Winston Churchill once described Soviet Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” The gruff British statesman could have been talking about the Russian national team, both now and in its previous incarnation as the USSR.
Since their emergence from beyond the Iron Curtain and onto the international scene after World War II, the enigmatic Russians have flattered to deceive.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
A force in Olympic soccer during the amateur days, they etched out a reputation as a European powerhouse between 1960-72, winning the continental title once (1960), and picking up two silver medals and a fourth place finish during the 12-year period.
Surprisingly, though, the hooded Russians were never able to make the same impact on the World Cup. This, despite four successive trips to the finals starting in 1958, and the heroics of such legendary Soviet-era players as goalkeeper Lev Yashin, who led them to the semifinals of the 1966 tournament in England.
Altogether, the USSR made seven trips to the finals, and 1966 aside, going no further than the quarterfinals. As a separate entity following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia heads to the Far East for its second tournament after flaming out in the first round of USA ’94.
Drilled by Oleg Romantsev, who also doubles as coach of one of his country’s biggest clubs, Spartak Moscow, Russia’s goal is to forge a new World Cup tradition.
Romantsev and his men have, on paper, been blessed with a favorable draw, albeit the presence of co-hosts Japan and perennial European qualifiers Belgium adds an element of intrigue to what is generally a low-profile group. Tunisia complete Group H.
Russia’s probable squad is a mix of youth and experience, with the latter belonging to former USSR veterans like Alexandre Mostovoi, defender Viktor Onopko, and Vladimir Bestchastnykh, who was a 19-year-old prodigy in attack when he made his World Cup debut at USA ’94.
Mostovoi, on the books of Spain’s Celta Vigo, earned half of his 40-plus caps for the Soviet Union. His experience should be invaluable in midfield where he plays in front of a defense marshaled by Onopko, the Russian skipper who is approaching the century mark in international appearances.
Calm and collected with all the defensive tact of his 32 years, Onopko was born in the Ukraine but opted to play for Russia when the Soviet regime folded. Like Mostovoi and Russia’s brilliant attacking midfielder Valery Karpin, Onopko plies his trade in Spain’s La Liga, with Oviedo.
In Bestchastnykh, Russia have their most dependable forward. The 27-year-old, now back at Spartak Moscow after stints with Werder Bremen and Racing Santander, was instrument in securing Russia’s ticket to the finals.
He scored a team-high seven goals in the qualifiers including a superb hat trick in a 4-0 romp over Switzerland that clinched Group 1 for Romantsev’s men.
Still, scoring remains one of Romantsev’s main concerns ahead of Japan/Korea ’02. In three preparatory matches this year, Russia has been able to find the net only once.
The other consistent scoring options to Bestchastnykh have a youthful flair. There’s Yegor Titov, who netted three goals in the qualifiers; Dmitry Sychov, an 18-year-old scoring sensation from Spartak; and CSKA Moscow’s rising talent Denis Popov.
On the flip side, the Russians are solid in defense, and conceded a meager five goals in 10 qualifiers against Slovenia, Yugoslavia, Switzerland, the Faroe Islands and Luxembourg.
This is an obvious tribute to the leadership and skills of the Onopko and Yury Kovtun-led backline, as well as the able shot-stopping abilities of Yashin’s linear successor Rouslan Nigmatoulline.
With their opener set for June 5 in Kobe against the group’s likely whipping boys, Tunisia, coach Romantsev can count his blessings for a schedule every bit as favorable as the draw was.
A win in that match could give Russia the tactical advantage over Japan — who meet the seasoned Belgians earlier — in their second game on June 9. Russia wind up against Belgium five days later.
All things considered, the Russians appear capable of holding their own in Group H and perhaps raising more hopes back home than they can deliver in the second round.
Tunisia: courting catastrophe?
On returning to Tunis after his squad’s hasty exit from the African Nations Cup last February, Frenchman Henri Michel candidly summed up Tunisia’s Japan/Korea ’02 hopes.
“When I see how we have performed, and that we’ll be going to the World Cup with this squad, I have to be worried,” said the man who took France to the semifinals of Mexico ’86. “If we carry on like this, we will be courting catastrophe.”
By most accounts, the “Carthage Eagles” remain on course for their rendezvous with danger in the Far East following the departure of Michel two months ago and last week’s injury-induced retirement of Tunisia’s long-time skipper and goalkeeper Chokri El Ou’r.
Michel’s successors, local coaches Ammar Souyah and Khemaies Laabidi, have inherited a team short on both youth and talent.
A string of poor results in warm-up games has further dampened morale, leaving the two men with a mammoth task in whipping the North Africans into shape for their third outing to the finals.
Unlike the other African World Cup finalists, Tunisia are renowned more for their defensive guile than any offensive flair. Given this, the retirement of El Ou’r, one of Africa’s top goalkeepers with more than 100 caps, has left Souyah and Laabidi with precious little to work with.
The burden of expectation now falls on the offensive end, where Adel Sellimi, an old hand from German club Freiburg, will have to deliver. He has blown hot and cold in the past but is a vastly experienced veteran of more than 70 caps.
Tunisia will also be praying that their only youngsters of note, forwards Ziad Jaziri and Ali Zitouni, recover from the long-term injuries that forced both men to miss the Nations Cup debacle. Zitouni was outstanding in the qualifiers with five goals.
Turkish-based Zoubeir Beya, whose skill and imagination adds flair to a rigid midfield, and the seasoned center half Khaled Badra are the other players vital to Tunisia’s daunting mission to Japan.
After the tough opener against Russia on June 5, Tunisia next tackle Belgium on June 10 before facing Japan in Osaka on June 14.
Winless at France ’98, Tunisia’s only victory in the finals came at Argentina ’78 when they shocked Mexico 3-1. It was the first win by an African nation in the World Cup.
(Each week, Jay Mwamba previews a World Cup finalist. The teams profiled previously are Cameroon, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Denmark, Uruguay, Senegal, France, Paraguay, Slovenia, Spain, South Africa, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Turkey, the United States, South Korea, Portugal, Poland, Nigeria, Sweden, Argentina, England, Croatia, Ecuador, Mexico and Italy.)