Hopes Ride on an Odd Couple

APArshavin training Tuesday in Vienna.
One has the fresh face of a teenager and a diploma in fashion design; the other is a portly, middle-aged Dutchman.

Come Thursday evening, though, this seemingly odd couple will have the hopes of the entire nation riding on their shoulders.

Following a scintillating 3-1 victory Saturday over the Netherlands in the Euro 2008 quarterfinals, mop-haired Russian playmaker Andrei Arshavin and national team coach Guus Hiddink have been propelled to the status of national saviors.

As Russia prepares for Thursday's semifinal against Spain in Vienna, fans are already trying to ensure that the team's success in getting this far won't soon be forgotten.

Over the past few days, two newborn babies, one in the Sverdlovsk region and the other in Novosibirsk, have been named Guus, and plans have been mooted to rename streets and erect monuments in honor of the foreign coach.

Meanwhile, the traditionally xenophobic Liberal Democratic Party has called for Hiddink, who is also a hero in South Korea and Australia after successful stints coaching their respective national teams, to be given an award for service to his adoptive motherland.

President Dmitry Medvedev even joked that he could grant the Dutchman a Russian passport.

As interest in the national team has swelled, Hiddink's image has become ubiquitous, with him even addressing television viewers in stilted Russian in a commercial for cell phones.

But even as Hiddink's popularity soars, it is still Arshavin, the star player, who is stealing fans' hearts.

"In two weeks, I've become a real fan of Russian football and Andrei Arshavin," Perm resident Yulia Konoplyova, 21, told the tabloid Tvoi Den after getting a somewhat hazy portrait of the football star tattooed on her left breast.

The success of the current team and its aggressive, captivating play mark a stunning renaissance for Russian football. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian team repeatedly disappointed fans and had never progressed beyond the group stage of any major tournament.

Even more startling, Thursday's game marks a miraculous recovery from the 4-1 drubbing that Russia received at the hands of Spain in its first game at Euro 2008, which has been hosted jointly by Austria and Switzerland.


Alexander Wilf / AP
Celebrating fans riding past a billboard of Hiddink in Moscow early Sunday.


"People criticized and criticized our players," Medvedev said Wednesday, Interfax reported. "But now the mood is changing, and the nation is bonding."

Perhaps unfortunately for Medvedev, he'll be attending the EU-Russia summit in Khanty-Mansiisk over the next few days, meaning that he can't take the same hands-on approach as some European leaders.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has become a fixture at Germany games, sending text messages to players, giving pep talks and even scolding left midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger for getting sent off earlier in the tournament. Germany was to play Turkey in the other semifinal late Wednesday.

Medvedev will still make an appearance in one form or another.

More than 6,000 Russian fans will attend the Spain game, more than 1,000 of whom plan to unfurl a 60-meter long flag with Medvedev's face, Russian Football Union spokesman Ivan Genkenev said Wednesday. The president's visage will be accompanied on the flag by the slogan "Finals, here we come!"

Some 2,000 smaller flags, also bearing Medvedev's image, will be handed out as well, along with booklets containing pro-Russian chants, Genkenev said. All the fans will be dressed in red, he said.

Back in Russia, interest in the match, which kicks off at 10:45 p.m. Moscow time, is at fever pitch, raising questions of how far celebrations will go should the team beat Spain and go on to win Sunday's final in Vienna.

After the spectacular victory over the Netherlands, some 700,000 people flooded onto the streets of Moscow in an impromptu orgy of fireworks, singing and celebration.

Space is likely to be tight for fans wishing to watch the game in bars and restaurants throughout the city. As of Tuesday, every table in 10 Kruzhka beer halls in the city center had been booked, despite a cover charge of 800 rubles ($34) per person.

Moscow police said they would deploy 3,785 officers to patrol the streets Thursday evening, while City Hall is banning the sale of alcohol and any beverages in glass bottles in the city center Thursday evening, Interfax reported.

It was unclear exactly what time the ban would begin, and repeated calls to City Hall for clarification went unanswered Wednesday.

Bookmakers, meanwhile, have the star-studded Spanish squad as the favorite to make the final.

At what will probably be the most unpopular place in Moscow on Thursday, the mood was bullish ahead of the big game. Spanish Embassy spokesman Ignacio Moreno said the consulate was not taking any extra security measures for tomorrow's game.

"I hope the best team wins -- and I hope it's Spain," Moreno said.

Despite their abundance of riches, the serially underachieving Spanish side can almost match Russia's record for big tournament disappointments. Madrid newspaper Marca has launched an Internet petition for the Spanish players to shave their heads if they win the tournament, while one enterprising Madrid company is selling voodoo dolls bearing the Russian tricolor flag.

Beyond Madrid, though, fans and journalists around Europe seem to be throwing their support behind Russia.

"Before this tournament, Russia was my least favorite of the 16 teams," columnist Simon Hattenstone wrote Wednesday in the British daily The Guardian. "I can't stand Vladimir Putin, I thought England should have been there instead. ... And now? I am falling in love with them."

"Russia is really a beautiful team! Did you see the game against Holland?" read one message posted on the web site of Italian daily Gazzetta Dello Sport. "Now that Italy has gone home, I'm supporting them!"

But it is one man who is really drawing plaudits from around the continent.

"A-R-S-H-A-V-I-N, your day of glory has arrived," one fan wrote on the web site of French daily L'Equipe.

And win or lose on Thursday, this tournament will have proved profitable for the Russian attacker.

After a decade with his hometown club, Zenit St. Petersburg, Arshavin is attracting admiring glances from a host of leading European clubs. Despite reports linking him with clubs in Britain and Germany, Arshavin says he has his heart set on only one country: Spain.