Russians always have a reason why it isn't their fault when they lose, yet it's always their fault when they win -- which is basically why they almost never do actually win. The Telegraph reports:
Of all the excuses Russia have put forward for losing to Israel on Saturday, surely the most hilarious is that rumours of bribery and corruption had "a negative effect on them." Apparently, media speculation in the Komosomolskaya Pravda that Joe Cole offered to buy his Chelsea team-mate, the Israel defender, Tal Ben-Haim, a holiday if Israel won totally unsettled the Russian side. We had no idea the post-Soviet Russian psyche was so prone to collapse whenever confronted by deviation from strict purity. Perhaps the odd little deception during the Cold War, and occasional gentleman competing as a (bearded) lady at the Olympics, has left them yearning for sport played with only a straight bat. In any event, the president of the Russian FA has complained most vigorously to his nation's press that their reports that Israel had been bribed to lose were fundamental to the 2-1 defeat. That's funny. If reports that a rival had been bribed to lose met England's burning ears, they would probably be relieved and delighted.
The International Herald Tribune explains the problem: Too many Russians on the teams!
Less than a week ago, Russia was euphoric and believed that it was on the road to the European Championship finals. Now the odds are against it. For all the oligarchs' money, for all the guile of its coach, Guus Hiddink, the players simply do not seem worldly enough for such competition.
The problem for Russia is that its players are all Russian.
"We have no other players," Sport Express said Monday on its front page. "Don't blame them for failure, they gave all they have. It was not enough."
It has not been enough for Russia, or for any of the former Soviet republics since the empire dissolved 15 years ago. From the current team, perhaps Andrei Arshavin is the one true Russian of genuine quality; the rest are athletic, young, eager, quick. But mostly athletic. This is the way it always was. In 1960, the Soviet Union won the inaugural European Championship in Paris. Through the 1970s and 1980s, it was world youth champion, World Cup regular and Olympic champion. It had Russian order, but flamboyant Georgians, flying wingers from Ukraine, subtlety from Armenia, cunning players from the Crimea. In essence, the Soviet bloc forged, or very nearly forged, a unity on the field that told the history of the struggle to combine 290 million people of different ethnicity under one flag. Yet all was not as simple as it appeared.
When Wales journeyed to Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1981, two of the finest local players - David Kipiani, a marvelous field general, and Alexandre Chivadze, who came out of defense with all the elegance of a Soviet Franz Beckenbauer - were injured bystanders. But the Soviets still had the dark creator Vitali Daraselia, the darting Ramaz Shengelia, the phenomenally quick Oleg Blokhin. They won, 3-0. Those of us who went learned about cockroaches in the hotel beds and also the difference between a Russian and the other, proudly separate, players on the team. It was Kipiani, later to die in a car crash, who sharply corrected me when I made the error of referring to Russian soccer. He was Georgian, so were Daraselia and Shengelia. Blokhin was, and is in his dual role today as national team coach and a member of Parliament, thoroughly Ukrainian.
Yet the habit in the West was to regard the Soviet team as Russia's. Was it coincidence or a natural preference for players who create rather than those who are principally athletes in boots that made the fascination with the Soviets focus almost exclusively non-Russian? It's a subjective matter, a question of what pleases the eye. Nonetheless, the players who seemed gave the Soviet Union some spell-binding spontaneity, included: Khoren Oganesyan (Armenian), Anatoliy Demyanenko (Ukrainian), Vagiz Khidiyatullin (born in Perm, Russia, of Tatar origin), Alexei Mikhailichenko, Viktor Onopko, Andrei Kanchelskis (all Ukrainian), Valery Karpin (Estonian).
There were interesting Russians: Lev Yashin, because he was known as the goalkeeper in black and also as a KGB man, and later Aleksandr Mostovoi and Dmitri Alenitchev. Why the history and geography lesson? Because it shows what a task Hiddink has taken on. It explains why none of the 15 states of the former Soviet Union looks like making it through to the final 16 nations in Euro 2008. Ukraine, built around Andriy Shevchenko, the best of his breed in the modern era, peaked at the World Cup in 2006. It has disintegrated during the current campaign. Its coach, Blokhin, senses that sooner rather than later his time will be up, and someone else must build from scratch. That, pretty much, is where Hiddink is with Russia. Hiddink, who is Dutch, is paid, courtesy of the Chelsea baron, Roman Abramovich, close to $3 million a year; he is contracted to 2010.
"We must get," he said, "a little bit more streetwise."
Hiddink's squad is young, inexperienced, willing to learn. But aside from Arshavin, who plotted England's downfall in Moscow last month and who shone again in Ramat Gan, Israel, last weekend, there is a clear lack of street smarts. The dilemma for Russia, despite its huge population pool of 141 million citizens, is that few of its players know the pace, the movements, the strategies of Europe's top leagues. Even Arshavin, with his bright mind and his polished technique, has yet to make the transition, and he is 26, though, if the rumors are correct, he will soon join Newcastle in England's Premier League. Yet Russia isn't quite eliminated yet. It needs Croatia to win against England in London on Wednesday and to complete the seemingly foregone conclusion of victory over Andorra to qualify.