Euro 2008 Finds Russia in Familiar Company

APHiddink attending a ceremony welcoming his team to Leogang on Thursday.
At 28-to-1 with some bookmakers, the Russian national football team is a long-shot to win Euro 2008, which kicks off Saturday in Switzerland and Austria.

But ever since Russia notched a stunning 2-1 victory over England last fall in the qualifying round, the country has been riding a wave of football optimism.

The national team went on to clinch a berth in the Euro 2008 final, and last month Zenit St. Petersburg defeated Glasgow Rangers to become the second Russian team in three years to win the UEFA Cup, European football's second-tier club competition.

And in its Dutch head coach, Guus Hiddink, Russia has a trainer who specializes in surpassing expectations with underdog teams.

In 2002, Hiddink took unheralded South Korea to the World Cup semifinals, while in the 2006 World Cup he guided Australia out of the group stages before losing to eventual champion Italy.

"To be honest, we are not the favorite, but there is ambition in the national team, and I like it very much that the players feel proud to play for their country," Hiddink said in a May 24 interview, one day before he and the team jetted out to a training camp in Germany.

Russia will play in Group D, along with Spain, Greece and Sweden, giving the team perhaps an ominous sense of deja vu. Russia crashed out in the first round of the Euro 2004 in Portugal, failing to make it out of a group that also included Spain and Greece.

Russia kicks off at 8 p.m. Moscow time Tuesday against Spain, one of the tournament favorites, in Innsbruck, Austria. The game will be shown live on Channel One television.

Things won't get any easier for the national team should it make it out of group play for the first time since 1988, when the Soviet national team lost 2-0 to the Netherlands in the final.

Russia will likely face one of the giants from Group C — the "Group of Death" that includes Italy, France and Hiddink's native Netherlands, along with Romania.

Russian players and fans can perhaps take solace in the fact that powerhouse Germany is in the other half of the draw.

Unfortunately for Russia, captain and star player Andrei Arshavin, who plays for Zenit, will miss the first two games after being sent off in the last qualifying match against Andorra. His absence will leave the team bereft of much of its creativity.

Striker Pavel Pogrebnyak could miss the tournament altogether after he injured his left knee in Russia's 2-1 victory over Serbia in a warm-up game last week.

The players and coaches will have some financial motivation to compensate for the absence of their suspended and injured players.

UEFA, European football's governing body, will give the Russian Football Union 1 million euros for each of the Russian team's victories and 500,000 euros for each draw. The union has promised to give half of those proceeds directly to the team.

Channel One and Rossia television have divvied up the tournament's 31 games. Almost all matches will be shown live, meaning that between June 7 and the June 29 final in Vienna there will be 2790 minutes of televised football — excluding injury or potential extra time. All games will be played at either 8 p.m. or 10:45 p.m. Moscow time.

Thousands of Russian fans have opted to watch the action live, however, following the team to Austria in hopes of seeing it bring the title home for the first time since the Soviet Union triumphed in 1960.

Some 6,000 tickets have been sold in Russia, Russian Football Union spokesman Andrei Malosolov said this week.

Eleven lucky Russian police officers have flown in to liaise with their Austrian counterparts and make sure everything goes smoothly with the Russian fans, Deutsche Welle reported. The number pales in comparison with the some 1,700 German police officers heading to the tournament.

But the tournament organizers will need to be slightly more culturally sensitive if they want to avoid enraging some Russian fans.

In a brochure handed out to journalists ahead of the competition, tournament officials accidentally printed the red-and-white Polish flag in place of the Russian tricolor, Russian media reported.

The Russian players are desperate to emulate the success of the Russian national hockey team, which won the world championship last month, Arshavin told UEFA's official web site Saturday.

It's not just fellow athletes the players can turn to for patriotic inspiration. They are, after all, trying to become the country's first European champions since pop star Dima Bilan won the Eurovision Song Contest in Belgrade last month.

But for some players, comparisons to the lank-haired crooner's success are beginning to grate.

"In general I don't like the [Eurovision Song] contest and I didn't like Bilan's song either," Russian midfielder Diniyar Bilyaletdinov told Sovietsky Sport.

Providing his own melodious support is mustachioed State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, who has shown a hitherto unknown musical talent by penning an anthem for the Russian team.

Gryzlov's song contains the memorable chorus: "Russia forward! Our turn has come! Russia forward! Victory awaits!"

The tune also features the unsporting exhortation telling the team "to fight, to butt heads, to bite, to win for everyone," which at least rhymes in Russian.

Should the team require any other inspiration, it need only look at Greece. A massive long-shot going into Euro 2004 but with an experienced foreign coach, the Greek team stunned Europe by taking the title.

Euro 2008 kicks off Saturday with Switzerland taking on Czech Republic. The game will be shown at 8 p.m. on Rossia.