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

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    National pride: A Russian fan joined 700,000 in Moscow's streets after a win over the Netherlands.
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Not since the days of the cold war has so much political significance been attached to the outcome of a sports event.

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.

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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.

Mr. Medvedev called it "an outstanding game and a convincing victory," and suggested that Guus Hiddink, the team's Dutch coach who is widely credited for the turnaround, might be granted honorary Russian citizenship.

Russian officials said that the agenda of a Russia-EU summit meeting – now scheduled for Friday in the Siberian oil boom town of Khanty Mansiysk – had been altered to make sure Medvedev and other participants would have time to watch the face-off between Russia and the undefeated Spanish team in Vienna on Thursday.

The company licensed to make Russian flags, the Moscow-based BIAR, reported that sales of the white, blue, and red national tricolor soared to a record 100,000 in June, up from a usual monthly average of 20,000.

Some say petrodollars have made all the difference. With the global price of oil, Russia's chief export, spiking at record levels, there's money to lavish on sports for the first time since the Soviet collapse. Huge state-connected firms are directing cash into once dismal teams, paying players and attracting top managerial talent such as the miracle-maker Mr. Hiddink. For example, the state-owned natural gas monopoly Gazprom sponsors the soccer club Zenit Saint Petersburg, home of soccer star Andrei Arshavin, while the private energy giant LUKoil is backing Moscow's Spartak.

"The main reason for our victory is the unprecedented levels of financing being invested to ensure a professional level of trainers and management," says Eduard Sorokin, sports expert with the independent Stadion information agency in Moscow. "It's important that athletes can be sure they won't live in poverty, even after they leave professional sports."

Hiddink, who earlier groomed teams from South Korea and Australia for championship performances, has won near universal accolades from the Russian media.

"Hiddink made our players believe in the inevitability of victory," wrote Vyacheslav Nikonov, director of the Russky Mir Foundation, an officially backed group tasked with promoting Russian language and culture, in the daily Izvestia on Wednesday. "He created a team such as we haven't had in the past 40 years. Our team has played so well that citizens can believe once again in their own country and its revival."

But comparisons with the famous Soviet Red Machine of ice hockey, which was known as "clap-clap" for the sound of the puck being rapidly passed between its players, may be premature. Experts say that despite the infusions of cash, little has been done as yet to restore the vast nationwide infrastructure of the former Soviet Union, which reliably produced generations of top athletes in almost every branch of sports.

"Right now Russia's pride is splashed out in big victory celebrations, but whether this will have any impact on the future of our sporting prowess is hard to say," says Artyom Lokalov, a columnist with the Moscow-based Sovyetsky Sport newspaper.

"The key problem is, will our authorities start to pay more attention to children's sports, build more stadiums, and start to really invest in our sports infrastructure? That's what we're all waiting to see."

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