From Russia with Love...

In 1963 the James Bond movie 'From Russia With Love' was released.  It was also the year Soviet Union goalkeeper Lev Yashin, widely regarded as the greatest number one of all time, won the Ballon D'Or.  On Sunday afternoon at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Yashin's spirit was in the air, as Russian captain and goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev saved two penalties, with the home team shocking mighty Spain 4-3 in a shoot out to reach the quarter finals of their own World Cup. 

There is a lot of love in Russia right now, unadulterated joy.  This was never supposed to happen, and the natives themselves know it.  Spain struck me as a diner that ordered the richest entrée on the menu, overindulged, and then got sick in the bathroom at the end of the night.  After taking an early lead, they gave away a soft penalty, which Artem Dzyuba coolly converted.  From that moment in the 41st minute until the 120th minute, Spain proceeded to pass the ball to themselves as if they were driving around a roundabout for the day.  Russia planted 10 men behind the ball, and stuck in first gear, Spain failed to show the requisite urgency, creativity or invention to break them down.  The 2010 winners passed the ball over 1000 times, had 79 percent possession and limited Russia to 1 shot on target.  They still lost, hoisted on their own petard.  They got what they deserved, and with Fernando Hierro a stop gap coach, it all goes back to the first drama of this incredible World Cup, which was the sacking of Julen Lopetegui by Spanish FA boss Luis Rubiales after Real Madrid President Florentino Perez and Lopetegui agreed a deal for the latter to take over at the club.  The trio have a lot to answer for in this sorry mess. 

Once it went to penalties it was anyone's game.  Russia decisively scored theirs, and both Koke and Aspas missed.  When I attended the 2016 Olympic Final in Rio, I couldn't believe the noise as over 70,000 Brazilians celebrated Neymar's winning penalty against Germany at the Maracana.  Yesterday was a match for that.  When Russia won in front of 78,011 spectators, around 80% of them Russian, there was just this deafening surge of sound, not enough to cup ones ears, but on the edge of that.  It's almost like one is in a swarm of locusts at full blast, but in a good way.  It's a euphony you feel intensely and it's very hard to describe. 

I left the stadium and it was sedate enough.  Russian fans don't bring marching bands, just flags and a repetitive rendition of 'Seven Nation Army' by the 'White Stripes'.  I thought to myself, this is mellow, are people afraid of letting the handbrake off due to the ubiquity of the police?  My musings evaporated as I reached the main road near Red Square and the Kremlin, as the party spontaneously began.

 

 

Every car was blaring their horns loudly, with most passengers hanging out the side doors or roofs.  Thousands of people lined the streets in raptures, some jumping into fountains, down to the bare minimum.  Red white and blue flags waved, Soviet Union flags made an appearance.  I saw one guy hanging out of his car with an ice hockey stick, as a hot green open top Porsche sped by, with the passenger carrying a massive flag.  Motorcyclists were draped in flags and the Metro was an echo chamber of 'ROOSHIA, ROOSHIA'.  There was lots of beer, prompting police to use a loudspeaker from their vehicles to tell people to stop hanging out of cars.  It was mayhem, and only the beautiful instant mayhem that comes from an unpredictable event.  Instant national celebration is an elusive eclipse.  When it occurs, it must be seized.

Has Russia ever had a moment like this with the World watching, in its history?  I am struggling to think of something comparable, possibly Yuri Gagarin's trip to space.  The Soviet Union's last quarter final appearance was in 1970, and it was effectively a sealed off country back then.

Russia will now play Croatia on Saturday in Sochi after the Croats edged Denmark 3-2 in a shoot out in Nizhny Novgorod.  Despite the best efforts of Kasper Schmeichel, who saved three penalties, Croatia just about deserved the win on the balance of play.  Luka Modric must get credit for scoring his penalty in the shoot out after missing a spot kick in extra time and Croatia have a great chance now of reaching the semi finals, 20 years on from their best ever showing.

That was Sunday.  The World Cup that keeps giving saw the departure of Argentina's Lionel Messi and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo on Saturday, both of whom have shared the Ballon D'Or or World Player of the Year Awards since 2008.  Neither of them have ever scored at a knockout stage of a World Cup, and neither of them are likely to win one. 

It's sad for Messi, who tried to carry a team that through the actions of its FA and manager  resembled a clown car.  This failure shouldn't define him.  Ronaldo can lean on the memories of Euro 2016, because in truth, Uruguay were the better side. 

France were also a superior team to Argentina, and Kylian Mbappe, whom football fans knew was a supreme talent, made his announcement to the planet.  It's not a case of 'out with the old and in with the new' as some media are reporting, but it's very exciting to see a 19 year old with a Formula 1 engine and the feet of a ballerina explode onto the scene.  They are on the tough side of the draw (unlike England), but I feel France will be disappointed if they don't win the World Cup now.  With the talent they have, it would be a case of falling short.  Brazil and Belgium lurk.

So what has this wonderful, stupendous, surprising World Cup got in store for everyone next?  The sacred fact is that we haven't a clue.  All I know is that I never want it to end.