Belgium presents one of its strongest ever teams in the World Stage and finds themselves in a relatively easy group. Group H previewed by Debojyoti Chakraborty
Group H is the most sought after one for off the field reasons. It is scheduled to start the last giving more time to teams to assess the conditions and also take a good look at the other groups. Matches are going to be played in the southeast of Brazil where the weather is the least punishing and the venues – Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte – are all close to each other, thus requiring minimal travel.
Finally when the lots were drawn, Group H featured four teams who are not outright favourites. But that does not take anything away from the competitive nature of the group. Belgium has been labeled the ‘dark horse’ of the competition whereas Russia always springs in a surprise or two. South Korea has been a very honest performer over the last few editions and then Algeria brings in the African combativeness to complete the group.
Belgium is making an entry into the World Cup after a hiatus of 12 years. For a country of great footballing heritage that is a stretch too far. They saw the worst of times in 2007, slipping down to their lowest ever FIFA ranking of 71 in June 2007. The Red Devils were going through a torturous phase which saw them missing out FIFA as well as EURO competitions. But their rebuilding phase seems to be finally over. Their young brigade – the golden generation – under the guidance of Marc Wilmots achieved their highest ever FIFA ranking (5th) in October, 2013. Now they are all set to prove themselves at the biggest stage.
Les Diables Rouges topped their group in qualifying ahead of Croatia, Serbia and Scotland with a near flawless display. Barring a couple of draws – one at the onset and one when their fate was sealed – they triumphed against all the obstacles that came their way.
Wilmots, all time leading goal scorer for Belgium in the World Cup, is not a shrewd tactician, but he gets the most out of the bunch by giving the young group confidence. Moreover, not only has he instilled discipline in the squad, but also shares a credible rapport with his players.
Apart from genetically having some giants, Belgium has a plethora of talent to choose from. Most of their star players ply their trades across top leagues in Europe – mostly England – and some of them are most sought after. Captain Vincent Kompany of Manchester City forms the backbone of the defense with Tottenham Hotspur’s Jan Vertonghen. In attack, they have one of the most lethal young strikers in Romelu Lukaku. He showed his class and composure in the penultimate qualifying match in Zagreb by scoring a brace and sealing the World Cup berth. But he may not be the best player in a star-studded team, with stiff competition from Atletico Madrid’s shot stopper Thibaut Courtois and Chelsea’s midfield lynchpin Eden Hazard. The team is not only about style and creativity – it also boasts of solidity in the midfield in the form of Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini and Spurs’ Mousa Dembele. So it is going to be a deadly combination of steel and skill this time round for the Devils.
There is a lot of hype surrounding this team and it is up to the manager to ensure his troops remain grounded. A young side with lots of expectation, this Belgium side can really go places if they can hold onto their nerves. At an average age hovering around 26 that could a challenging task. But if we consider the talent at display, truly the Belgian supporters have every reason to be optimistic. Pole position in the group would be their first objective which should enable them to avoid Germany and then they can set their sights on at least matching their best campaign of 1986.
Like Belgium, Russia are also making a comeback at the World Cup finals since 2002. They showed glimpses of promise in EURO 2012 but fizzed out after a resounding 4-1 win against Czech Republic. They drew the next match against Poland and got eliminated after losing to Greece in their last group match.
Russia bounced back in the World Cup qualifying campaign and topped their group. That is commendable as their group featured Portugal. They started with four outright wins before seeing a little slump in form and lost the next two matches. They did not look back since then though and only dropped a point in their last match when their qualification was already secured.
The squad is made up of mostly home-based players including former Sevilla forward Alexander Kerzhakov, the only Russian player to have appeared in the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan, and former Chelsea winger Yury Zhirkov. Only surprise inclusion is experienced forward Pavel Pogrebnyak, who at 30, is currently playing in the second tier of English football with Reading. Capello has his authority stamped throughout the squad. He has not hesitated to shut the door for moody players, even if they are stars like Andrei Arshavin.
Managed by Fabio Capello, as usual, Russia are hard to break down. Their defense, a sore thumb in the past, is now a strong foundation. Russia conceded only five goals in qualifying and had clean sheets in fiveout of 10matches. Capello has also adopted double pivot in a typical 4-2-3-1 system instead of a traditional Russian 4-3-3 formation. The midfield will look upon CSKA Moscow man Alan Dzagoev – their only bright spot in EURO 2012 and a classy No 10 – who has been shifted from wide right to a more central, and natural, position by Capello. However, he needs support from Roman Shirokov, Igor Denisov and Viktor Fayzulin to hold fort and create a spark. Their attack is also a decent one, always looking for lateral and diagonal movements to create space for each other. But without a proven goal scorer around, they would need to look for scorer from different parts of the pitch.
Capello has friendlies against Slovakia, Norway and Morocco to expose his team to contrasting playing styles ahead of the World Cup. He would like to forget the ghosts of 2010, especially against Algeria as his then England team could not break the dead lock. Russia has a tough fight in hand but they would want to ensure they put up a good show before hosting the cup in 2018. Their primary objective would be to qualify – for the first time after the Soviet Union era – for the knock out stages. In that process, if not the players, their veteran coach definitely lends them a cutting edge.
Algeria bowed out of World Cup 2010 group stage with a gritty performance. They did not fare too well in the 2013 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) either.
But Algeria put up a fantastic show in their World Cup qualifying campaign. They easily won their group ahead of Mali, Benin and Rwanda winning five of the six matches. Then they got a tough draw in the final play-off against a Burkina Faso team – finalist in AFCON a year ago – in tremendous form. Algeria felt the heat in the first leg but scored two crucial away goals in a 3-2 loss. The Fennec Foxes then showcased a professional display to win 1-0 at home, thanks to a winner from skipper Madjird Bougherra, and sneaked ahead on away goals.
While many still remember their dull and scratchy affair in the 2010 World Cup, this version of Algeria is a much improved one. Much of the credit goes to manager Vahid Hilihodzic who has integrated some promising young players, especially in attacking areas. That is the reason talented players like Yacine Brahimi, Islam Silmani and Sofiane Feghouli have been well complimented by the physical influences of skipper and tough tackling defender Madjird Bougherra and Adlene Guediora.
They have a young striker in Nabil Ghilas, who is spoken about highly in his new club Porto. Ishak Belfodil is their famed big man with a good touch whose breakthrough season at Parma lured Inter to go for him. There he could form a potent partnership with his former Bologna teammate, midfielder SaphirTaider.
But the defence is still very much a work in progress and Halilhodžić will have headaches ahead of their fourth World Cup bow. He will still be expecting his players to work hard, maintain the shape, be stubborn – just like the notoriously difficult-to-breakdown side four years back.
