Russia and the Cursed Group Stage

The Russian national team prior to the game against New Zealand. Photo: Кирилл Венедиктов -

The Russian national team prior to the game against New Zealand. Photo: Кирилл Венедиктов –

Come Saturday evening it was clear. After losing 2-1 at home in Kazan to Mexico, the group stage had once again been the last stop for Russia at an international tournament.

The group stage is slowly turning into somewhat of a curse for Sbornaya, and not even the home field advantage could break this spell. In fact, since Russia participated for the first time in an international tournament under its own flag at the World Cup in 1994, it has only managed to advance from the group once, back in 2008.

Seven times, including the Confederations Cup, Russia have been sent out after the group stage, but what happened in the past?

World Cup 1994:

This was Russia’s first international tournament since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the luck of the draw wasn’t with the debutants as they found themselves in group with both the eventual winners Brazil as well as the bronze medalists Sweden and last but not least Cameroon.

Despite this, Russia did perform decently, and even wrote themselves into everlasting World Cup history. After defeats to Brazil and Sweden in the first two games, Russia had nothing left to play for but honour and pride. In the last game, they defeated Cameroon 6-1 with Logrones striker Oleg Salenko famously scoring five goals, which is yet to be repeated in World Cup history. Salenko finished the tournament as joint-top scorer with Bulgaria’s Hristo Stoichkov.

Euro 1996:

Once again, Russia found themselves in a tough group, and once again they started the tournament off poorly. Drawn together with both of the finalists, Germany and Czech Republic as well as Italy, it was a David against Goliath fight for Russia. Although boasting a talented squad with names such as Valery Karpin, Aleksandr Mostovoi, Andrei Kanchelskis and Igor Shalimov, it was once again over after three games.

On the opening day, Russia lost 2-1 to Italy, and on the second 3-0 to Germany. After that, they once again only had their pride left to play for in the last round, where they drew 3-3 against Czech Republic after being down 2-0. In fact, Russia were minutes away from taking the comeback victory, but an equalizer from Vladimir Smicer in the 88th minute stole the victory and granted Czech Republic a spot in the quarterfinals.

World Cup 2002:

After Euro 1996, it took six years before Russia would again play at an international tournament. In the meantime, the team had begun to undergo a generation change, and young players like 19-year-old Aleksandr Kerzhakov, 18-year-old Dmitry Sychev and 19-year-old Marat Izmailov were all included in the squad.

Unlike at the previous tournaments, Russia were among the winners of the draw, as they were matched up with the hosts Japan, Tunisia and a Belgian team that was merely a shadow of its current strength. The expectations were therefore big for Sbornaya, and things started off well too.

Goals by Egor Titov and Karpin secured a 2-0 victory against Tunisia in the opening match. In the following game however, Russia were defeated by Japan, something that caused riots in Moscow where Japanese citizens were violently attacked, and forced Russia to get a result against Belgium in the last game. A draw would have been enough for Oleg Romantsev’s troops, but the nerves seemed to kick in. Russia went down after only seven minutes, and although Vladimir Beschastnykh equalized later in the game, it didn’t stop Russia from eventually losing 3-2. The last goal was scored by Sychev in the 88th minute, which made him the fourth youngest goalscorer ever at a World Cup.

Euro 2004:

By the time of Euro 2004 in Portugal, Russia’s generation change had been completed. 18-year-old Igor Akinfeev, 21-year-old Aleksandr Anyukov and 20-year-old Vladimir Bystrov were all called up to a side that only included four players over 30 years old, Sergei Ovchinnikov, Mostovoi, Dmitry Loskov and Dmitry Alenichev.

Once again, the luck was against Sbornaya at the draw, as they were drawn together with both of the later finalists, Greece, who would famously win their first title ever, and Portugal as well of Spain.

Defeats to Spain and Portugal in the first two games sealed Russia’s fate, and a 2-1 victory in the last round against Greece didn’t change the fact, that Russia had once again been granted an early ticket home.

Euro 2008:

At Euro 2008, the Russian team finally broke through. The young players introduced back in the previous years had finally matured enough to carry their own weight, and Russian football had undergone a transformation. CSKA Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg had both won the UEFA Cup, and players like the Berezutsky twins, Sergey Ignashevich, Yuri Zhirkov, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, Roman Shirokov, Roman Pavlyuchenko and of course Andrey Arshavin were now in the squad.

Drawn alongside the eventual winners from Spain, the reigning champions from Greece and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden, they were in a tough group though.

