It was the greatest Russian football performance since the collapse of the Soviet Union. White shirts swarmed over orange, in normal time and extra time in Basel, and Russia had beaten the Netherlands 3-1, to reach the semi-finals of Euro 2008.
Guus Hiddink, the Russia manager, said he had barely seen anything like it in his career. Edwin van der Sar, the beaten goalkeeper, said Hiddink had got Russia playing like the Dutch. Beaten manager Marco Van Basten was saddened and surprised. “We had a week off and you’d naturally think we’d be in a better shape than them,” he said. “But Russia were much stronger.”
Russia had already beaten Greece and Sweden in the group stage but this was their biggest scalp for 20 years. Just one month on from a handful of these players – including Andrey Arshavin – winning the Uefa Cup for Zenit St Petersburg, it felt like a statement of national intent, and the dawn of a new era of Russian football dominance. They had the money to import players and coaches, and now they had their own ‘Golden Generation’ too.
That new era never happened. The Russian team dipped after the Euros and it has only been this summer, in their own World Cup, that they have started to play well again. Beating Saudi Arabia 5-0 and Egpyt 3-1 has sent them through to the last-16, where they will face Spain on Sunday. It is the first time they have reached that stage while competing as Russia.
But 10 years on, knowing everything that has emerged about Russian sport in recent years, there are serious questions to answer about that run to the semi-finals. How did they manage to play that well?
One theory suggests the team may have benefited from a state-run doping programme.
Grigory Rodchenkov, the former doping orchestrator turned whistleblower, has spoken about the extensive doping regime in football with corticosteroids, to prevent muscle fatigue, as overseen by Vitaly Mutko. Now banned for life by the International Olympic Committee for doping, Mutko served as Minister of Sport, president of the Russian Football Union – he held both positions during Euro 2008 – and president of Zenit St Petersburg.
Speaking to the ‘Sports, Politics and Integrity’ conference last month via a satellite link from the United States, Rodchenkov revealed that Mutko, who has always denied wrongdoing, had told him “not to touch” footballers and to make sure that none were ever punished for doping, to make sure there was "no noise", especially connected to the Russian national team. “Mutko, as my boss and the senior man in football, said don’t touch football players,” Rodchenkov said. “‘If you have any problems, report to me.”
Rodchenkov did not identify the 2008 squad but he spoke of 34 footballers whose doping tests were covered up by his team, and investigative journalist Nick Harris has reported in the Mail on Sunday that that list included all 23 members included all 23 members of the Russian squad from the 2014 World Cup, which itself contained three players who played in that famous win over Holland in 2008. Just last week the Mail on Sunday revealed the case of Ruslan Kambolov, the Rubin Kazan defender who in 2015 tested positive for banned steroid dexamethasone, and apparently had his test swapped for clean urine from another athlete by Rodchenkov’s lab.
Mutko, who has always denied wrongdoing, took over as Minister of Sport in May 2008, one month before the team’s brilliant Euros. But he had been over-seeing Russian football for three years before that, becoming RFU president in April 2005. The following year he recruited Guus Hiddink as national team coach – ahead of Dick Advocaat and Paul Le Guen – to rescue Russian football from the nadir of not even qualifying for the 2006 World Cup.
The RFU deny that there was ever a state doping programme in football. Zenit has not commented on the allegations.
But the questions about possible doping in Russian football arise elsewhere and in particular relating to Zenit St Petersburg – Mutko’s team – who provided three of the stars of Euro 2008, Andrey Arshavin, Aleksandr Anyukov and Konstantin Zyryanov.
Fernando Ricksen joined Zenit from Rangers in 2006 and wrote in his autobiography ‘Fighting Spirit’ about his surprise at the injections and drips the Zenit players received. “Needles and syringes all over the place. Players hooked up to drips, laughing. It looked like a secret laboratory.” Ricksen alleges that treatments would “make you recuperate a lot faster, fit to play another game within a day.”
Ricksen was shocked by the powerful effects those injections had on him, holding off muscle fatigue: “I got an energy boost which was beyond imagination. Normally it took me 48 hours to fully recuperate, now I was fit again immediately, ready to play another three games...Without it, it would take me at least half an hour to get into the game. It also felt as if the last match I’d played was over a week ago. In reality, it was only a matter of days.”
It is not known what substances were administered and no Zenit players tested positive for banned performance enhancing drugs.
However, an alternative possibility is that the team were simply benefiting from the coaching of Hiddink. There is no suggestion that him or his team had any role in doping. When Russia faced Sweden in the decider to go through, Hiddink had a plan to sandwich Ibrahimovic between his two centre-backs, Sergei Ignashevich and Denis Kolodin, to stop the striker from winning long balls. It worked, Russia won 2-0 and went through.
Hiddink’s move against the Dutch was to realise that Khalid Boulahrouz was weak on the ball and Russia could let him have it as much as possible, according to Raymond Verheijen, Hiddink’s assistant in Euro 2008: “So Arshavin, who was playing on the left wing, Hiddink told him to play on the inside, leaving the right-back Boulahrouz, and to play against the right centre-back Andre Ooijer instead. So the two Dutch centre-backs were up against Pavlyuchenko and Arshavin.”
Sure enough, Boulahrouz kept losing the ball, and every time Russia broke down the middle they had a 2v2. And with Dutch holding midfielder Orlando Engelaar too slow to keep up with Konstantin Zyryanov, more often than not Russia had a 3v2. “So in transition the two centre-backs of Holland were playing against three Russians,” Verheijen said. “And that is why everybody had the impression that we were overrunning the Dutch, with that tactical move.”
The superior speed of the Russian team in the second half and in extra-time eventually told, running the tired Dutch players off the pitch. Russia scored twice in the second half of extra-time to win the game 3-1, Arshavin skipping away from a lumbering Ooijer and Johnny Heitinga in the 116th minute to round it off. Hiddink was delighted with him: “When everyone was dead and gone on the pitch in extra time, Arshavin was still going.”
This historic 3-1 win led to historic celebrations: 700,000 took the streets of Moscow and Hiddink was offered Russian citizenship. But those celebrations extended all the way back to the Russian players in Switzerland, who had their own party to mark the win. Five days later Russia played Spain in the semi-finals, but were overrun in the second half and lost 3-0. And the Russian team retreated into a decade of underperformance, until this year.