This is a young and developing team and has little experience of big games within their ranks. So Algeria would first look to better their disappointing World Cup show in 2010, where they failed to net a single goal. They have a history of pulling off World Cup shocks which could create some entropy in the group. In the past, they have stunned eventual finalists West Germany in 1982, given Brazil a tough fight in 1986 and held England to a draw in 2010. Not much beyond is expected of them this time too.
South Korea made its debut in World Cup 1954 but could not re-enter the finals for the next 32 years. But since then they have been permanent guests at this mega event, mostly though without making any significant impact. In recent years their dominance as the best Asian team also has come under question. South Korea had an indifferent AFC Asian Cup in 2011 where they failed to reach the final for the second time in a row.
South Korea had a shaky World Cup qualifying campaign. In the third round group matches, they were shambolic on the road. Taegeuk Warriors drew with Kuwait and lost to Lebabon, two teams as low as 95 and 146, respectively, in FIFA ranking. The loss against Lebanon was too bitter a pill to swallow and, consequently, coach Cho Kwang-Rae had to make way for Choi Kang-Hee. However, their sheer experience and perfect home record ensured South Korea would get the top spot from the group. In the fourth round group South Korea were drawn in a much tougher group consisting of Ian, Uzbekistan, Qatar and Lebanon. South Korea stuttered throughout the campaign and never looked like a champion team. They lost their last crucial match against Iran – second time in the round robin league – to hand them the pole position and then somehow scrapped through on goal difference ahead of Uzbekistan.
It was a let down for the team considering they were only one goal away from landing into further complicated routes of qualification through a couple of play-offs. Failure to put up a string of good results hampered consistency in the team selection and a reliable starting XI always eluded South Korea. Choi Kang-Hee stepped down and then came in the captain of 2002 World Cup campaign – where South Korea famously reached the semis in their home ground – and former manager of gold medal winning U-23 team of 2012 Olympics, Hong Myung-Bo.
Myung-Bo started revamping and a number of emerging stars were indicted. Bolton Wanderers’ Lee Chung-Yong has been appointed as the leader of the pack and the team boasts of home-based proven goal scorers like Kim Shin-Wook and Lee Keun-Ho.
Known for playing neat and tidy football – though sometimes without any end product or much penetration – there are some decent players in the middle of the park, notably Mainz 05’s Koo Ja-Cheol, Cardiff City’s Kim Bo-Kyung and Swansea’s Ki Sung-Yueng who can even double up as a ball-playing centre-back.
Most notable of the new players, though has been Bayer Leverkusen’s record transfer signing Son Heung-Min who has seamlessly become the team’s backbone.Heung-Min, at only 21, is a delight to watch. Quick and two-footed, he can set the stage on fire on the back of a decent domestic season.
South Korea has an outside chance of making it through to the next round. The match against Russia might well seal their feat. But even then they will be hard pressed to go beyond the second round as the German powerhouse might welcome them with open arms.
Last time Belgium met Russia in a World Cup, it was a thrilling 3-2 win for the Red Devils in 2002. The winner came in the 82nd minute. The scorer? Current Belgian manager, Marc Wilmots.
Russia started their campaign with a thumping 4-1 win over hopeless Czech Republic. As expected Russian star players – Andrei Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko – put their average club seasons behind and rose to the occasion. As expected, the 21-year old Russian prodigy Alan Dzagoev showed what a class player he is and this performance will surely reflect on his mounting price tag during his imminent summer transfer. But, quite unexpectedly, the Czechs were as shambolic in defensive organization as they could be. It is not always that a goalkeeper of the calibre of Petr Cech – even his 2012 version – gets beaten 4 times in a match.
It took a little time for the Russian midfield – comprising straight out of Zenit St. Petersburg – to take control of the match but once they did, they made a mockery out of the lacklustre Czech attack led by an isolated Milan Baros. The trio of Igor Denisov, Konstantin Zyryanov and Roman Shirokov were instrumental in the midfield in a 4-3-3 formation. They quite easily bossed Czechs twin-fulcrum of Jaroslav Plasil and Petr Jiracek, playing in a 4-2-3-1 system. Shirokov’s burst through the right hand side of midfield set up the opening goal in the 15th minute. His cross was headed across by Aleksandr Kerzhakov on to the post. Dzagoev latched on to the rebound to open his account in Euro 2012.
Arshavin nowadays resembles a leap year. He rises from the ashes like Phoenix only when the Euro showdown is underway. It must have been agonizing for Arsene Wenger to see Arshavin in such a prolific form against Czech Republic, something he has rarely produced for the Gunners. He stared on wide left, but he dropped in the hole, prompted several attack deep from the midfield and there was an enigma to the Russian captain’s play which was awe inspiring. It was the 24th minute when his sublime diagonal pass into the Czech area was latched on to by an unmarked Shirokov to finish it from six yards out.
Czech Republic was nowhere. They were sinking without a trace and the positional sense of their defensive unit was shocking. Russian front man Aleksandr Kerzahkov was lenient enough not to kill the game even after numerous opportunities. The Czechs came back briefly as Jaroslav Plasil slid through a perfectly weighted pass for Vaclav Pilar to round Vyacheslav Malafeev and score on the 52nd minute.
But sanity prevailed as the wasteful Kerzahkov was replaced by Pavlyuchenko and he had an immediate impact by setting up a second for Dzagoev elevn minutes from time. Pavlyuchenko rounded the match off three minutes later as he strolled inside Roman Hubnik with maddening ease, before netting high and powerfully beyond Cech. The lanky forward was not given a place in the starting XI due to his lack of game time for Tottenham Hotspurs but it seems he has done enough to earn that for the next match.
Russia were favourites to advance from this lightweight group. But after this performance they should move a few places up in the odds table to progress even further. IF things go according to plan, Advocaat may even indulge in trying out variations and testing out fringe players – none better than target man Pavel Pogrenbnyak – in their last group match.
It is not the margin of defeat but the way their defence was exposed time and again would be a thing to worry for the Czech supporters. At this form, they cannot think of winning a game, leave aside progressing through to the knock out stages.
“We are quite happy. When you score four goals in an international game it’s a good result…. For a first game we’re happy.”
Russian manager, Dick Advocaat
“We’re angry now.”
