We said then: "the only thing Russia accomplished by winning this match was to stave off absolute elimination from the tournament following a season of lackluster play." The malignant little troll who prowls the Kremlin disagreed, and sent his lackey prime minister to extol the virtues of Russian heroism in a truly disgusting display of neo-Soviet nationalism. Reform? Ha!
Over the weekend, Russia was placed on the brink of elimination from the tournament's first round when it lost 1:2 to tiny Israel, hardly world-famous for sporting achievement. It's hard to imagine anything more humiliating for Russia's racist, nationalist multitudes than to lose a key match like this to a nation of Jews. The Associated Press quoted Russia's coach Guus Hiddink (that's right, Russia's team isn't even coached by a Russian): "Of course we are very, very disappointed. We were close. We were the team who was dominating the game."
Dominating the game? The score was 1:1 at the end of regulation, and Israel then scored in injury time to end the match. Israel led 1:0 for the first hour of play. Only someone deeply consumed by Russian madness considers a tie score to be evidence of domination -- so perhaps Mr. Hiddink is a bit more Russian than superficially appears (indeed, he was found guilty of evading 1.4 million euros in taxes in February 2007, yet another indication of how really Russian he may be under the skin).
Russia has now lost control of its own destiny the tournament. England must lose its final match and Russia must win, or else England and not Russia will advance to the tournament's second round. And even if this double miracle were to occur, it wouldn't mean Russia is anything like a qualified contender for the title. Instead of celebrating last month, Russia should have been focusing on how much real work still lay before it. As always, Russia declined to do so.
November has not been a good month for Russian sport. Just last week, at the year-end Tour Championships event in Madrid Spain, where the top eight female tennis players met to slug it and find out who's really Queen of the Courts, Russia's highest-ranked player Svetlana Kuznetsova lost every single one of her round-robin matches and failed to advance to the second round of the prestigious tournament. Yet, you rarely hear anyone pointing out how fundamentally flawed the Russian tennisistka really is. Instead, you quite often hear insipid babbling about "domination" that dilutes and derails the obvious need for reform and improvement.
Sports is a neat metaphor for politics where Russia is concerned. In both areas, Russia lives off illusion rather than substance. Unqualified for G8 membership, Russia nonetheless takes a seat by projecting an illusion of significance based on oil reserves and nuclear weapons. In no way credible in either tennis or football, Russia continues to make pretensions. People talk about Russia's "booming" economy when its results are in fact very far from being significant, almost wholly the result of the accident of world oil prices and virtually meaningless judged on a per capita basis. The vast majority of Russian people live out their short lives in miserable, squalid poverty, just as they have been doing for centuries, and Russia does not shape world events on the international stage; instead, it stands always isolated and alone, ostracized and impotent, failing wildly in the dark with its rusty sword and its epithets like a malignant Don Quixote.
But the nationalist bluster and self-delusion continues, and as long as it does Russia will never take a good hard look at how fundamentally flawed its political (and sports) systems really are, much less take the necessary effort to reform them. Russians will go on with their delusions and fantasies, just as their forebears did in the time of the USSR, and Russia will inevitably meet the same fate the USSR did.
In fact, Russian sport is actually more rational than Russian politics, as if it were more important. Valery Gazzaev was fired as the soccer team's coach in 2004 when poor performance placed Russia on the brink of Euro 2004 elimination. More recently, Russia went as far as to replace Russian coach Aleksandr Borodyuk with the national team's first foreign leader, Hiddink, seeming to admit (taking a cue perhaps from Peter I) that Russia couldn't handle the job itself. Yet, it's clear that these actions were only cosmetic, similar to Putin or Yeltsin firing one prime minister and bringing in another, basically a carbon copy, perhaps even more a sycophant. Sports teams can't function in a dream world, Russia seems to have at least some vague clue about that, and yet in politics no such supervision is applied.
Leaving Russia is what it always has been: A nation of losers who don't give any real indication of truly wanting that status to change. Perhaps, indeed, this column should have been called "masochist nation." The fact that Russia has many talented people and national resources only makes this status all the more outrageous, not less. How can Russia be anything else but a loser nation, when it chooses to blind itself to basic facts by destroying independent political parties, press, television and Internet resources that would otherwise deliver information -- willfully creating an emperor's-new-clothes scenario, an ivory tower completely out of touch with reality?
And one must wonder whether even a free flow of information would be enough to help Russians start winning. Maybe they are simply too far gone. After all, every Russian voter knows full well that Vladimir Putin is a proud KGB spy, and every adult in Russia has a clear memory of watching the KGB's USSR collapse before the world in disgrace, just like Russia's soccer team in Israel. Yet, they still voted for Putin in droves, and all you hear about is ways to increase Putin's power, not supervise him, without even demanding that he participate in debates or answer tough questions from interlocutors about his past and his plans for the future.
A sports team that can't see reality loses. A nation that does so cannot escape that fate either.