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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Players Find Russian Pride in Paris

Russians from all walks of life were beaming with pride this weekend - and the cause had nothing to do with Alexander Pushkin.

Even the national poet's bicentennial Sunday, the culmination of a year of well-publicized, commercially and politically exploited preparations, was upstaged by one unexpected event that garnered banner headlines and forced even the most dour political commentators to smile.

Russia beat France in soccer.

Russia's 3-2 victory over the world champion in Paris came as a surprise even to the most loyal fans of the team - which until Saturday night's victory had barely a flicker of hope of qualifying for the European Championships in 2000. And though it will take a lot for that flicker to turn to a flame and light the way to the top, it has made many Russians feel a little better about their country.

"In a country where there are such problems in the economy, culture, education - you know the situation - even a little bit of joy is a big deal. I think Saturday evening was a holiday for everybody," Vladimir Rodionov, secretary general of the Russian Soccer Union, said Monday.

"People forgot about [the price of] sausage for a minute and thought about something else," said Anatoly Usachyov, a regular at the soccer bar Off-Side.

Usachyov and other fans certainly had enough to think about during the close game that left many Russians biting their nails during the second half.

Alexander Panov was the two-goal hero as Russia came back from being 2-1 down with less than 15 minutes to go in the same stadium where France had lifted the World Cup less than a year ago.

Russia took the lead early in the first half, but then France scored two goals in the second half, passing out the visiting side.

But with France in control of the scoreboard, Russia began to play like no Russian team has for many a year. Usually known for its failures and internal bickering, the team was united this time under their new manager, Oleg Romantsev, and never gave up.

Panov hit the equalizer in the last quarter of an hour, and then Valery Karpin snatched a dramatic victory with only three minutes left to play.

Before the match, Russia's home supporters weren't overly optimistic about their team's chances.

Thirty-seven percent of people surveyed by the Russian newspaper Sport Express last week said that they wouldn't even place a single ruble on a Russia win. But the 6.4 percent who said they would bet $1,000 on a Russian victory turned out to be justified in their faith.

Itogi, NTV's Sunday-night analytical program, served as a barometer for the importance of the victory by leading with the soccer story, and for its late-night interview snubbed the usual political big-wigs in favor of coach Romantsev. Anchor Yevgeny Kiselyov told viewers that the event merited deviating from the show's generally 90 percent political format.

Besides Sport Express, which devoted the first nine of its 16 pages to the Russia-France game, the few newspapers that come out on Mondays devoted prime space to the event.

Moskovsky Komsomolets ran a banner that said "Romantsev Made All of France Cry" along with a Page 1 article titled "Vivat, Russia." Segodnya's lead article was dedicated to soccer and ran under the headline "Don't Mess With Us!" Coverage of Sunday's Pushkinalia ran under the fold.

But even as the mainstream press joined in the chorus of praise for Romantsev and "his boys," it was the die-hard fans who couldn't wipe the grins off their faces Monday.

"I still can't calm down," said Mikhail Dryomin, 26, who maintains a Russian soccer mailing list. After the match, he called friends as far away as Vladivostok and Atlanta to raise a glass of vodka with them and was on-line for most of Saturday night and Sunday discussing the victory.

Dryomin's words were echoed in the lead article of Sport Express Monday, which ran the headline, "Yesterday Russia at Last Woke Up Happy!"

"We had long ago forgotten this tremendous feeling - pride for one's country and its soccer," the article read. "But after this victory, the first great victory for Russia, it has become clear: The period of stagnation in our soccer is over."

And the paper found poetic justice in the timing of the victory on the eve of Pushkin's 200th. "To the Homeland of D'Anthes From Pushkin's Descendants," it said on Page 7, referring to the Frenchman who killed Pushkin in a duel.

Many fans could be heard on the streets celebrating the victory into the wee hours of Sunday morning, and a few were at Vnukovo Airport to greet the players, who returned at 7 a.m.

"That's never happened before. I don't know how they found out about it," said Rodionov, who also flew back with the team. He estimated there were about 200 fans there.

"Everyone believed in the team, even those that bet against Russia," said Gennady Makeyev, who runs Side-Bar's book-making operations.

Despite the team's proud night in Paris, Russia still has only slim chances of qualifying for the championship. Even winning the remaining four games will not guarantee it a spot.

Ukraine, Russia's biggest rival, leads the group with 14 points after six games. Iceland is second with 12 points, and France is third with 11 points. Russia is fourth with nine points.

But three games ago, before Romantsev took over as coach, Russia had zero, and only Andorra - population 62,000 - was below it.

The team's next test comes Wednesday when they face Iceland in another group qualifier. It will also be a test for the fans to see whether they'll turn out to support the team. The match was moved to Dynamo stadium because officials doubted the team could attract enough support to fill the 78,000 Luzhniki stadium.

But the dozen regulars watching the Sweden-Yugoslavia match at Off-Side on Monday said they would be there.

The national victory, Makayev said, has unified the often bickering fans of different clubs.

"He's for Dynamo, he's for CSKA," the Spartak fan said, gesturing toward various patrons. "But it didn't matter. ... Everyone was for one team."