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Euro 2008: Russian soccer team revives nationalism

Russia's success in soccer and hockey is credited to petrodollars flowing into sports.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 27, 2008

National pride: A Russian fan joined 700,000 in Moscow's streets after a win over the Netherlands.

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters



Not since the days of the cold war has so much political significance been attached to the outcome of a sports event.

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As Russia's hitherto underdog national soccer team has stormed to a series of unexpected triumphs over the past two weeks in the Euro 2008 championship finals, the country's mood has visibly soared. Commentators ranging from President Dmitri Medvedev to many average Ivans-in-the-street have promoted the victorious team as a metaphor for Russia's own stunning return from national oblivion.

Russia has not made it into a European soccer championship match since 1988, when it was still a part of the USSR. In the 1990s, widely viewed by Russians as a decade of national depression and disgrace, most of the country's best athletes went abroad to find success. That memory was called up for many Russians in a bittersweet way last week when Igor Larionov, one of the former Soviet Union's top hockey players, was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame for his achievements in the National Hockey League, after leaving Russia in the early '90s.

But lately, Russia's been on a roll. Former President Vladimir Putin managed to win the 2014 Winter Olympics for Sochi, Russia's Black Sea resort center. In May, Russia's national hockey team beat its traditional rival Canada to pick up the 2008 Ice Hockey World Championship. Later in the month, a Russian singer Dima Bilan won the Eurovision Song Contest.

"The past couple of decades have been perceived by our citizens as a chain of failures," says Sergei Mikheyev, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "Now we're winning, and it's an enormous boost for social morale. Of course our politicians are making maximum political use of this – they'd be fools if they didn't."

After an early defeat at the hands of Spain, the Russian team roared back, knocking Greece and Sweden out of the tournament. Following a crushing victory over the Netherlands last Saturday, as many as 700,000 Muscovites poured into the streets of the Russian capital chanting "Rossiya – champion," and other jubilant slogans, in what the official RIA Novosti press agency called the biggest spontaneous street demonstration Moscow has seen since the USSR defeated Nazi Germany in World War II.