Russians know all about rapid ascents. In April 1961, Yuri Gagarin made history by rocketing into outer space aboard Vostok 3KA, while three years ago it took Valeri Babanov and Sergey Kofanov, amid treacherous conditions, just eight days to scale the hitherto insurmountable north-west ridge of Jannu mountain.
The latest breakneck rise Russia’s inhabitants have had to savour was provided by its national football team. And while the achievement of Dick Advocaat and his troops was incomparable to those of the iconic Soviet cosmonaut or the trailblazing alpinists, a 15-place leap to tenth on October’s FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking – the biggest move of any team that began the month in the top 50 – was undoubtedly worthy of applause.
All the more so given that they achieved the elevating results while under considerable pressure; a consequence of opening their UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying campaign with an uninspiring 2-0 win in Andorra, one of the six lowest-positioned sides on the planet, and an intolerable 1-0 loss at home to Slovakia. Disenchanted sceptics felt that, by the time they’d returned from trips to the Republic of Ireland and FYR Macedonia, they’d have a mountain to climb just to finish second in Group B and secure a play-off place.
Fifty minutes in Dublin on 8 October extinguished that suspicion. Zenit striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov, returning to the side following a two-match suspension for his sending off in Russia’s FIFA World Cup™ qualifying play-off defeat by Slovenia, broke the deadlock with his ninth goal in five games for club and country, before producing a cute dummy that enabled 20-year-old Alan Dzagoev to double the visitors’ lead. That cushion was extended five minutes after the restart courtesy of Roman Shirokov's deflected strike, and although the Irish scored twice in the last 20 minutes, their guests left the Aviva Arena with a 3-2 win.
“It was perhaps the best performance in the modern history of the Russian national team,” reflected captain Andrey Arshavin. “We did not allow our opponents to do anything, controlling every single inch of the pitch.”
Russia’s ensuing display was not one that prompted glowing superlatives, but it was one good enough to earn victory over Macedonia. Kerzhakov struck the only goal early on in Skopje, while a superb second-half penalty save from Igor Akinfeev was also paramount to a success that propelled them top of the pool, two points clear of Ireland, Armenia and Slovakia.
We have to qualify, that's our first goal. If we do, we will try to do well. If you go to a tournament, you go to win it. That must always be your aim.