Russia: a sleeping giant wakes

Russia were very much the surprise package of UEFA EURO 2008. Despite having the youngest team in the tournament, they stormed into the semi-finals before finally succumbing to eventual champions Spain. Their incredible run in the tournament has since been reflected in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, with the Russians climbing no fewer than 13 spots in July to reach 11th - their highest placing in over a decade.

The last time that Russia occupied a top-ten slot was in October 1997 when they were as high as ninth, and they may soon be climbing even higher into the upper echelons of world football. Their best ever placing since the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking was introduced came in April 1996, when they reached the lofty heights of third. They can also hold their own against the top ranked teams in the world, as they proved in their EURO quarter-final, when they beat the Netherlands (currently ranked fifth) 3-1 after extra time.

Success at club level with CSKA and Zenit
One of the secrets of Russia's success has been striker Andrei Arshavin. The 27-year-old was the scourge of opposing defences at EURO 2008, scoring twice, laying on another goal and being involved in countless attacking moves. He was one of the tournament's outstanding players, and was included in the "Euro All-Star Team" along with team-mates Yuri Zhirkov, Konstantin Zyryanov and Roman Pavlyuchenko.

Russian football has been improving for a few years now, particularly at club level. After CSKA Moscow took home the UEFA Cup in 2005, Zenit St. Petersburg repeated the feat this year, getting past Villarreal (2-2, on away goals), Marseille (3-3, likewise), Bayer Leverkusen (4-2), Bayern Munich (5-1) and then Rangers (2-0) in the final.

Hiddink: "Russian football is on the rise"
A pair of Dutchmen have been responsible for much of this success, with Guus Hiddink and Dick Advocaat in charge of the Russian national team and Zenit respectively. The two coaches have played a major part in styling the way football is currently played in the country, namely with excellent technique and tactics coupled with a strong physical presence.

"Russian football is on the rise," says Hiddink, "not just at club level, with Zenit winning the UEFA Cup, but also in terms of the national team. What Russian football has to aim for is re-establishing itself, and getting its rightful place back on the European footballing scene. The recent run of good results needs to be converted into the modernising of the infrastructure in the country."

Germany as rivals for FIFA World Cup™ qualification
Continuing this good run will be no easy task. On 10 September, Hiddink's team will begin its 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa qualifying campaign against Wales. A mere four weeks later, on 11 October, they will travel to Dortmund for a showdown between the two favourites in group, with three-time world and European champions Germany lying in wait for the EURO semi-finalists.

No-one in Russia is in any doubt, however, that their team will on the plane to South Africa in less than two years time. "This is just the beginning. Russian football has a great future ahead of it," said Vitaly Mutko, president of the Russian football association, after this summer's event in Austria and Switzerland. "We gave it our all at the EURO," added team captain Sergei Semak. "We proved that Russians can play football, and now we're going to try to give the fans something to cheer about in the years to come."

Aiming high at the 2010 FIFA World Cup
The former superpower is looking to return to the world stage and recapture the glory days of the Soviet Union team which won Olympic gold in 1956 and 1988, and were European champions in 1960. It is now up to Arshavin and Co. to follow in the footsteps of their illustrious predecessors - and they certainly have all the right ingredients in place.

After years spent in the wilderness, Russian football is now definitely on the rise, and hopes are high of another good performance at the forthcoming FIFA World Cup. As the Sovetski Sport newspaper so eloquently put it: "Our team may have missed out on the final, but they achieved so much more: they gave Russia new hope and a bright footballing future."