Czech Republic goal scorer Václav Pilař after they were beaten 4-1 by Russia
Vyacheslav Malafeev, Sergei Ignashevitch, Alexei Berezoutski, Alexander Anyukov, Yuri Zhirkov, Konstantin Zyryanov, Igor Denisov, Alan Dzagoev (Alexander Kokorin, 85), Roman Shirokov, Alexander Kerzhakov (Roman Pavlyuchenko, 74), Andrey Arshavin
Petr Cech, Michal Kadlec, Theodor Gebre Selassie, Roman Hubnik, Tomas Sivok, Tomas Rosicky, Jaroslav Plasil, Petr Jiracek (Milan Petrzela, 76), Milan Baros (David Lafata, 85), Vaclav Pilar, Jan Rezek (Tomás Hübschman, 45)
Referee: Howard Webb
Venue: Stadion Miejski (Wroclaw)
Battle for the East European Glory
Group A: Russia vs. Czech Republic
Friday, 08 June 2012
2045 (local time); 1445(EST); 0015(IST)
Municipal Stadium Wroclaw, Poland
On the Focus
Russia begins their Euro 2012 campaign in red hot form after having crashed the Azzuris 3-0 in their final friendly game. They have a settled squad and many of their star players have come up with some classy performances for their country in the past. Russia will also benefit from the fact that almost half of their first XI will most likely be from Zenit St. Petersburg. Russia is quite fortunate to feature in the easiest group in the tournament, that too as the favourites. They would like to start the campaign on a winning note.
Standing in front of Russia are the gritty Czechs. These two teams have had great history in football – as USSR and Czechoslovakia respectively – but their recent past is not so glorious one. Czech Republic dominated the youth stage in the late ‘90s and early 2000’s but none of them are around now. They have a relatively unknown team which features a bunch of young lads from Viktoria Plzen. This unknown factor could well work in their advantage Czechs are facing the strongest team in the group up front and hence a draw will suit them quite well.
The two teams have met only once in the group stages of Euro 96 in England where the spectators were thrilled to witness an entertaining 3-3 draw. With relatively better defensive organizations on display, that score line will be pretty hard to match.
Russia did exceedingly well last time round in Euro 2008 to reach the Semis for the first time since the former USSR era. They have been impressive in their qualifying too where they lost only once in 20 matches and conceded only four goals during the campaign. The Russians have done well in the friendly matches and they would like to keep up their good showing in the main tournament also.
Russia Form Guide: WDDWD
Czech Republic had a very good team (former Czechoslovakia) in the late ‘70s but that too was not enough to win the trophy. This time they had to wait till play-off matches to get through and naturally expectations are not that high. Their friendly results have also been dismal where they have failed to impress their supporters.
Czech Republic Form Guide: LWDWW
Teams & Formations
Dick Advocat would hope for the same this time from the likes of Andrei Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko who did not have a great season at club level. To support them Russia has a very strong unit comprising of shot stopper Igor Akinfeyev and midfielder Roman Shirokov – both one of the bests in Europe at this moment.
Russia (4-3-3): Igor Akinfeev; Yuri Zhirkov, Aleksei Berezutskiy, Sergei Ignashevich, Aleksandr Anyukov; Igor Denisov, Konstantin Zyryanov, Roman Shirokov; Andrei Arshavin, Aleksandr Kerzahkov, Alan Dzagoev.
Manager: Dick Advocaat
Czech Republic will rely heavily on Petr Cech, fresh from his Champions Cup final heroics. Tomas Rosicky’s timely return from calf strain would be major boost for the team which lacks in quality big time.
Czech Republic (4-2-3-1): Petr Cech; David Limbersky, Michel Kadlec, Tomas Sivok, Theodor Gebre Selassie; Tomas Hubschman, Jaroslav Plasil; Jan Rezek, Tomas Rosicky, Vaclav Pilar; Milan Baros.
Manager: Michal Bilek
Match Referee: Howard Webb (Englad)
Assistant Referee: Michael Mullarkey (Englad) and Peter Kirkup (Englad)
“We have a good team, we have the quality, and it is very important that the players start believing in that.” Russia Manager Dick Advocaat
“Maybe we have our toughest opponent in the first match, the favourite in our group, Russia, who won their last friendly against Italy 3-0. That creates huge respect, but I believe in my team, and believe we will succeed in this match.” Czech Republic Manager Michal Bilek
The Russians look too strong for the Czechs and a comfortable 2-0 win seems likely.
Daring Dark Horses at Euro 2012
While all the superpowers of Europe prepare for the mega stage, there are some smaller nations which have the power to cause a huge upset. Debojyoti Chakraborty looks at the possible contenders who can shock the pundits at the UEFA Euro 2012
Speaking of Dark Horses, we try to analyse the teams which may not be entering the tournament as favourites but can propel their way through to the knock-out stages and beyond. These teams have a realistic chance of progressing as they are, in a way, helped by the draw at the Group stages. All they need is a bit of determination, good strategy…and some luck! So let us look at our own set of Underdogs.
Russia has a very good record at the Euros since winning it (then Soviet Union) in the inaugural edition of 1960. After going through a re-building phase since the inception of the country in the early ‘90s, Russia did well last time when they reached the semis and lost out to eventual winners Spain. This time also, the men under Dick Advocaat look set for a strong run in to the tournament.
Russia topped their Group during qualifying stages with ease. Though their opponents are relative minnows in Europe, Russia did put up a good show – especially in defence which let in only four goals, second only to Italy – and gained some valuable places in the UEFA rankings. That helped them get into the easiest Group in the finals. Russia have some good players who put their best foot forward while playing for their country. Hence, though Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko have struggled to break into the first team for their club teams in England, it will be no surprise if they turn the heat on in Euro 2012.
Advocaat is a shrewd tactician but there are quite a few challenges for him this time round. He is often criticised for favouring players from Zenit St. Petersburg, the club he coached previously. It will be interesting to see how he inducts the young and talented players like playmaker Alan Dzagoev and striker Pavel Pogrebnyak to the mix. Also, considering this could be the swansong for some key players such as defender Sergei Ignashevich, midfielders Konstantin Zyryanov and Igor Semshov, and possibly the dynamic duo of Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko, Advocaat would surely like to motivate them for a final hurrah.
Russia is playing all its matches in Poland. Ukraine would have suited them more considering the large Russian contingent there. They start their campaign against Czech Republic and will look to set the tone for the tournament. Against Poland, the hosts, their second Group match will be the toughest one. Advocaat might have an eye on this match from the start of the campaign. By the time they take on Greece on the last match day, the Russians could find themselves in a position where they can dictate terms and choose their quarter-final opponents. And that could be it. With an opponent from the Group of Death their campaign looks all but over. But the Russians won’t let it go so easy and they can look for inspiration in the Greek side of 2004. They should also benefit from the fact that half of the side plays for the Russian champion Zenit St. Petersburg.
Another Zenit player to feature in the Euro 2012 will be Portuguese defender Bruno Alves. His own country Portugal featured in the first ever Euro in 1960 but had to wait for a long 24 years for their next appearance where they reached the semis. They have done reasonably well since then with their best performance coming in the home turf as they reached the Final of Euro 2004 only to lose to Greece.
