Russia find no home comforts
At the FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship Russia 2006, just as at almost any international tournament, great things were expected of the hosts.
However, though one could hardly say that the Russian team endured a poor tournament, the heavy 4-0 defeat that China PR inflicted on them at the quarter-final stage came as a major shock to the local supporters.
Yet, when FIFA.com caught up with Valentin Grishin , Russia's coach, it was evident that he was not nearly so surprised - or disappointed - with his team's exit at the last eight.
"Knowing the condition of my team, I more or less expected that we would go out against China," he admitted candidly. "Deep down inside, I still hoped we'd do it. But when they scored two early goals, our players' shoulders dropped a bit."
When he mentions the condition of his team, Grishin is referring both to the injuries to several of his top players and to the collective fatigue experienced as a result of an extremely heavy schedule. Certainly, there is little doubt that personnel problems had at least some effect on the team's performances.
In their first match, Grishin was forced to replace midfielders Olga Petrova and Nadezhda Kharchenko, and in the following games Oksana Titova, only just back from injury, was rushed into action, while the team's main striker, Elena Danilova , was unable to last 90 minutes against the Steel Rosebuds.
While seeking to avoid well-worn excuses, Grishin does believe his team's indifferent physical performance can be partly attributed to the tiredness felt by key players: "The girls didn't have time to recover properly after playing in the European Championships, the Russian league, and (in some cases) the senior national team. I'm sure that if they'd had more of a rest, they would have made things much harder for the Chinese."
Asked about the mood in the Russian camp following the defeat, Grishin confessed: "It's not good. They were determined to put up a fight against the Chinese, but luck was against them."
Nonetheless, the players did not look too downcast in the hotel reception, where there was plenty of laughter and joking as they prepared to take their leave. Perhaps the players knew that, realistically, they could not have gone further, having come up against a superior side, or were comforted by the knowledge that they had given their all and left no questions to ask of themselves.
They had enjoyed a fairly encouraging start to the tournament, securing a goalless draw with semi-finalists Brazil . "We did very well in that game," agrees their 65-year old coach. "I'd really like to thank the fans in St Petersburg who came to the match. No other game at the tournament attracted such a packed stadium."
However, it was the clash with New Zealand, which ended in a 3-2 victory for the hosts , that provided the local fans with their biggest treat. It also proved to be a real nerve-wracker.
"The girls had a lot of chances they should have converted," reflected Grishin, looking back at the first-half of the encounter with the Kiwis. "But then Danilova didn't score a single goal in the tournament, so she didn't do her job properly," he added, highlighting one of the main reasons for Russia's failure to progress further in the tournament.
China defeat 'a real lessson'
Against Australia, the Russians rode their luck on a number of occasions and had the wastefulness of the Young Matildas' forwards to thank.
Grishin, though, viewed the match a little differently. "We scored a vital goal and could have scored more," he said. "But when they equalised we started to look nervous."
While Grishin's thoughts on Russia's three group games flow thick and fast, there is a noticeable pause for reflection before he delivers his verdict on the quarter-final tie with the Chinese. In truth, the 4-0 scoreline told its own story.
"It was a real lesson for us," admitted Grishin eventually. "We're some way behind when you compare us to China, where women's football is being developed very actively. We just have to accept that the Chinese are stronger than us at the moment."
However, Grishin believes that that situation can - and must - change. "I think in a few years we will be at the same level as them," he declares optimistically. " Becoming European champions in 2005 gave the women's game a big boost [in Russia]. It has prompted the creation of a number of new girls' teams.
"New clubs have been established in Perm and Rostov, and more and more girls are signing up at football schools. The association is getting more and more calls from parents who want to know where they can send their daughters. In short, there has been a big surge in interest."
Of course, hosting the FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship has played its part too. "It's had good press coverage, and the games have been shown on TV. It's done a lot to educate people about women's football," affirmed Grishin.
For keeper Elvira Todua, captain Ksenia Tsibutovich and several other members of the squad, this was the final major tournament at youth level. It is, in a way, a sad moment for the girls who, in the past three years, have formed into a solid and friendly collective.
"When we said our farewells, I thanked them and also said that I hoped they would not stop there, and would try to break into the senior national team," revealed Grishin.
No less than five of Grishin's young players have already achieved that. If others manage to follow their example, there should be no need to worry about the future well-being of Russia's senior national team.