By DILEEP PREMACHANDRAN
The latest iteration of the FIFA rankings has Russia, the 2018 World Cup hosts, at No.70. Of the 31 other teams that qualified, only Panama (55), South Korea (57), Japan (61) and Saudi Arabia (67) are ranked outside the top 50. Of nations that come under UEFA, and have played at least one World Cup, only Israel (93) are ranked lower.
The performances reflect that ranking. Since beating South Korea 4-2 last October, Russia haven’t won in seven matches, losing four of them. The only encouraging result was a 3-3 draw against an experimental Spanish side. Both Brazil and France beat them with something to spare, and the omens are not good in a group that also has the tenacious Uruguayans, and Egypt, who have won the African Cup of Nations a record seven times.
There was a time when the Soviet Union’s red shirt, with CCCP on the chest, inspired fear in most opponents. But since the 15 republics went their separate ways in 1991, Russia have struggled to make an impact on the world stage. In 1994, 2002 and 2014, they exited in the first round, winning just two of their nine games across the three tournaments.
You don’t need a doctoral thesis to understand why. The players just aren’t good enough. When Cristiano Ronaldo won the Ballon d’Or last December, there was no Russian anywhere near the top 30. The last one to feature in the higher echelons was Andrey Arshavin, who finished sixth behind Ronaldo in 2008 after two virtuoso displays at Euro 2008 took the Russians to the last four.
Contrast that with the scenario before the first of the truly modern World Cups, Spain in 1982. Having failed to qualify in 1978 – Hungary edged them out by a point – the Soviet Union won 28 and lost just three of their 41 matches before arriving in Spain. The Ballon d’Or voting for 1981 had Oleg Blokhin in fifth, Ramaz Shengelia in seventh and Alexsandr Chivadze in eighth.
Just outside the top 10 in 11th was David Kipiani, who fought back from a career threatening injury only to be shockingly omitted from the 1982 World Cup squad. He, Shengelia and Chivadze were all part of a magnificent Dinamo Tbilisi team that won the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1981. Two years earlier, they had served notice with a 3-0 evisceration of Liverpool on their own patch.
Chivadze was that centre-half with rare elegance and ball-playing skill, while Shengelia was the predator. But it was Kipiani, the playmaker with feet faster than a pickpocket’s hands, that made the team tick. In that demolition of Liverpool, it was he that set up the first goal, making Alan Hansen, one of the world’s finest defenders, look like a confused schoolboy with his sleight of feet.
The World Cup game against Brazil is now remembered primarily for the blooper from Waldir Peres that gave the Soviets the lead, and the riposte that featured two of the greatest goals in the competition’s history, from Socrates and Eder. But the Soviets should also have had two penalties, and the Brazilian reaction at the final whistle was as much relief as exhilaration.
In the second phase, Poland progressed to the semifinals ahead of the Soviet Union only on goal difference. When we talk of 1982 and all the great teams and matches that made it such an unforgettable spectacle, we frequently overlook the Soviets. We shouldn’t. Even without Kipiani, they were a seriously good side.
Kipiani, who died in a car crash in 2001, and Shengelia, who succumbed to a brain haemorrhage 11 years later, have pride of place in Georgian football’s hall of fame, as does Chivadze. Blokhin, the greatest forward the Soviet Union produced, was Ukrainian. With Russia’s new oligarchs preferring to invest in overseas football clubs, such exceptional talent has seldom been nurtured in the past two decades.
Between 1977 and 1984, Liverpool won the European Cup four times. Graeme Souness, who captained them when they beat AS Roma in Rome in 1984, was unequivocal when he said years later that “the best football team we played were Dinamo Tbilisi.”
Sadly, for Russia and the other republics, those halcyon years are now a speck in the rearview mirror.
Source: Economic Times