In the lead-up to Euro 2012, Portugal was stuttering with only one point from the first 2 matches of the qualifying competition, when Paulo Bento took over from Carlos Queiroz. Portugal scratched their way to the finals through a play-off against Bosnia and Herzegovina. They face an even uphill task being drawn in the Group of Death. But we have often seen teams which scratch their way into the tournament often go all the way beyond everyone’s expectations. And they have it all – ambition, determination and belief – as put in by their talismanic captain Cristiano Ronaldo. At 27, the best player of the tournament is in the form of his life and he enters the competition as the highest scorer for Portugal in the qualifying campaign with seven goals to his credit. Champions League semi-final berth to go with his personal glory of scoring for fun in La Liga; 2012 has been a memorable year for CR7 and he would like to cap it up with the Euro glory. He has some creative players hugging the touchlines in the forms of João Moutinho and Nani. If they can influence the game and take a lead, the Real Madrid pairing of Pepe and Fábio Coentrão can organise the back four, keep a proper shape and defend well.
The Selecção das Quinas start their campaign against Germany and even a stalemate would suit them. The second match against Denmark would be their big match as they not only would like to win it, but win it big to have a good goal difference. They will take a close look at the other match in the Group on the same match day as Germany and Netherlands lock horns. A bit of luck, results going their way and Portugal will feel they have a solid chance of progressing to the knock-out stages when they take on the Dutch side in their last Group match. Some records are yet to be set after the Battle of Nuremberg in World Cup 2006 which saw only 18 men finish the match and a total of 16 yellow cards. If Portugal can progress to the knock-out stages, they will face a much easier opponent in the form of Russia, Poland or Czech Republic. This is a definite winnable game and once you are into the semi-finals, anything can happen.
Just like Portugal, Croatia also came through the pain and anxiety of play-offs and started the tournament as one of the well drilled teams. Croatia, as a part of Yugoslavia, had an impressive record at the Euro championships where they reached the Final of the tournaments twice in the first three editions. They have failed to emulate their form ever since and this time too they are entering the tournament as rank outsiders.
Croatia was widely tipped to top their Group in the qualifying campaigns where they were drawn against the likes of Greece, Israel, Latvia, Georgia and Malta. But they were beaten comprehensively by the Greek side at home and a shock defeat by Georgia led them to the qualification play-off. In that match though they regained their composure and thrashed a well drilled Turkey side to advance to the finals of Euro 2012. Under the supervision of coach Slaven Bilic, the Croats are well organized, tactically sound and they are expected to run their socks off for the whole 90 minutes. Amongst a group of strong and determined individuals, they have a lynchpin in Luca Modric, a rising star in Milan Badelj and a target man in Ivica Olic.
It is their impressing run of form which sees them in the eighth place in UEFA rankings, one above their Group opponent Italy. They have been drawn in a difficult Group but one has to remember in major tournaments none can be termed as a pushover team. Croatia start their campaign against Ireland and they have to win this game for a realistic chance of progressing. They will also keep a keen eye on another match on the same match day involving Spain and Italy. Spain is almost certain to progress but Croatia can target Italy for a possible berth in the quarter-finals. The draw also favours them as the Croats will next be against the Azzuri in what could decide the quarter-final berth. Once into the knock-outs, they are most likely to face England or France. Neither of them are quite threatening in their current forms. So, the big match is against the Italians on June 14 which could well seal Croatia’s fate.
The last team in this feature is Sweden, who defeated Croatia 3-1 in a friendly in February. Sweden boss Erik Hamren will be very pleased with his efforts so far steering Sweden into the finals of a major tournament in his very first assignment. He will take heart from the fact that Sweden have progressed through the Group stages from a very similar setup in 1992 – the Group featured England, France and Denmark – which was their first appearance in the Euro stage, that too as a host.
Sweden qualified for the finals behind Netherlands as the Group runner-up. But they put up a strong display at home in Stockholm to beat the formidable Dutch side. Hamren favours a defensive 4-2-3-1 formation and even if heavily criticized at home for this, he has delivered some good results in the run-up to the competition. Like any Scandinavian side, Sweden is well organized, tactically sound and their physical aspect of the game is a major strength. Their game will definitely revolve around the charismatic front man Zlatan Ibrahimovic. With some more potent weapon at disposal, Hamren might have considered adopting an attacking brand of football with the mantra: “Attack is the best form of defence”. But does not look like so!
Sweden are lucky to get their campaign rolling against Ukraine. This is one match where they would like to win handsomely. Following that is a match against England. The 3 Lions have been struggling for form and consistency; without much time for the newly appointed manager to stamp his authority and influential Wayne Rooney up front this is Sweden’s best chance to get one up against the disjointed English side. Even the last encounter against France is not a daunting one – the French are going through a transition phase and are nowhere close to their dominating best of the late ‘90s. So their recipe for success would be to thrash Ukraine and get at least 2 points from the remaining two matches. If Sweden can make it through to the quarter-finals, they could face the reigning European and World Champions Spain and that will be curtains for them. So there is added motivation for the Swedes to top the Group and a few games going their way can make their dream come true. If that happens, Swedes would be up against the struggling Azzuri or another underdog in the form of Croatia. This is quite a decent opportunity for them to feature in the last four and then, as they say, anything can happen.
So we are done with our own dark horses. Some of them face a trickier tie compared to others. While a dominant opponent from Group B – Germany, Netherlands or Portugal – might just be Russia’s hope for a last four berth, Portugal can spring in a surprise from the Group of Death and there is no reason why they cannot go all the way. Sweden seem to have the brightest chance of shining through as they are fitted against misfiring European giants whereas the Croats have to dig deep to salvage any pride out of this year’s competition.
A Sneak Peek: Stars of UEFA Euro 2012 Group A
We continue our build-up to the Euro 2012 with the rising stars of Group A. Kinshuk Biswas profiles them
Goalden Times has started the countdown to Euro 2012 with the previews of groups A and B. In this feature, we bring you some of the players who have the potential to become stars in Poland and Ukraine. We begin with Group A:
Name: Alan Dzagoev
Age: 21 (17.06.1990)
Club: CSKA Moscow 2008-Present
Position: Attacking Midfielder / Right Winger
National Caps (goals): 17 (4)
Current Market Value: € 17,000,000-20,000,000
Alan Dzagoev is originally from North Ossetia. Ossetians are a fierce ethnic group proud of their culture. He was interested in football because of another Ossetian footballer, Valery Gazzaev who later became his coach at CSKA Moscow. Dazgoev has been one of the stars of the current CSKA team that qualified for the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League this season.. Dzagoev plays as an attacking midfielder behind the forwards at his club but is also comfortable playing from the wing… He scored his first goal for his country in the crucial 3-2 win against Republic of Ireland at Dublin. Speedy and with lots of guile, Dzagoev is more like a two-feeted Mesut Ozil and can be compared to a young Andres Iniesta. Being a 21-year-old, he still has some years ahead of him. Already in the sights of Manchester United and Arsenal in the Premier League, Euro 2012 could be his stage to greatness.
