Euro 2008: Russian soccer team revives nationalism
Russia's success in soccer and hockey is credited to petrodollars flowing into sports.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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 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."