BERLIN – Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who came out of detention on the day the soccer World Cup began in Russia, has devoted much of his time lately to organizing protests against a retirement age increase timed to coincide with the World Cup. On Sunday, though, most of Navalny’s Twitter feed was dedicated to Russia’s round of 16 game against Spain.
“I’m so nervous I’ve eaten two bags of chips already. Going too grab a third,” he tweeted during the match. “How beautiful this is,” he posted after it was over. Spain’s hopes were dashed and Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeyev was feted as a hero after deflecting two Spanish penalty shots.
The jubilation that lasted through the night had nothing to do with any propaganda goals President Vladimir Putin’s government may have set for the World Cup. It had everything to do with the kind of victory ordinary Russians prefer to win: Fair, recognized by the whole world and at the same time slightly miraculous.
In a non-totalitarian society, it’s impossible to manufacture a display of sincere joy. Sunday’s was real, not least because it wasn’t about anything the government did. It was the team, in which almost no one believed before the tournament, that delivered against all odds, winning a quarterfinal berth for the first time in post-Soviet history and sending home a much stronger rival that bested it on all statistical counts. The reactions to Putin’s exploits — the Crimea annexation or military victories over Chechen rebels or in Syria, for example — got the most muted celebrations by comparison.
Spain had possession of the ball 79 percent of the time and took 25 shots to Russia’s seven. Its passing accuracy reached 90 percent to Russia’s 65 percent. That was pretty much to be expected given the Russian squad’s combined market value of €161.8 million ($188.3 million) compared with Spain’s €974 million. And Russia scored an early own goal that gave me that sinking feeling of impending disaster.
Led by Stanislav Cherchesov, who’d spent much of his playing career sitting on the bench as substitute goalkeeper, the hapless Russian squad, often described as the worst in a generation, has lost to Costa Rica and Qatar. It was such an underdog that, after unexpectedly convincing victories against Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Travis Tygart, head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, called for stepped-up drug testing: “Extraordinary performances demand additional tests.”
It’s still such an underdog that the claim is widespread on the social networks — where it’s supported especially by Ukrainians — that Russia has paid off everyone to have a good tournament, including FIFA, the soccer governing body, for putting it in the easiest possible bracket, and the rival teams.
The unlikeliest people defend Russia against these claims. Alexander Ryklin, one of the most consistent anti-Putin commentators, whose website, ej.ru, is blocked by the Russian government censorship, pointed out on Facebook that no one in top-flight soccer would put their reputation on the line in this way:
“A sane person wouldn’t doubt that the local bosses would put in maximum effort to get Russia into the next round by paying bribes, if it had the opportunity. Our bosses’ reputation allows no such doubt. But whom would one have to offer money in this case, who would be at the other end of such a deal?”
To the unending surprise and joy of most Russians, pro-Putin or anti-Putin, the wins are entirely down to the once-plodding national team, scraped together from internationally middling Russian clubs (Cherchesov even had to bring in 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich, who doesn’t have a contract for next year yet, to play in the crucial center-back position because he lacked a decent alternative). This thoroughly Russian, anti-elite squad is fighting like gladiators for every ball; in fact, they’ve covered more mileage than any team except for Serbia, Germany and Australia, all of which have been eliminated.
Though Russian folk tales often let the lucky layabout win, this is not the Russian team’s case. Rather, its performance is best described by what striker Artem Dzyuba said before the Spain game:
“What’s going on is a fairy tale for all of us. It happens all the time for Spain, but for us it’s the match of our lives. We must just die on the pitch. Show our maximum, play 200 or 300 percent as well as we can, only then we’ll stand a chance.”
Watching Dzyuba win one high ball after another against much better Spanish players, I knew he meant it.
The message from the team to the rest of the country is unambiguous: If we can win, you can, too. Kremlin spin doctors may want to milk this moment of triumph, but there is no way for them to own this message. The country’s pent-up energy, compressed like a spring by the weight of a corrupt, violent regime, shows in the team’s sudden burst of self-denial and in the abandon with which its success is being celebrated.
This feeling of uncoiling is reminiscent of the rallies that ended the Soviet Union and the 2011 protests. It’s the underdog’s sudden feeling of power. As for the Kremlin, it should hope the team’s wings are clipped in the next round. Who knows what ideas Russians might get if it goes further.
Based in Berlin, Russian writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.