Name: Petr Jiráček
Age: 25 (02.03.1986)
Club: VfL Wolfsburg 2012–Present
Position: Midfield / Defensive Midfield
National Caps (goals): 5 (1)
Current Market Value: € 4,000,000-4,500,000
Petr Jiráček has just signed a four-year contract with Wolfsburg. His transfer was after his performances for his former club Viktoria Plzeň with 12 goals and eight assists in all competition. A midfielder with a great work rate and engine, he scored for his national team in the away leg of their Euro 2012 play-off against Montenegro. Jiráček is a natural left footer who can play a decent right footed shot as well. He is not a very flashy player but a hard worker who will run himself to the ground. The Czech Republic team looked very ordinary in the early part of the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign.but the inclusion of Jiracek changed all that.. His presence has released the pressure on the national captain Tomas Rosicky. He will be instrumental to the chances of the Czech team. He would do well to take inspiration from the way his last club stopped the might of AC Milan in the Champions League coming back from two goals down to draw 2-2.
Name: Sotiris Ninis
Age: 21 (03.04.1990)
Club: Panathinaikos 2006–Present
Position: Attacking Midfield / Midfield
National Caps (goals): 18 (2)
Current Market Value: € 8,000,000-9,500,000
Known as the ‘Greek Messi’, Sotiris Ninis is one of the best new prospects of Greek football. Born in Albania of Greek parents he declined an offer to play for the Albania under-17 youth teams to play for Greece. He has dazzling skills with great pace, which make him a frightening prospect for opposition defenders. Starting at a young age has meant, Ninis has a host of playing records – youngest Greek to play in European club competition (at 16), youngest Greek to score (on his debut)and the youngest captain at a Greek top division club (at 18). He plays as an attacking mid-fielder behind the strikers but has also played as a striker and on the right wing. He was selected by Otto Reahhagel in 2008 for the national team but was not chosen for Euro 2008 as the manager felt he was too young (shades of 1978: Diego Maradona and Cesar Menotti). He played a substitute in the 2010 World Cup. He scored against Israel in the 2012 Euro qualifying tournament the goal, which assured Greece a place in the finals. The problem is that he has just recovered from a cruciate ligament rupture, which had kept him out of the game for four months. It is to be seen how match-fit he will be; he is competing against another young player, Giannis Fetfatzidis for a place on the team. However, he should be well rested and can make an impact on the tournament. AC Milan, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Arsenal who were all interested in him before his injury may come knocking again if he has a good tournament.
Name: Robert Lewandowski
Age: 21 (21.08.1988)
Club: Borussia Dortmund 2010–Present
Position: Striker / Centre Forward
National Caps (goals): 40 (13)
Current Market Value: € 12,000,000-14,500,000
Robert Lewandowski is a well known face in the Bundesliga. He was one of the pillars behind the success of Borussia Dortmund last season. This season he has scored 19 goals with nine assists in 31 matches in all competition He has a great first touch and always seems assured in his play. Like MiroslavKlose, Lewandowski is a strong aerial threat while also being a strong right footed player. He is the first choice striker in the national team and will expect to shine in front of his home supporters. Chelsea has already shown a keen interest in him and a good showing in the tournament may pave his way to Stamford Bridge. With misfiring Fernando Torres and an ageing Didier Drogba, he may just be the salvation Andre Villas Boas is looking for.
EURO 2012 – Group Preview
The draw for the Euro championships for the Henri Delaunay trophy was held at the Ukraine Palace of Arts, in Kiev on 2nd December 2011. The draw was important as there were two host nations of Poland and Ukraine who were seeded with the top two teams in the continent based on FIFA rankings. This meant that a lot of powerful teams like Germany, Italy, France, Portugal and England would not be seeded. There were four pots used in to draw. The first pot had the seeded teams and the other pots had teams based on their FIFA ranking and recent performances.
The rankings were based on:
40% of the average ranking points per game earned in the UEFA Euro 2012 qualifying stage.
40% of the average ranking points per game earned in the 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifying stage and final tournament.
20% of the average ranking points per game earned in the UEFA Euro 2008 qualifying stage and final tournament.
Incidentally both the hosts were the lowest ranked teams amongst the 16 qualifiers. A similar situation had occurred during Euro 2008 as well when the hosts were Austria and Switzerland. It was decided that Poland and Ukraine would be placed as team A1 and D1 in groups A and D respectively.
The draw featured four former Euro Champions drawing from the different pots – Horst Hrubesch of Germany, Marco Van Basten of Netherlands, Peter Schmeichel of Denmark and Zinadine Zidane.
Following the draw, we find some very interesting groups a lot of matches in group stages which could have been the final of the tournament. We, at Goalden Times, in the build-up to the tournament shall preview each group in detail in the following months. The preview begins with Group A.
This group has been termed by the media as the easiest group. It has none of the so-called superpowers of European football. This does not imply that qualifying to the quarter finals will be easy. In fact, with the absence of a single big team all four teams will harbour ambitions of progression from this group. Even in this not-so-strong group, we have three former European champions in Greece who won in 2004; Russia who were champions in the inaugural tournament in 1960 as Soviet Union and Czech Republic champions of 1976 as Czechoslovakia. Greece and Russia have been drawn in the same group for the third Euro in succession. In fact they played out a 1-1 draw in a friendly match last month.
Resume: Champions 1960. Runners Up – 1964, 1972 and 1988. Semi Finals – 1968 and 2008.
Road to the finals: Qualifying Group B Winner. P-10 W-7 D-2 L-1 GF-17 GA-4 GD-+13
The highest ranked team in the group, Russia will be pleased with the draw. Coached by the Dutchman Dick Advocaat, Russians will be a difficult opponent. They had a good qualifying campaign topping their group ahead of Republic of Ireland. They had a shock loss to Slovakia early in qualifying at home and struggled to score goals early in the campaign. The away match against Republic of Ireland at Dublin was the turning point as the Russians won 3-2 in a very difficult match. After that, the campaign was smooth and they qualified with an emphatic 6-0 victory against Andorra at home. Russians are playing all matches in Poland; they would have preferred to have played in Ukraine with a large Russian population for support. The first match against Czech Republic will be crucial. The Czechs will have more support as Wroclaw is nearer to their country. The last time the two sides met in a similar stage was in Euro 1996 in a memorable match where the Czechs came back from 1-3 down to force a dramatic tie 3-3 with a late goal from Vladimir Smicer, to oust Italy from the tournament.
