“Because the way they set up their two walls of five players in front of a very good goalie,” he said, “Spain did not have the power to overcome it.”
When Hiddink visited the team a few days before that match, he told the players their already garnered success was “unexpected for me.” After, Hiddink stood by his pre-World Cup pessimism: “Nothing about their play said: ‘Hey, this team is growing towards becoming a competitive tournament team.’”
A favorable draw starting with Saudi Arabia and Egypt played into the team’s hands, Hiddink said. By the time they faced Uruguay (a 3-0 loss), they had already qualified for the knockout rounds. “Now you can use the momentum, plus the support of the public,” he told me.
Even if Russia advances all the way to the final, however — or even if it lifts the trophy — Hiddink still believes that an emphasis on youth development is essential if Russia is to see sustainable success on an international level, not just Cinderella runs once every decade. This was one of his main points of criticism when we last spoke in the fall. This week, Hiddink did not see any reason to believe much had changed.
“Russians like victories, that’s for sure,” he said, pointing to the recent groundswell of patriotism, with thousands of Russians spilling out into the streets to celebrate the victories against Egypt and Spain. Referring to the yearly celebration of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, he added: “It’s not for nothing that there are still such large May 9 celebrations, right?”
Still, Hiddink hopes the Russian team doesn’t get ahead of itself before Saturday night’s quarterfinal in Sochi. “Croatia is a smart team,” he said. His prediction for the match? “Anything can happen in football.”
Evan Gershkovich is a reporter at The Moscow Times. The views expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the position of The Moscow Times.