In the last two campaigns, Russia have seen it all - from national torment to national triumph. In 1998, the path to EURO 2000™ began with a string of painful losses. The Russians were beaten by rivals Ukraine, then lost at home to France, and, to make things worse, lost at Iceland through an own goal by Yuri Kovtun.
All of this happened under Anatoli Byshovets, a man who won the Olympics with the USSR team in 1988. The Russian Football Federation decided to take measures, and acted quickly. FC Spartak Moscow coach and chairman Oleg Romantsev took over, and put an immediate end to a Russian decline. Under Romantsev, Russia quickly turned things around and began a tremendous unbeaten run. Despite losing the three games at the start, their change in fortune game them every chance of topping the group.
Russia beat Armenia to warm up, and then did something that nobody could do at the 1998 FIFA World Cup - namely, beat France in France. Alexander Panov scored two, and Valery Karpin added one to edge out the French 3-2. Russia kept on rolling, and went into the final match with the Ukraine in Moscow knowing victory could give them a chance to win the group and secure qualification.
It started well with Russia going 1-0 up through Valery Karpin’s free-kick but a few minutes before the end, Aleksei Smertin conceded a free-kick some 30 metres away from goal. Ukrainian striker Andriy Shevchenko took the free kick and Russian goalkeeper, Aleksandr Filimonov somehow transpired to throw the ball in his own goal for a 1-1 draw that ultimately meant the end of Russia’s chances.
In the 2002 World Cup campaign, the Russian story was somewhat different. The opening game against Switzerland in Zurich proved how the nation’s luck had turned. Russia could not do anything worthy against the Swiss defence for 73 minutes, until Vladimir Beschastnykh dived for a perfect header that gave his team a 1-0 victory. In the next game, Russia beat Luxemburg 3-0, but it was anything but easy. The last goal only coming in the 90th minute by Yegor Titov, and the scoreline flattered the Russians.
Good on the road
In the first half of 2001, Russia were good on their travels but out-of-sorts at home. They drew 1-1 with both Slovenia and Yugoslavia, and barely got past the Faroe Islands with a 1-0 win. However, away from home they punished Yugoslavia 1-0, against through the only goal by Vladimir Beschastnykh.
After a nervous 2-1 win in Luxembourg, Russia could have decided it all with three games to go in the group. For that, they would only have to draw Slovenia in Ljubljana on 1 September. Russia were comfortable for much of the match, especially after Titov erased Slovenia’s early lead to put them on level terms. Suddenly, with 1-1 on the scoreboard and injury time running out, English referee Graham Poll awarded a penalty to Slovenia. As a result, Romantsev’s side suffered its first and only defeat in the 2002 World Cup qualifiers.
Praise for Izmailov
One bright spot from the game was the first cap, as a substitute, for FC Lokomotiv Moscow’s talented teenager Marat Izmailov. Three days later, Izmailov started his first game for Russia, as they tore apart the Faroe Islands, 3-0 away. After the game, the Faroes coach Alan Simonsen said of Izmailov: “I haven’t seen a younster with such a talent in many years”.
Despite losing only one game in the tournament, Russia’s fate was to be decided on the last day of qualifying, when they were to face Switzerland at home. The players did not fail Romantsev and the whole nation, beating the Swiss 4-0 with another brilliant performance by Beschastnykh, who collected a hat-trick. It meant the Russians would be returning to the World Cup, after missing the 1998 finals in France.
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