The Russian team under Advocaat plays mainly with two formations 4-3-3 against weaker opposition or at home and 4-4-1-1 when playing stronger teams or away from home. The team has also used the 4-1-4-1 formation at times. They have a solid look to their side in all departments. Vyacheslav Malafeev, the first choice goalkeeper has been in good form playing in the Champions League for his club, Zenit. There is adequate backup in Igor Akinfeev of CSKA Moscow. In centre of defence they have the experienced CSKA Moscow pairing of Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutskiy. Aleksandr Anyukov of Zenit is the first choice left-back. Yuri Zhirkov, the former Chelsea man now at Anzhi has been used as right-back and also a right sided midfielder by Advocaat. When playing 4-4-3, Zhirkov plays in defence. Against stronger teams, Aleksei Berezutskiy, the twin brother of the defender Vasili comes in the right-back position for his defensive capabilities. Zhirkov plays as a right winger in such matches. In the centre of midfield they have the Zenit duo of Konstantin Zyryanov and Roman Shirokov who have shown good form in the Champions league. Igor Denisov is generally the defensive midfielder playing in front of the back four as he does at his club Zenit. Experienced Igor Semsov of Dynamo Moscow is used on the left wing for his pace. Andrei Arshavin was the star of the Russian team in the last Euro. This time, the player to watch out is Alan Dzagoev of CSKA Moscow. Just 21 years of age, he is an exciting attacking midfielder who is comfortable playing on the left wing as well as behind the front striker. He has the potential to be a star in this tournament. In the forward line there is Arshavin who has question marks over his fitness and lack of first team football at Arsenal. The main striker position is a toss-up between Aleksandr Kerzhakov of Zenit and Roman Pavlyuchenko of Spurs. The former may get the nod for regular first team football for his club. As a back-up they have Pavel Pogrebnyak of Stuttgart.
The Russians play very well as a counter-attack unit with the pace of their players. The problem is when they have to chase the game, they seem to lack a bit of the finesse and cutting edge. They are an enigmatic team who have qualified very well in recent international tournaments to flounder in the finals. Euro 2008 was an exception where they showed their real potential. Dick Advocaat has to prove that 2008 was not an exception but an accurate reflection of their capabilities.
Head To Head
Resume: Champions 1976. Runners Up – 1996. Semi Finals – 1960, 1980 and 2004.
Road to the finals: Qualifying Group I Runner Up. P-8 W-4 D-1 L-3 GF-12 GA-8 GD-+4
Playoff vs Macedonia 3-0 aggregate (2-0,1-0)
Czech Republic had a stuttering campaign to the Euro 2012 finals. They lost their first match to Lithuania and two other matches to Spain; managed a last minute penalty equaliser against Scotland to stay in the hunt for qualification; went into the last match against Lithuania hoping that Spain would beat Scotland to allow them to sneak into a play-off spot. In the play-off, they were much better winning 2-0 at home and 1-0 away against Montenegro. Czech Republic has always performed well in the Euro, winning as Czechoslovakia in 1976 and losing to an Olivier Bierhoff golden goal in 1996. They were arguably the best team in 2004 tournament before losing to a defensive and tactically astute Greek side in the semi finals. Managed by Michal Bilek, they will aspire to play well in their group matches.
Bilek favours a 4-2-3-1 formation. In Petr Cech they have one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Although after his injury and subsequent donning of protective headgear, he has been less confident than before. The defence is led by the Bayer Leverkusen centre back, Michal Kadlec. Tomas Sivok of Besiktas is his partner in centre of defence. The left-back, Theodor Gebre Selassie of Slovan Liberec, the first player of African origin to play for Czech Republic, was very impressive during the playoffs. Daniel Pudil of Genk will be the first choice right-back having made it to the team with some good performances in Champions League. The defence has a tendency of lacking pace in the centre which was exposed by Spain in both the qualifying matches. The midfield has a lot of experience with Tomas Rosicky having a re-emergence of form for Arsenal and the national team. Jaroslav Plasil of Bordeaux will anchor the midfield with Jan Polak of Wolfsburg. Vaclav Pilar of Viktoria Plzen will be the left sided midfielder who will push forward. The right side of midfield has seen Jan Rezek of the Cypriot club, Famagusta. This team generally plays with a lone striker with Tomas Pekhart of Nuremberg being the first choice. Pekhart is a huge talent and has all the makings of a star but has not lived up to his potential for the national team. There is the former Liverpool and Euro 2004 hero, Milan Baros now plying his trade at Galatasaray of Turkey, who is the back-up.
Playing all their matches in Wroclaw will help them as the town is close to their country and they will be backed by partisan support with the exception of the match against the hosts, Poland. The Czech Republic team seems competent and good in their defence and midfield areas. The problem is that with the system they play, they need sharp finishing skills of a player like Jan Koller who they miss after his retirement. They create chances but struggle to score goals. It will be difficult for them to get beyond the group stages. However, they have a lot of big tournament pedigree and always lift their game for this tournament. They can always be the big surprise of the tournament.
Head To Head
Resume: Champions 2004.
Road to the finals: Qualifying Group F Winner. P-10 W-7 D-3 L-0 GF-14 GA-5 GD-+9
Greece was always considered one of the weaker footballing nations in Europe. All that changed in 2004 when under the astute German manager Otto Rehhagel, they pulled off the greatest upset win ever in a national tournament. After this grand success, the Greek national team failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2006. They qualified for Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010. The team failed to perform in the finals of both tournaments, not progressing beyond the group stages. This Euro qualifying campaign was very impressive with Greece being unbeaten and defeating Croatia, a higher ranked team to win the group. The manager of the Greek team, Fernando Santos is a Portuguese national who has a lot of experience managing Greek club sides. Greeks who are known for their very defensive style of play have been refreshingly attack minded under Santos. Generally the Greeks play with the 4-3-3 system. This attacking system is built on the belief that their defence is very strong.