And things didn’t start off on the right foot as Guus Hiddink’s men lost 4-1 to Spain in the first opening game. After that, they managed to turn things around though, and victories against Greece and Sweden in the following games secured them their first qualification to the land of wonder, the play-off.

There, they managed to beat Netherlands after one of the tournament’s fiercest battles, which saw the two teams take the match into extra time, before late goals by Dmitry Torbinski and Arshavin eventually secured Sbornaya a 3-1 victory.

Although the semifinal was lost to Spain, Russia had left an incredible mark on the tournament, proved by the fact that a number of the players later earned lucrative deals to big European clubs, while Zhirkov, Konstantin Zyryanov, Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko all made the Team of the Tournament.

Russian tifo before the group stage game against  Poland. Photo: Piotr Drabik

Russian tifo before the group stage game against Poland. Photo: Piotr Drabik

Euro 2012:

Having failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2010 after a scandalous playoff exit to Slovakia, Sbornaya should redeem itself at the 2012 Euro held in neighbouring countries Poland and Ukraine.

Drawn together with Poland, Greece and Czech Republic, that seemed like a manageable task for Dick Advocaat and his players. And thing started off well as Czech Republic were defeated 4-1. Two of the goals were scored by 21-year-old Alan Dzagoev, who played his first international tournament.

He would add another goal to his tally in the following game, where Russia drew 1-1 against Poland in a game remembered for the amount of chances missed by the Russian players.

This left Russia needing only a single point to advance before the last game against Greece. But once again, the pressure was too much for Sbornaya, who crumbled and lost 1-0 despite having the ball 62 % of the time and recording a staggering 25 total attempts, ten of these on target.

World Cup 2014:

In 2014, Russia were finally back in the World Cup after having missed two straight qualifications. The draw saw the matched with Belgium, Algeria and South Korea, and with Fabio Capello, one of the best paid coaches in the entire world, on the sideline, anything but a top two in the group was a massive failure.

For the first time ever, Russia used a squad only consisting of players playing in Russia, and it was a team built to perform as the majority of the players were in their prime age.

In the opening game against South Korea, Russia went down 1-0, but a goal by Aleksandr Kerzhakov earned them a single point. Later, they lost 1-0 to Belgium, which was hardly unexpected as the Belgian side was amongst the outsiders for the title. This left Russia needing a victory in the last game against Algeria to advance.

Kokorin scored after just six minutes, and Russia dominated the opening of the game. Eventually however, it seemed that Capello’s Italian side got the best of him, as Russia became increasingly defensive, and it was no surprise when Islam Slimani equalized to the game’s final result, 1-1, after 60 minutes.

Euro 2016:

Halfway through the qualification, Leonid Slutsky replaced Capello as head coach, and the current Hull City boss managed to shoot some new excitement into the team as it qualified second after Austria and before Sweden, who finished third.

His squad for the Euro saw the introduction of Fedor Smolov and Artem Dzyuba, who had both been neglected by Capello, as well as 20-year-old midfielder Aleksandr Golovin.

The tournament in France was infamous for having 24 teams and not the usual 16, which meant and additional four would advance from the group stage.

Drawn together with Wales, Slovakia and England, this bode well for Slutsky and Sbornaya. Especially as an overtime equalizer from Vasily Berezutsky saw Russia draw against England in the opening match.

Unfortunately, Russia went to lose 2-1 to Slovakia and 3-0 to Wales in the following games, and was exposed as by far the weakest team in the group, and one of the weakest at the tournament. In fact, only Ukraine went out of the tournament with a worse record.

Confederations Cup 2017:

Russia’s first participation at the Confederations Cup saw them in Group A alongside New Zealand, Portugal and Mexico. Sbornaya finished third in the group with three points after defeating New Zealand in the opening game, but later losing to both Portugal and Mexico.

Having replaced Slutsky after the Euro, the head coach was Stanislav Cherchesov, who as a player participated at the 1994 and 2002 World Cups as well as the 1996 Euro.

Cherchesov introduced 23-year-old Georgy Dzhikiya, 23-year-old Ilya Kutepov and 21-year-old Aleksey Miranchuk to the big stage, but this didn’t help him achieve what his predecessors couldn’t.

The 2018 World Cup is now less than a year away, and while the official goal for Sbornaya is to reach around a quarterfinal, history is not on Sbornaya’s side.

Toke Møller Theilade

Author: Toke Møller Theilade

Brøndby supporter, groundhopper and more importantly Editor-in-Chief at As a hopeless romantic, I still believe Fyodor Smolov and Viktoria Lopyreva has a future together.

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