Cry for the Irish, But Blush for the Russians

While most of the attention from the European playoffs has been devoted to the Irish, the biggest shock of the playoffs – Slovenia’s win over Russia – has been largely overlooked. The Russians were playing some great football under Gus Hiddink. They had built off their fantastic European championship performance in 2008 and lost just twice, both against Germany in qualification. The Russians were the clear favorites to go through and perhaps to make some noise in the World Cup. But instead of being humble and cautious heading into the playoff the Russians were cocky.

Before the first playoff game against Slovenia the Russian team unveiled their new 2010 jerseys. While the phrase “world cup jersey” was probably not used in the unveiling, that was clearly the implication. To drive the point home further, this wasn’t simply a new jersey, but was a completely new rebranding of the Russian team. The new home jerseys were dark red and harked back to the imperial Russian might of the Soviet era. And in a reflection of the mix of politics and sport, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev made the trip to Slovenia to watch the game. The hubris of the Russians to change jerseys to ones reminiscent of the Soviet era, prior to a World Cup playoff against a country that was under the thumb of Soviet imperialism (okay Slovenia wasn’t a country then and Yugoslavia had a degree of independence) is remarkable. It also makes the defeat all the more embarrassing.

The new uniform wasn’t just a cool new look developed about Adidas, but was a Russian political statement. The era of wearing boring, soulless and inoffensive white and blue uniforms was over – just as the era of Yeltsin and following the West blindly had ended with the more assertive and nationalistic Putin. This new more assertive Russia had reemerged on the international scene, both geopolitically and in the world of football through new Russian talent, an improving Russian league awash in cash, and Russian billionaires able to buy up top club teams. So after years of seeming impotence and weakness geopolitically and in football, the Russians were now an emerging force in both areas. And this new Russia, was neither ashamed of its past imperial strength nor was it apologetic in its current pursuit for global dominance. And these new uniforms were the perfect embodiment of this Russian psyche. They are modern and bold, yet clearly inspired by the past.

That is why the loss to Slovenia makes this perhaps an even more apt characterization of modern Russia. Russia’s reemergence is in many ways superficial. The increase in oil and gas prices has given it resources to strengthen the state and wield greater international clout. However, while this has created immense wealth, it has also papered over an economy and society plagued with huge problems, ranging from extreme poverty, low life expectancy, widespread diseases like AIDs and alcoholism, and endemic corruption. Not to draw the analogy to far, but Russian football has similar characteristics, as it burst on the scene as part of this new Russian boom. Yet while the emergence was real geopolitically and in football –players like Arshavin, Zhirkov, and Pavlyuchenko have shown to be world class – as the loss to Slovenia exposes there was a soft underbelly to this Russian side, one that a great foreign coach and a few great players couldn’t overcome.

This is perhaps extending the metaphor too far. But hey, by wearing those jerseys’ they brought geopolitics into this.


2 Responses

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