks to a Sergei Ignashevich own goal, but it lacked the urgency to build on it. As the game dragged on, it appeared neither side expected much from the other. The hosts would continue to retreat, apparently convinced Spain lacked the creativity, daring or incisiveness to prevail. The 2010 champions, meanwhile, didn’t look worried about Russia's threat on the counter or its ability to hold out forever. They passed and passed and passed, compiling a World Cup-record 1,137 completions in a single match. The Russians managed 285. Yet they were the ones who got the second goal, on a 41st-minute penalty kick.
“Frankly, it was painful,” Cherchesov said of the strategy to play so defensively—to commit to outlasting the siege. “I really had to persaude them that this was the only way out. We don’t like this kind of structure, but that’s what we had to do. … They trusted me. I spoke with every player individually, more so than I had in the past. I had to play the why, what, where, and so on. But it worked out.”
Goalies are revered in Russia. They’re the selfless and courageous last line of defense, and defense is the truest test of character. The country’s most iconic player by far, the late Lev Yashin, is considered by many to be the best netminder of all time. He’s the centerpiece of the official 2018 World Cup poster, and his face and name are everywhere, from a new 100 ruble bill to his own bronze monument in northwest Moscow. Cherchesov and Akinfeev are both members of the Lev Yashin Club, meaning they compiled at least 100 official shutouts in their pro career. And now they’re both World Cup heroes, following in the footsteps of the man who backstopped the Soviet Union to the 1960 European Championship and the 1966 World Cup semis.
Akinfeev, 32, was spectacular Sunday, standing tall when Spain occasionally broke through and then saving two shots during the tiebreaker, which Russia won, 4-3. He stopped Koke, which allowed Russia to take the lead via playmaker Aleksandr Golovin, then clinched the quarterfinal berth with an audacious kick-out against Iago Aspas.
Some will call this a triumph of will over style, but it isn’t that simple. Cherchesov was willing to adapt and sacrifice, but Spain remained stubborn. It hadn’t lost a game in two years when the federation fired coach Julen Lopetegui just a few days before the World Cup started because he’d failed to disclose his negotiations and appointment at Real Madrid. Former Madrid defender Fernando Hierro, a solid RFEF company man with all of one season of Segunda División managerial experience under his belt, took over. Spain was messing with its renowned rhythm just before the first ball was kicked.
On one level, there theoretically wasn’t much Hierro had to do. This was a team with an identity and established veteran leadership from world champions like Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué and Sergio Ramos. Just wind them up and let them go.
On another, Spain needed help. Watching La Roja pass themselves into oblivion at the Luzhniki was all the evidence required. Everyone could see what was happening as they lumbered about, unable to find the combinations or runs that might pull Russian defenders out of position. And nobody in red had the skill, enterprise or change of pace needed to carve open the opposition on their own. Isco came the closest, but he seemed as likely to trip over his own feet as slip the ball through a defender’s legs.
Hierro tinkered, leaving Iniesta on the bench until the 67th minute of a game the manager expected to be taxing—an eye-opening coach’s decision if there ever was one–and replacing the static Diego Costa with the more mobile Aspas in the 80th. None of it worked. Hierro noted that Spain exited the World Cup without losing a game. But it won only one of four, and that was against Iran. If this Russian team warrants a statue, then a memorial should be constructed for this generation of Spanish football. The aforementioned champions probably will retire or be phased out–Iniesta already announced he's played his last international match–and Hierro acknowledged that tactics change with the times. The tiki-taka that so beguiled the world from 2008 through 2012-plus has been decoded, and the players who perfected it have aged out.
Spain must turn the page.
“We’re talking about a generation of extraordinary players, and we haven’t been performing at the level we expect,” said Hierro, who refused to put any of the blame at the feet of the RFEF, his charges or referee Bjorn Kuipers, who may have missed potential penalty kick foul deep into extra time.
“We played at a level and with a style that nobody had done before. We won three major tournaments back to back,” Hierro said. “But now we are in 2018, and many things have changed. Now we see that people are playing with a [back] line of five, which we thought had been forgotten. They’re also a lot of direct balls, and quick transitions. So everything is changing. Trends change.”
Trends change, but results are forever. Spain’s championship era is over. And Russia will move on to a very unexpected quarterfinal appearance in Sochi, where it will play Croatia. It has already solved Spain. Perhaps another shock is possible. Russia was the lowest-ranked team at this World Cup, and fans here were simply hoping to exit without being humiliated. Now, this team surely will be remembered and celebrated in a far more enduring manner.
“Today, we found [what we needed] at the right place and the right time, and we achieved the maximum that could be achieved,” Cherchesov said.