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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dutch Pair Find Favor in Russia

Russians like their heroes homegrown, but this New Year's Eve, football fans will be toasting two middle-aged Dutchmen.

Guus Hiddink led Russia to the Euro 2008 finals while fellow Dutchman Dick Advocaat steered Zenit St. Petersburg to its first national title for nearly a quarter of a century.

The Dutchmen's influence, however, goes well beyond the playing field.

Hiddink, 61, the first foreigner to coach Russia's national team, not only has transformed an often underachieving side, but has become a media darling for his openness, straightforward approach and sense of humor.

"He was like a breath of fresh air," said Igor Rabiner, football columnist at the newspaper Sport-Express. "And we all needed that after a long procession of sterile personalities," he said in reference to former Russian managers.

"In some ways, Hiddink has revolutionized Russian football," said Grant Kasyan, sports editor at Kommersant.

Unlike Hiddink, Advocaat, who replaced popular Czech Vlastimil Petrzela midway through the 2006 season, struggled at first to win over Zenit fans.

But that all changed this year when he took Zenit to its first league crown since 1984, going one better than his predecessor, who led the club to the runner-up spot in his first season in 2003.

Petrzela was almost a cult figure in St. Petersburg, loved by the Zenit media and fans for his attractive brand of football as well as his sharp tongue.

Advocaat, 60, said all he wanted was to build a winning team.

"I've never cared much for having a popularity contest. It just doesn't interest me," he said shortly after his arrival.

Gradually, he was able to turn things around, instilling order and discipline into Zenit's often impetuous game.

After a fourth-place finish in 2006, Zenit finally made the breakthrough this year, disproving Petrzela, who famously said they would never win the title against the powerful Moscow clubs.

Ironically, this year it was the capital's clubs that often complained about refereeing and other outside factors aiding Zenit, which was backed by Gazprom's seemingly limitless resources.

Advocaat, dubbed the Little General by the Dutch media, remained unperturbed by the controversy around him.

"I always let my results do the talking for me," he said in response to complaints of some of his fellow coaches.

Having finally warmed to Russia's second capital, Zenit's title finish convinced Advocaat to extend his contract.

The Dutchman, who had previously agreed to coach Australia, last month changed his mind and decided to stay in St. Petersburg for another year.

"The lure of playing in the Champions League was just too big to resist. Of course, money was also a factor," said Advocaat, who will reportedly earn over $4.5 million next year.