Column: Russia provides another improbable World Cup surprise with elimination of Spain

Russia goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev celebrates Sunday, July 1, 2018, after his team advances to the quarterfinal during the round of 16 match between Spain and Russia.
(Matthias Schrader / Associated Press)

No one’s laughing at Russia now.

Less than three weeks ago, the country’s national team, the lowest ranked in the World Cup and one that qualified for the tournament only because it was the host, was so pathetic a Russian politician proposed legislation that would fine anyone who made fun of the squad.

More than half the country got out their wallets and kept the punchlines coming.

Many of those same people on Sunday poured into the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Samara, waving flags, honking horns and blocking traffic after Russia beat Spain on penalty kicks to advance to the World Cup quarterfinals. Russia won in penalty kicks 4-3 after the teams tied 1-1 through regulation and overtime.


Who saw that coming?

A team that has one starter playing outside Russia’s domestic league has beaten one with players from some of the world’s biggest clubs. A team that had never made it out of the group stage is in the elite eight.

A team that had won two World Cup games before this year has beaten one that won the tournament eight years ago. And its coach, a burly, balding former goalkeeper named Stanislav Cherchesov who was tasked with getting the team to the semifinals when he was hired two years ago, is now a win away from that goal.

Yet he refuses to take any of the credit.

“The man of the match,” Cherchesov said Sunday, “is the team and our fans.”

Sunday’s play closed with another penalty-kick shootout, the most maddening, frustrating and heart-stopping way for a knockout game to be decided. Croatia advanced 3-2 in penalty kicks over Denmark after the teams tied 1-1.

It would be presumptuous to call this the best World Cup ever with three rounds still to play. But it’s certainly the most confounding, most unpredictable and arguably the most exciting in a long time.

Three former champions — Argentina, Spain and Germany, which was shut out twice — already are out, and another, Brazil, is listing. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the two best players of their generation, have left with their teams.

Coming into the year, no player had scored more international goals over the last four years than Poland’s Robert Lewandowski. He didn’t get on the score sheet in Russia, where nearly a quarter of the goals have come on own goals or penalty kicks, breaking World Cup records for both.

Japan got to the second round because it had fewer yellow cards than Senegal. Spain fired its coach four days before its first game, while Japan’s coached his first competitive international game in his team’s World Cup opener.

How illogical has this World Cup been? Spain set a World Cup record with 1,029 completed passes Sunday, more than 12 teams had completed in the entire three-game group stage, and lost. Spain had the ball 74% of the time and outshot Russia 25-6 yet got its only score on an own goal.

That was by design, said Russia’s coach, who choose to have his team sit back and absorb pressure, hoping for a break or penalty kicks. It got the latter.

“They are better than us in many ways,” Cherchesov said through an interpreter. “Had we chosen a different tactic, we would not have fared as well.”

But first he had to convince his players. Did they want to continue being a laughingstock in front of their own fans or did they want to beat one of the Word Cup favorites?

“We had to persuade them this was the only way out. We don’t like this, but that’s what we had to do,” he said. “They trusted me.”

As a result, it’s now possible people will wake up for the World Cup final on July 15 — kind of a quadrennial Christmas Day for soccer fans — and be greeted by Russia versus Japan. And don’t think that doesn’t keep the folks at Fox Sports, who already have taken a financial bath on the tournament, up at night.

The World Cup was once Germany against Spain, Messi vs. Ronaldo. Now the most exciting tournament in recent memory could end with Denis Cheryshev facing Keisuke Honda.

Who saw that coming? | Twitter: @kbaxter11