In goal, they have Kostas Chalkias of PAOK, the last club managed by Santos who has immense faith in him. The centre of defence is marshalled by Avram Papadopoulos of Olympiakos and Sokratis Papastathopoulos of Werder Bremen. Both have been in good form in both their respective clubs. In the left-back position there are two players who are vying for a position in the starting line-up – Vasilis Torosidis of Olympiakos and Loukas Vyntra of Panathanaikos. In the right-back position again there are two possible candidates in Nikos Spiropoulos of Olympiakos and Giannis Zaradoukas of Panathanaikos. The three man midfield has a lot of experience in the Panathanaikos duo of Giorgos Karagounis on the left and Kostas Katsouranis on the right. The centre of midfield will be marshalled by Alexandros Tziolis of Racing Santander. The forward line has Theofanis Gekas of Eintracht Frankfurt through the centre, Dimitris Salpigidis of PAOK on the right and Giorgos Samaras of Celtic on the right. Angelos Charisteas, the star of Euro 2004 presently playing at Panetelikos is used as an effective substitute in the frontline.
The main advantage of Greece is that a lot of their players play together for the same teams in defence and midfield ensuring good understanding and organisation. In current form they should be one of the teams to qualify for the quarter-finals. The Greeks however do not have a good record in the finals of international tournaments. If they can overcome this jinx, they can very well mount a serious challenge akin to Euro 2004. The first match against the hosts, however, will be crucial and a draw or win will set them on their way.
Head To Head
Resume: Group Stage 2008
Road to the finals: Automatic qualifier as co-host.
Poland has never been successful in the Euro championships. Even in their hey-days of the 70s and 80s when they finished third twice in the World Cup and won an Olympic gold, they failed to qualify for the Euro tournaments. They managed to qualify for the first time in 2008. They did not progress beyond the group stages following defeats to Germany and Croatia. Being the co-hosts, they qualified automatically for the finals. Poland will start the tournament as the lowest ranked team in the competition. They have not had a competitive match since October 2009. This can be an advantage as the team will be fresher, or a disadvantage as the team will not be really match fit, as friendly matches are not the same thing as competitive. Franciszek Smuda, the head coach has the difficult job of meeting the expectations of the home fans.
Poland in the majority of their friendly matches has used the 4-2-3-1 formation. They have Wojciech Szczęsny of Arsenal as first choice keeper. Interestingly, Łukasz Fabiański, the number two goalkeeper of Arsenal is also the second choice in the national team. The defence has a solid look in Marcin Wasilewski of Anderlecht and Kamil Glik of Torino. Dariusz Dudka of Auxerre should start as rightback and Łukasz Piszczek of Borussia Dortmund as left-back. Rafał Murawski of Lech Poznan and Eugen Polański of Mainz will anchor the midfield. Ludovic Obraniak of Lille will add the creative spark in the centre of midfield. Jakub Błaszczykowski of Dortmund will play on the right wing. Sławomir Peszko of FC Koln will be on the left side of midfield. In the forward line, Robert Lewandowski of Dortmund is the first choice striker. Paweł Brożek of Trabzonspor will be used as a substitute.
The Polish team should give a good account of themselves at home. They will have huge support to back their team which should help their morale. The problem is that they don’t have the quality throughout the team to mount a sustained challenge for the other teams. If they ride on the wave of home support and manage to qualify for the quarter finals, they will be deemed as a huge success.
Head To Head
The final verdict has four categories of teams:
1) Sure-shot – means that the team is the favourite to progress from the group.
2) Likely – the team is not the total favourite but is the second favourite to qualify.
3) Dark Horse – a team which can reach the quarter finals but has to overcome similar teams or favourites to do so.
4) Upset – means that the team reaching the quarterfinals will be a major surprise. In groups there maybe more than a single team in each category or there may not be a single team in particular category also.
Dark Horse: Czech Republic and Greece
[i]The co-efficient is a value arrived at by FIFA, by dividing a particular number of points awarded for a tournament (that includes qualifying for participating, winning, drawings and scoring goals) by the number of matches played
Kinshuk Biswasis an architect by education, a consultant by profession, a quizzer, writer and an absolute football fanatic by choice. Follow him at http://confessionsofastonedmind.blogspot.com
Journey from the Iron Curtain to Perestroika: Soviet and Russian Football
The world we live in today is far from what it was, say twenty five years ago. In this age of media blitz and consumerism, many of us remember the old days when the world was divided into two blocks. Winston Churchill on March 5, 1946 had delivered a speech at Westminster College in Missouri. It had a line which spoke of dominating the social and political scenario of the world for the next four decades. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an ’iron curtain’ has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe.” This was the popularisation of the term – ‘Iron Curtain’. The term had been used before in similar context, but this speech made it famous. The main country behind this Iron Curtain was Soviet Union. The Soviets were a power not only in the military and political circles but also in the world of sports. The Soviet football teams were very strong during this period. Sadly, the successor of the then powerful Soviet team, Russia has failed to achieve similar results. We will try and understand the reasons behind this decline and try to obtain some answers regarding this.
Soviet Union national team crest
The Russian revolution occurred in 1917, after which the entire country was under the grip of a terrible civil war for the next six years which led to a large scale loss of lives and property. There was no time for football or any sports during this period. The first official match played by the Soviet national team was on November 16, 1924 against Turkey which resulted in a 3-0 Soviet victory. There was an unofficial match played against the then independent nation of Estonia in 1923 which was won 4-2 by the Soviets. The national team was sponsored by the state and main emphasis was laid more on Olympics than on the World Cup. However, the team qualified for seven final editions of the tournament from 1958 to 1990, with the exception of 1974 and 1978. The results in the Olympics were far more spectacular with two gold medals and three bronze medals. In the UEFA Euro Cup they won the inaugural tournament in 1960 and finished runners up in three occasions. The Soviet national team also won the inaugural Under 20 World Cup in 1977.
Gavriil Kachilin Victor Maslov
Golden Age of the 60s
Much of the success in the 1960s was under the managerial skills of Gavriil Kachilin, who was a keen man manager with a great rapport with the communist party bosses whom he persuaded not to interfere in his team matters. A Moscow XI made up of different Soviet players managed by Kachilin was the only team to beat the great Hungarian team in their winning run of 34 matches in 1952-54. This victory brought him to the notice of the sports minister who put him in charge of the national squad. Another big influence on Soviet and world football during this period was Victor Maslov, the former coach of Torpedo Moscow and Dinamo Kyiv. Maslov is credited to have been the inventor of the 4-4-2 formation and the concept of pressing in the early 1960s much before its implementation by Sir Alf Ramsey of England in 1966. He was the first person to understand the concept of not allowing opponents time with the ball. According to the noted football journalist Jonathan Wilson he was the initiator of modern football tactics as we know it today.
