Europe's east awakens
It is said that history repeats itself and football is no exception. Although the most obvious benefactors of this cyclical pattern are Spain, newly crowned champions of Europe, the 2007-08 campaign has signalled a return to prominence of Russia and Turkey, both in terms of their national teams and their clubs.
Having capped a dream year with a semi-final at UEFA EURO 2008 and victory in the UEFA Cup, Russian football has come full circle and is on the brink of a return to the glory days. The Eastern Europeans have long been considered a bastion of the world game, having won Olympic gold in 1956 and 1988, the 1960 European Championship, and produced a crop of legendary players including Lev Yashin, Oleg Blokhin and Igor Belanov - all winners of the prestigious Ballon d'Or.
However, since the EURO 1988 final defeat against the Netherlands, Russian supporters have had to endure two barren decades, punctuated only by CSKA Moscow's UEFA Cup win in 2005. Fittingly, it was this same European trophy which first hinted at a return to greatness for Russian football this season. Despite being relatively unknown on the continental scene, Zenit Saint Petersburg embarked on a magnificent run that culminated in them succeeding Sevilla as trophy holders. Never favourites but always winners, the 2007 Russian Premier League champions got the better of Villarreal (2-2), Marseille (3-3), Bayer Leverkusen (4-2), Bayern Munich (5-1) and finally Glasgow Rangers (2-0) on their way to clinching the title.
Making a significant contribution to this giant leap in the club's development is Dutch coach Dick Advocaat, who brought a wealth of management experience accumulated at PSV Eindhoven, Rangers and Korea Republic, as well as a footballing ethos based on speed and technical superiority. This recipe for success is most evident in the strike pairing of Andrei Arshavin and Pavel Pogrebnyak, which has terrorised defences across the continent. While the former is highly regarded for his vision, quality passing and speed on the ball, the latter is deadly in front of goal, having finished the tournament as top scorer with ten strikes.
And just as the former USSR side drew heavily on the resources of Dynamo Kiev, today's national team follows a similar formula to that working wonders at Zenit. Swap Advocaat for fellow Dutchman Guus Hiddink, keep Arshavin in his favoured creative role, and substitute the injured Pogrebnyak for prolific Spartak Moscow frontman Roman Pavlyuchenko, and you have the makings for a surprise assault on the European title.
"Russian football is reborn," explains Hiddink, who himself has played no small part in this revival. "Not only at club level, because Zenit has won the UEFA Cup, but also in terms of the national team. The goal for Russian football is to establish itself, to win back its position on the European stage. It's time for Russian football to use these good results to speed up the modernisation of its footballing infrastructure."
Although the national side no longer have the legendary initials CCCP emblazoned on their shirts, their brand of football harks back to the halcyon days of the Soviet era. Having already deprived England of a place in the finals of EURO 2008, the Russians secured their breakout from a group containing eventual champions Spanish, holders Greece and formidable dark horses Sweden. They then turned on the style in one the most scintillating matches of the competition, taming tournament favourites the Netherlands, who had inflicted humiliating first-round defeats on Italy and France. Despite finally crashing out in the semi-finals at the hands of La Furia Roja, Russia returned home to a hero's welcome. They also took with them a sense of achievement and the promise of greater things to come. "They didn't qualify for the final, but they restored our faith in the future of Russian football," was the verdict of Russian sports daily Sovetski Sport.
Fenerbahce lead the way
Several thousand miles to the south, the season has ended on a similar crescendo of optimism and pride. In fact, Turkey are the other revelation in the European arena, having made a comeback following a recent slump in fortunes. Indeed, ever since Galatasaray's triumph in the UEFA Cup 2000 and the historic third place clinched by the national team at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™, Turkish football has experienced one disappointment after another, failing to qualify for both EURO 2004 and the Germany 2006.
It has taken six long years for the smiles to return to the faces of the fanatical Turkish fans. Fenerbahce, one of the country's most popular clubs, set the ball rolling on the comeback trail with their exploits in the UEFA Champions League. Under the stewardship of Brazilian coach Zico, the Sari Kanaryalar (Yellow Canaries) lit up the competition with their vibrant, spontaneous play and attacking mindset. Inter Milan, CSKA Moscow, PSV Eindhoven, Sevilla and Chelsea all sank to defeat in the cauldron of the Sukru Saracoglu stadium, where 51,000 delirious fans roared their heroes into the quarter-finals.
The crowning glory of this campaign was the stirring comeback and penalty shoot-out victory over Sevilla in the last 16, which undoubtedly inspired national team coach Fatih Terim and his charges at Austria-Switzerland 2008. Swept aside in their opening match by an ambitious Portugal side, Turkey were facing an early exit from the first round, that is until the fiery indignation and motivation of the "The Emperor" filled his troops with indomitable spirit. "He treats every player like he's their father," says striker Semih Senturk. "But when he gives us a telling off, it does us the power of good. Tactically and in terms of motivation, he's the best coach I've ever worked with."
'People will remember this team'
This Turks' never-say-die attitude helped them to turn round a desperate situation on no less than three occasions. In the first round, the Turks trailed Switzerland 1-0 only to snatch a 2-1 victory in the last minute. In the third and final group match, Czech Republic seemingly had one foot in the quarter-finals, having built up a 2-0 lead with 15 minutes to go. However, they ultimately crashed out at the first round, beaten 3-2 in a barnstorming finale. Croatia thought they had clinched a place in the semi-finals when they edged in front on 119 minutes, only for Senturk to snatch an equaliser in the dying seconds. Veteran keeper Rustu Recber then tipped the balance in favour of the Turks during the penalty shoot-out.
Nevertheless, fairytales do not always have a happy ending. In the semi-final against Germany, Terim was down to his last 15 players, the bare bones of a squad decimated by injury and suspension. Needless to say Turkey's chances of victory looked decidedly slim, although their underdog status was perhaps their greatest asset. Indeed, an upset looked to be on the cards when talismanic striker Senturk stole in to tie the match at 2-2 after 86 minutes. Once again however, the deciding goal was to come in the final minute and on this occasion, Turkey ended up on the losing side. Although their bubble had burst, the coach had achieved his aim. Before the tournament Terim had declared: "European football will remember this team." His side's battling performances certainly remain one of the tournament's enduring images.
For Russia and Turkey, the 2007/08 season has seen the beginnings of a revival, not just on the club scene but also on the international stage. Nonetheless, the road ahead is littered with new hurdles, not least the challenge of maintaining this new-found status and defending their honour in Europe. After all in football, the most difficult thing is not necessarily reaching the summit, but staying there.