Something New, Something Russian

Until Russia’s lengthy dismantling exercise in Basle on Friday, Holland’s blitz on the proclaimed ‘Group of Death’ had been Euro 2008’s foremost point for exclamation.

To English audiences in particular, the proposition of a Dutch rebirth after twenty years of bungled failure was a thrilling and unexpected boon to a competition tainted by the absence of a team for partisan interests. Wistful talk of Michels, Cruyff and Totaalvoetball abounded, while those less seduced by hyperbole reminisced with welcome moderation on the 1988 success prompted via the influence of the heavenly Milanese axis: Gullit, Rijkaard and Van Basten.

In 1988, English football was one year short of its modern nadir, the Hillsborough disaster. Prior to the sanitary cleansing that took place following the Taylor Report and the introduction of the brand-spanking-new-total-hype Premiership, the World Cup and the European Championships were feasts of exoticism and mystery; manna for football fans whose opportunities to watch live football on television were restricted to the occasional English match.

The emergence of Cruyff’s Holland in 1974 and their incisive and totemic overhauling of the playing tradition must have appeared as thrilling to pre-satellite audiences as the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, or a trip to the flicks to see Brando’s ballast in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

In 2008, this kind of revelation is seldom festooned on the contemporary fan. Wesley Sneijder’s performance against Italy was a treasure, though I was already well aware of his talents, having watched him play numerous times this season for Real Madrid. Sky Sports offers the chance to watch Real Madrid and Barcelona on a weekly basis, with a smattering of that league’s other choice matches also readily available, not to mention the weekly highlights program Revista De La Liga. If Sneijder still plied his trade at Ajax, I could follow his progress on Setanta Sports’ coverage of the Dutch Eredivisie.

This array of confectionary is in many ways a wonderful thing for the modern fan; the more refined pleasures of French, Spanish and Italian football are a welcome aside to the blood and guts style of the majority of English games. However, the inter-connected nature of the modern world takes away one of life’s more simple, often forgotten pleasures: the discovery or revealing of the unknown.

As the English and Spanish leagues lock-down the best talent and consolidate their institutive power in the world game, one could even posit the argument that international teams are denied the requisite space and time to foster their players into a unique and individual culture of style; a manner of play which is indicative of their country. One of the recurrent points concerning Cruyff’s Holland is the familiarity between players of a style and system unerringly connected to their identity and culture; what Jonathan Wilson, in The Independent on Sunday, calls an ‘almost preternatural understanding of one another’s game’.

Though the current Dutch team retain a level of technical excellence evident in their football for decades, if we alleviate the nostalgic longing for the 1970s and the genius of Cruyff, we can not say that the Dutch came close to replicating the cultivated, collective synthesis of old. With the kind of thrilling twist in which football specialises, the vaunted Dutch were calmly dispatched by a Russian team quietly refining their own philosophy, haphazardly authored throughout a century of societal trauma by a cast too easily obfuscated by the restrictions of political entropy.

Though Everton and Rangers fans may have spewed forth eulogies in honour of classical playmaker Andrei Arshavin, events in Basle had the indefinable aura of magic that inevitably surrounds the moment something wonderful makes the leap from the occult to the mainstream.

Though Arshavin and a number of his team mates could be found leading Zenit St. Petersburg to the UEFA Cup in May, thus stretching any notion of overt obscurity, Russia’s emergence last night brought to light a style and ethos that had been concealed from the wider public. Though Russia has had its great players and figures, it is still regarded as a football outback by the majority of fans, a landscape of corruption and deceit, of mystery and unpronounceable names. This makes the performance against Holland all the more exciting for a worldwide audience numb from their heavy consumption of the increasingly converging styles of Western Europe.

Though the performance against Holland was undoubtedly of Russian character, the link between Dick Advocaat’s Zenit St. Petersburg side and the national team mirrors the aforementioned one between the Ajax and Holland sides of the early 1970s. That Dutch mentors lead both Russian teams sheds both light and irony on this link.

Though commentators who compare Russia’s performance to Totaalvoetball only reinforce continued ignorance of Russian football history, there is no doubt that the team benefits from the similar symbiosis that a heavy Zenit presence lends. More importantly, the majority of the Russian team plays their football in the Russian league, allowing a Russian manner of football to be regularly and routinely enforced.

The performance against Holland demonstrated that this close interlocking of local and national cultures is still the most crucial factor in fostering both a winning international team, and – more importantly, in an age of withering national identities – play that demonstrates the scope of thought and invention that is unique to each nation. That such a performance came against Holland is of some significance. One of the most famous instances of cultural influence on football play came with the development of Rinus Michels’ Ajax and Dutch teams. The Dutch performance in Euro 2008 showed that elements of this tradition are still present in the Dutch national team. The struggle for Holland is to find a way to reinforce the values of such an unusual style when the European leagues are rife with uniformity.

For us, the audience, the revelation of Russia’s ‘clap-clap’ attacking momentum helped to reacquaint us with those first moments we laid eyes on the new, the unknown, the special. Whether Cruyff’s Holland or Hiddink’s Russia, the greatest joy as a football fan is surely the unexpected discovery of something great. Despite the rarity of such occurrences in the global, satellite-television age, Russia’s performance reminded us that its unveiling is still the most exquisite joy.

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