The Soviet national team of the 60s
This was the golden age of Soviet football with a gold medal at the 1956 Olympics and victory in the 1960 European nation’s cup. The best results in the World Cup were also during this period. The 1968 European nation’s cup semi -final against Italy, which finished in a goalless draw after extra time, was also a memorable match. Till date it is the only senior international final tournament match to be decided by the toss of a coin. The Soviet captain Albert Shesternyov called incorrectly and Italy advanced to the final and eventually won the trophy. The man who was identified as the face of Soviet football during this time was the legendary goalkeeper Lev Yashin, voted as the best goalkeeper of the century in 2000 by International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS). Other major players of this period were Albert Shesternyov, Valeriy Voronin, Valentin Ivanov, Igor Netto, Igor Chislenko, Eduard Streltsov, Viktor Ponedelnik, Mikheil Meskhi and Murtaz Khurtsilava.
The other good period of Soviet football was in the late 1970’s to late 1980’s under the mercurial Ukrainian manager Valeriy Lobanovskyi, who had successfully managed the Dynamo Kyiv club to three European trophies in the 70s. During this period, Oleg Blokhin of Dynamo Kyiv emerged as one of the best forwards in Europe winning the Ballon D’Or in 1975. In the 1986 World Cup the Soviets topped their group by goal difference, winning their matches against Hungary and Canada easily. They drew the other group game against the defending European champions, France in a match which the media described as a match between two genuine contenders for the trophy. In the 2nd round they faced Belgium who were one of the best third placed teams to advance from the group stages. The Soviets were overwhelming favourites. The Soviet team dominated for long periods of the match and led by an Igor Belanov goal at halftime. The Belgians, unimpressive in the tournament till then, had two world class players in Jan Ceulemans and a young Enzo Scifo. Scifo equalised as the Soviet defence were put under pressure with counter-attacks and long balls by the opposition. Belanov restored the lead only to have Ceulemans equalise to take the match into extra time. The Soviets kept attacking and dominating their opponents in extra time, but conceded two counter-attacking goals, both of which were potentially off-side. Belanov completed his hat-trick by converting a penalty to reduce the margin. The Soviets laid siege to the Belgian goal during this period but could not equalise due to the magnificent performance of Jean Marie Pfaff, the Belgian goalkeeper. The exit of the Soviet team was described as a loss to the tournament. Ukrainian Belanov went on to win the Ballon D’Or that year after a very successful club season with Dynamo Kyiv.
Igor Belanov with the Ballon D’Or in 1986.
The team won gold at the 1988 Olympics defeating Brazil with Romario, Bebeto, Jorginho and Tafferel in the final 2-1 in an enthralling encounter. In Euro 1988 the Soviet team topped their group beating Netherlands on the way to the final. In the finals they were favourites against the Dutch whom they had defeated earlier, but fell to the genius of Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten. Igor Belanov missed a penalty to add to their woes. It was ironic that Lobanovskyi was defeated by the team managed by Rinus Michel whose idea of total football he tried to incorporate in his side. That was the last we saw of a strong Soviet side.
Decline and Fall
All this changed in 1989 after the fall of the Berlin wall, the subsequent advent of perestroika and glasnost and the demise of communism in Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union as a nation broke into different countries like Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Belarus. The system which was in place was finished, as the financial support of the government was required for other important things. The state of the art facilities that they enjoyed were all destroyed due to neglect. The Soviet clubs which were majorly backed by large government organisations were left to fend for themselves financially. This started an exodus as majority of the players started to move abroad to play for foreign clubs with lucrative contracts. The team did play as Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) for a few years and also managed to qualify for the Euro 1992 finals in Sweden. However, the CIS team was replaced by Russia in the finals by a FIFA decision as all the different countries wanted to develop their own national teams.
Facts figures and answers
The question which a lot of people ask is why does the current Russian team fail to produce similar results in international tournaments like the erstwhile Soviet teams? The answer is very simple – the current Russian team have the very industrious and organised mid-fielders and defenders. The Soviet team had their share of these players, but they had something extra. They had their creative Ukrainian mid-fielders, the lighting quick Belarusian wingers and very skilled Georgian full-backs. The current Russian national team has very few creative players like these. Similarly the Ukrainian and Georgian teams lack the organisation in defence and midfield of the Russian team. That was the essence of the Soviet team where the Russians would hold fort defensively and work hard. The Ukrainians, Belarusians and the Georgians would add the creative spark and flair. There have also been a few Latvian and Estonian defenders and wingers who have also been part of the Soviet teams. The Russians have played a little more than half the number of matches played by the Soviets till date. One cannot compare a single country with a conglomeration of fifteen different countries who have played double the number of matches. The game in the former Soviet states has also been plagued by politics, corruption and the advent of oligarchs of different types into the national federations. This has meant that the development of the game has evolved from the disciplined approach of the state to the whims and wishes of individuals. It is also a major reason for the number of players from these countries shining in clubs abroad but the national teams lagging behind.
The Soviet oligarchs have taken more interest in foreign clubs than their own. Chelsea and Roman Abrahamovich is the obvious example but others like Alisher Usmanov who owns a large share of Arsenal and Vladimir Antonov who bought Portsmouth from his countryman Alexander Gaydamuk, are also there. FC Schalke 04, the German Bundesliga club is sponsored by Gazprom, one of the major petroleum companies of Russia. It is a status symbol of the Russian elite glitterati to own a football club in a western nation. A few of these billionaires own some of the clubs at home as well. Leonid Fedun owns Spartak Moscow and the newest entrant to this elite group is Suleyman Kerimov, the owner of Anzhi Makhachkala. Anzhi have stunned the football world with a number of big name signings with massive sums of money like Samuel Eto and Roberto Carlos. Anzhi however is a product of the regional prestige of the Dagestan republic, who are proud of their roots and culture. The strange part is, the entire team stays and trains in Moscow, 2000 kilometres away and fly down to play their home matches in Makhachkala. This type of a system which is haphazard and based more on personal and regional egos and whims than logic, cannot possibly help in development of the game in the long run.
One positive point is that Russia will be hosting the World Cup in 2018. This will help in the building of a long term infrastructure like stadiums and training facilities. The Russian national team is also on the ascendancy with some good players playing in the major leagues of Europe. With the Russian system we can only say that either ‘madness is their method’ or ‘there is method in their madness’.
If we make a table of all the matches ever played by the Soviet Union it would read like this:
A team which has won nearly 56% of all their games and drawn a further 24% and lost only around 20% can be deemed to have a very successful record. Majority of the matches were against European opposition.
A similar table of all the matches played by Russia after the dissolution of the CIS:
This winning percentage is 52% with 24% matches drawn and loss percentage of 24%. The Russians have played more matches against lower ranked teams than their predecessors.
An all star Soviet Union squad of all times was selected by European Journalists in 1992 when the team was no longer in existence. It is a tribute to a bygone era where individuals rose above regional and ethnic differences and felt proud to play under a single flag and nation.
Soviet Union All Star Squad (All Time)
Name: Nationality: Club (Most appearances): Soviet National Team tenure