Nobody has expressed the paradox of mixing football and religion better than Johann Cruyff.
“In Spain”, the Ajax legend once complained, “all 22 players make the sign of the cross before the match. If that worked, every game would be a draw.”
Perhaps, then, with VAR now the only officially sanctioned form of divine intervention in an increasingly secular game, the unfancied Russians can be forgiven for hedging their bets before today’s match at Amsterdam’s Johann Cruyff Arena.
The Russian Orthodox primate Patriarch Kirill, who famously described the 2018 World Cup as ‘a Gift from God’, made the pilgrimage from Moscow to his team’s base camp at Zeist. And his presence in the VIP seats this afternoon, nestled awkwardly between Dimitri Medvedev and Catatonia’s Cerys Matthews, was also an implicit compliment to Wales. After the 3-0 humiliation in 2016, Russia would need luck, if not a small miracle to get past Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and co. this time around.
This respect was mirrored in the balanced coverage by the usually belligerent Russian sports media, although the odd provocation still found its way into print. As Ryan Giggs tartly remarked in the pre-match press conference, the timing of literary critic Stanislav Kunayev’s negative reappraisal of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s use of metaphor in this week’s Literaturnaya Gazeta seemed rather too well-timed to be coincidental.
Nonetheless, as the teams lined up to awkwardly lip-synch their respective national anthems, there was a palpable sense of uncertainty. For both sides, the only consistent element so far in the tournament has been inconsistency.
From the first kick of the match, greeted with a deafening bipartisan roar from the 55,000 spectators, Wales seized the initiative. And if Patriarch Kirill’s blessings had afforded the Russian penalty area divine protection, somebody forgot to tell Gareth Bale.
After Dzhikiya nodded the ball out of touch somewhat unnecessarily from Gunter’s hopeful punt straight from kick-off, Joe Morrell’s long throw found the Real Madrid winger in acres of space down the right. Leading Kudryashov out to the corner flag, Bale suddenly cut the ball back through the Antalyaspor defender’s legs, before delivering an irresistible inswinging left-footed cross that defied the tentative headbutts of Semonev and Ozdoev to find Aaron Ramsey at the far post. Guilherme’s acrobatic despairing dive was purely cosmetic: the Juventus man’s looping header was unstoppable.
It was a nightmare start for the Russians. Allowed very little space by the aggressive Welsh midfield, Fernandes, Semenov and Ozdoev increasingly began to fall back on pumping hopeful long balls out of the Russian defence in the general direction of Bakaev and Dzyuba. Where in previous matches Russia had been too reckless, today they were over-cautious, and, in their rare moments of possession, tried to keep the ball off the floor as much as possible.
The problem with this approach was that the Welsh had aerial superiority, too, winning the majority of 50/50 headers and constantly looking a threat from set pieces. In truth, Ryan Giggs’ side could and should have been three or four up by the interval, and Russia had the excellent Lokomotiv stopper Guilherme to thank for keeping the score down.
On the stroke of half time, their luck finally ran out. Bale whipped in a low corner that was awkwardly cleared by Fernandes. The CSKA Moscow defender attempted to give the ball a good old-fashioned hoof, but instead got right underneath it and sent it spinning into the heavens above the crowded six-yard box. It seemed to hang there an eternity before tumbling back to earth, ricocheting sweetly off Ramsey’s knee and into Guilherme’s face. With the ball trickling out of play, the unlikely hero was Chris Mepham. In the right place at the right time, the former Brentford defender was left completely alone at the far post to hammer emphatically home in front of the jubilant, rowdy hordes of Welsh supporters.
Ryan Giggs brought on Matondo to rest Bale for the seemingly-inevitable quarter final, and the substitution paid dividends almost immediately. In the 52nd minute, Daniel James danced down the left wing and unleashed a fierce cross that somehow eluded friend and foe alike until it trickled to a halt at the feet of Matondo on the right. Rather than sending the ball back into the box, he skipped past the beleaguered Kudryashov and, with Guilherme on his line expecting the cross, rifled the ball into the roof of the net from the tightest of angles.
To make matters worse, as the Russian players traipsed back toward the halfway line, the footage on the giant scoreboard cut from the hugging, cavorting Welsh players to the stern bearded visage of Patriarch Kirill up in the VIP box. For a fleeting but terrible moment, rowdy chants of ‘Santa, what’s the score?’ echoed around the Johann Cruyff Arena. Cherchesov yelled instructions and gesticulated from the touchline, Dzyuba and Komlichenko exchanged exasperated shrugs, and the shellshocked Russian supporters stared blankly out at the brilliant green turf, perhaps hoping that the stadium had a retractable floor as well as a retractable roof.
But maybe the Russians were keener on Dylan Thomas than they let on. Rather than going gentle into that good night, they raged, raged against the dying of the chance to meet either Norway or the Netherlands in the last eight. As Wales seemed content to cruise into the next round and avoid picking up any injuries, they unexpectedly ceded midfield dominance and allowed Russia against all the odds to grow into the game.
Yuri Zhirkov at last woke up and began causing more problems on the Russian left wing than Leon Trotsky. In the 62nd minute, a tentative run by Golovin exposed gaps in the Welsh defence which the AS Monaco midfielder exploited to thread an inch-perfect through ball out to Zhirkov, who was racing in from the left completely unmarked. The veteran Zenit winger took a perfect first touch to and kept his composure in the face of the onrushing Hennessey, holding the ball up until the last minute before rounding the floored Crystal Palace keeper and hammering the ball home. Game on.
Wales sensed trouble and began trying to run down the clock, which inconveniently contained another 28 minutes plus injuries. At every turn they attempted to bore the Russians into submission, holding the ball up at the corner flag or stringing together lethargic, hypnotically dull passes around their half which invariably ended up at the feet of the frustrated Hennessey. This tactic backfired in the 78th minute, when a poor touch from Levitt fell to Ozdoev in the centre circle. With white shirts pouring forward, he sent a long looping ball in the direction of Dzyuba. Mepham, sliding at full stretch, could only flick the ball goalwards to the feet of the grateful Zemlikan Bakaev on the edge of the penalty area. Bakaev glanced up, and, seeing Hennessey several yards off his line, chipped a perfectly-weighted effort that dipped just under the crossbar to reduce the deficit to one.
In theory, this set the stage for an unnecessarily thrilling finale. Cherchesov rewarded a visibly annoyed Bakaev by substituting him for Smolov to add some pace on the right wing, but the players around him were ailing. Slowly, the Welsh bore tactics and the Russian fatigue conspired to strangle the life out of the few remaining minutes. In the stands the rowdy Wales supporters became noisier and noisier in anticipation of the final whistle. At last it sounded, a cathartic end to a curious game.
High up in the rapidly-emptying VIP seats, Patriarch Kirill cut a lonely figure, meditating darkly on the spectacle he had just witnessed. What was he thinking as he gazed at the wild celebrations below, a turbulent, tumultuous sea of Welsh flags, defiantly exposed beer bellies and banners advertising the ‘Cefn Druids on Tour’ and ‘Pen-y-Bont Wrexham Branch’?
At last, very slowly, the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia gathered his splendid robes, rose to his feet and shuffled toward the exit.