Making Champions Out of Underdogs

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By David Marples



The image of Russia in the West has slowly deteriorated from one of potential ally to that of an aggressor that threatens Asian and European security. The country comes off as big noisy child, anxious to get its way against the wishes of other family members.

But over the past few days, its image has received an unexpected positive boost thanks to its star football team after it beat Sweden and Holland in the Euro 2008 tournament.

Russia is not renowned for its prowess in football. It has the youngest team in the tournament, and in the beginning, it even struggled to qualify, relying mainly on the self-destruction of England in its last game in London versus the Croatians. In its first game of the tournament, the Russians were demolished by a talented Spain, losing 4-1.

Yet under its wily Dutch coach, Guus Hiddink, it has improved from game to game. Against the Swedes, Russian fans unfurled a banner of Peter the Great, who led Russia to a decisive victory over Sweden at the Battle of Poltava in 1709. This proved prophetic as Russia won convincingly 2-0.

On Saturday, Russia played Holland in the quarterfinals. The stadium in Basel was dominated by Dutch fans, with the Russian contingent occupying only one end. They were loud, unruly, inebriated and bare-chested.

Russia exhibited some of the best football anyone has seen in years, completely outplaying the heavily favored Dutch to win 3-1 in overtime. Their hero was Andrei Arshavin of Zenit St. Petersburg, the team that marked the Russia's resurgence in football when it beat German champion Bayern Munich 4-1 en route to the UEFA Cup Final last month. Against the Dutch, Arshavin engineered the winning goal in overtime and then added a third for good measure.

Over 500,000 people poured into the streets of Moscow to celebrate the victory over Holland. Remarkably, there were stories that even in Georgia and Ukraine people were cheering the Russian success. Hiddink, who joked that he might no longer be welcome in his native country, was offered honorary Russian citizenship by President Dmitry Medvedev.

Russia is now one of the favorites to win the competition. Even more surprisingly, fans from all over the world actually want the Russian underdogs to win. The reason is simple -- they are fast, exciting and play wonderfully well together as a team.

Russia has its work cut out for them, however, with Germany also in the competition. But even if Russia does not win the tournament, the team's success so far has done more to improve the image of Russia than anything that the country's politicians and oligarchs could do combined. It can only help to improve Russia's standing in Europe, which up to now has largely regarded Russia as an aggressive Eurasian power with hostile or predatory intentions not unlike the Soviet Union.

Russians need to overcome some of the persistent stereotypes of them as imperialistic, boorish and aggressive. All too often their outspoken politicians and brash business leaders let them down. But the country has many different facets and faces. The exuberant Russian football players are a healthy antidote to the negative images that currently stain the country's reputation. It is also proof that no country should ever be measured solely by its political or business leaders.

David Marples, a professor of Russian history at the University of Alberta, Canada, is the author of "The Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1985-1991."

By Georgy Bovt



I don't recall anything similar to what happened on the streets of Moscow following Russia's football victory over the Netherlands on Saturday. Half a million hysterically joyous people spilled out into the streets. They honked car horns, waved Russian flags, hugged each other and cried, "Russia is the champion!"

It was vaguely reminiscent of old newsreel footage from 1961, when the government staged a huge reception for Yury Gagarin to celebrate his pioneering spaceflight. But the big difference is that for the Gagarin event, people did not spill out on the streets spontaneously and voluntarily, but in organized groups orchestrated by the Communist Party.

I also remember how millions protested after the 1991 putsch, demanding their freedom, but these rallies were clearly political in nature.

Nighttime celebrations over a football victory, however, are apolitical and spontaneous by nature. They are also inevitably hysterical and reckless. The huge open-air party roared on for hours after the game ended shortly after 1 a.m. Moscow time. On the city's central streets, young women took off their shirts and danced on car roofs, everyone shouted at the top of their lungs and waved Russian flags. They embraced police officers who were unaccustomed to smiling at crowds of people, having been trained to stand in somber cordon or to disperse such crowds with rubber bludgeons.

Russians have certainly changed in the last few years. They have responded en masse to a common, positive impulse, and this is part of a new freedom they feel. When will the take to the streets in large numbers next time? Neither I nor the authorities know the answer to that intriguing question.

The revelry on the streets of Moscow and other cities also reminded me of similar celebrations televised from other countries whose teams had won. The people there partied with the same unorganized spontaneity. Did that bring Russians closer to those countries?

Athletic victories can certainly change a country's image. Russia's strong showing in the Euro 2008 football championships has added a new dimension to its standing in the international arena.

We saw an explosion of national pride that sometimes took a more aggressive tone in the form of: "We will tear everybody else to pieces!" The images of drunken Muscovites shouting loudly into television cameras probably made a lot of Europeans cringe. In their minds, Russia remains a strange and foreign land. The British or Italians, of course, can stage any kind of celebratory orgy on the streets of Europe and they will be forgiven, but Russian football fans walking the same streets are still met with wariness.

On the other hand, Switzerland and Austria have relaxed their visa rules, allowing Russians to stay a few days beyond the expiration date of their visas. But there is no discussion of providing visa-free entry for Russians into European countries, as the Russian authorities did for the British during the final match of the UEFA Champions League.

It will be a long time before Russians and Europeans are able to get along with each other, and this has nothing to do with who is facing whom on the football field.

Georgy Bovt is a political analyst and hosts a radio program on City-FM.