It’s a little over two weeks until Euro 2012 kicks off in Ukraine and Poland. Although Russia are involved, this year’s competition is unlikely to see football fever sweep the country in the way it did at the last tournament, four years ago.
Euro 2008, held in Austria and Switzerland, saw the largest spontaneous celebrations in Moscow since the end of World War Two, as some 700,000 people streamed into the streets after Russia had defeated one of the tournament favorites, Holland, to make the semi-finals of a major competition for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russia had qualified from their group with two wins after eight, turning in one of the performances of the competition to defeat Sweden 2-0 in the last group fixture. They were aided in the that encounter by the return of the diminutive Andrei Arshavin, who had been suspended for the first two matches after receiving a red card in the final qualifying game.
But against Holland, managed by their Dutch trainer Guus Hiddink, Russia played the best football since the Soviets had graced the world stage, tearing through their opponents’ defense time after time to turn out 3-1 winners.
The result was instant catharsis for a national side for whom former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin’s bleak commentary on the aftermath of an early 1990s financial crisis had been adopted by both players and fans alike. “We hoped for something better, but things turned out like they always do.”
In southwest Siberia, shortly after Arshavin had slipped home the team’s third goal, a baby was born in the small town of Bolotnoe. The parents, overcome with footballing emotion, decided there was only one way they could thank Hiddink enough, and the world said hello to Guus Vyacheslavovich Khmyelev. More baby Guuses duly followed, most of them, for some reason, in Siberia. The name is as unusual to Russian ears as the sound of the nation’s fans celebrating victory, and I couldn’t help wonder how the children would fare in life with a name that sounded very close to the Russian word for “goose.”
Back in Moscow, people had begun making their way to landmarks such as Red Square, or simply their own street corner.
Around dawn, the traffic police moved in, cruising through the center and attempting to bring order to the city.
“Get off the roads,” came the amplified command, as the police cars struggled to make their way through the still-massive crowds.
The fans ignored them.
Russians have a great capacity for celebration, and a 3-1 victory over the side that had earlier in the competition hammered the world champions, Italy, and the vice world champions, France, was not something to be taken lightly. Certainly not something to be interrupted by the city’s loathed traffic cops.
I wandered through the ecstatic fans. This mass outpouring of footballing joy was most un-Russian, more reminiscent of the kind of thing I had previously only seen on television – residents of Rio celebrating a Brazilian World Cup triumph, or the like.
“Give me that flag!” a young girl yelled at another supporter, a middle-aged man holding the Russian tricolor in one hand, an open bottle of champagne in the other.
“50 rubles,” the fan said.
“Ok,” the girl replied, reaching for her purse.
The man, changing his mind in an instant, shook his head. He had, it seemed, realized that as light broke on the day after Russia had thrown off years of football disappointment to reach the semifinals of the European Championships, hammering the Dutch with a display of pure, fearless attacking football in the process, that the country’s colors were suddenly in great demand. Indeed, the BIAR company licensed to make Russian flags would later report that sales of the white, blue, and red national tricolor had reached 100,000 that June, five times the monthly average.
His price shot up.
“200 rubles,” he said, smiling.
The drinking and the partying went on all night. There was however no aggression, no hint of the violence that had marred the national side’s defeat to Japan at the 2002 Word Cup. The next day, the city’s police would release a public statement thanking the fans for their good behavior.
But the good times, as ever, wouldn’t last for Russia, and the side slumped to a 2-0 defeat to the eventual winners, Spain, in the semi-finals. But, although the country had hoped for another miracle, most people here were content with that famous victory over Holland.
A win over Spain would have been too much, and taken things into the realms of the truly bizarre. Victory against Holland had already been a surreal experience for the nation. Or as the commentator on the NTV channel said when Russia went two goals up. “3-1! 3-1!! I don’t believe what I’m saying!”
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
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