Russia Fans See Symbolism in Win

APRussian football fans celebrating their team's victory over Sweden near the Kremlin early on Thursday morning.
Alibekh Zhukenov joined in with everyone else at the Kruzhka location on Nikolskaya Ulitsa on Wednesday night in a bar-wide celebration of the Russia's 2-0 victory over Sweden in the group stage of the Euro 2008 football championship game.

"It's fun to celebrate a Russian victory in a place like this," said Zhukenov, a waiter, as he rushed around the beer hall. "The only part I don't like is settling hundreds of bills the moment the game ends."

That Zhukenov, who is Kazakh, was so caught up in the celebration was not hard to understand, as fans waved Russian flags, drank beer and sang in unison.

At Kruzhka, a beer hall on Nikolskaya Ulitsa with an interior design imitating a medieval dungeon, a full house of fans waved Russian flags, drank beer, and sang in unison in front of the mega screen.

For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, the fans will have the chance to watch their team in a quarterfinal match, on Saturday night against the Netherlands, which has yet to lose in the tournament.

As the underdog Russians dominated throughout the match, out-shooting the baffled Swedes 22-13, the crowd at Kruzhka cheered without pause, most often belting out a simple "Ro-ssi-ya!" but sometimes breaking into more complicated national melodies.

Fans were quick to ascribe symbolic meaning to the victory.

"This symbolizes the political and economic return of Russia," said Maxim Baranovsky as he sipped his domestic beer.

"Our players, like all Russians, have a secret strength hidden within them, especially when their backs are to the wall," said Alexander Akhmedbekov. "That's how it's been throughout Russian history -- for example, that's what happened in World War II."

After the game ended, the party spilled out onto the streets to celebrate through the early hours. A large group of singing men wrapped in flags crossed the Red Square at around 1 a.m., while metro stations across the city were flooded with fans.

Around 5,000 people gathered in Manezh Square, and traffic was brought to a halt on Tverskaya Ulitsa as fans burned torches and drank beer, Interfax reported.

Nonetheless, the scene on the streets remained peaceful with no arrests, according to Viktor Biryukov, the head of the Moscow City Police press office.

The team itself had additional reason to cheer, as the victory earned it a 7 million euro prize ($10.8 million) from the Russian Football Union, Sport television station reported Tuesday. Half a million euros of this goes to the team's Dutch coach, Guus Hiddink, whose popularity has now risen to a new height.

"Hiddink has fostered in Russia the European mentality of winning," Akhmedbekov said.

President Dmitry Medvedev sent his congratulations to the squad, his press service said Thursday, and Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were in the stadium in Innsbruck on Wednesday for the game, Ekho Moskvy reported Thursday.

On Thursday morning, the State Duma got in on the act.

"Needless to say, I'm glad that my prognosis for the match -- 2-0 for Russia -- turned out to be correct," Duma Deputy Speaker Oleg Morozov said, the Regnum news agency reported.

"Russia is worthily laying claim to the highest places," said Liberal Democratic Party head Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Regnum news agency reported.

Pride in the team's performance was the theme of the day Thursday.

"Even if they lose the next match, they'll be seen here as champions," Baranovsky said. "Our team won not with superior technical skill, but with spirit."

The run-up to the match against Sweden had elicited numerous references to the long history of wars between the two nations -- even if they were three centuries ago. One of the fans at Kruzhka had "1709" painted on his head, in reference to the battle of Poltava, where Peter the Great led Russia to victory against the Swedes in the Great Northern War.

Vesti-24, the state-operated cable channel, contributed to the nationalistic fervor, airing Soviet-era movie footage of historic Russian victories against Sweden every half hour on Wednesday, Bloomberg reported.

Fans in countless other Russian cities, including Kaluga, Tula and Syktyvkar, were also out on the streets Thursday night, regional media reported. In Syktyvkar, in the Komi republic, around 5,000 fans marched through the city's streets, many of them playing football, regional news web site reported. Seven time zones away, in Vladivostok, the game itself didn't end until after dawn.

As in Moscow, most of the celebrations were peaceful, although 10 people in Syktyvkar were were detained on charges of hooliganism, regional police said, reported.

Saturday's game against the Netherlands begins at 10:45 p.m.

Staff Writer Natalya Krainova contributed to this story.