No one expected the Russians — the lowest-ranked team in this World Cup — to hold off the formidable Spaniards, let alone win. But win they did on Sunday, locking Spain down for the entire game and two halves of extra time, going on to beat them in a penalty-kick showdown, the last Spanish kick sailing off the foot of Russian goalie Igor Akinfeev. Then Russia and the Russian diaspora erupted with such joy that you’d think they won the entire tournament, and the joy was so overwhelming that it came from everyone, including both the people in power and those who oppose them.
And that, perhaps, is the most unexpected outcome of this massive upset: a fleeting national unity around a national victory that is untainted by politics, unalloyed with factionalism and un-spoilable with allegations of subterfuge. No one celebrated like this when Russia crushed the competition in the medal race at the Sochi Olympics in 2014 — a victory of which it was later stripped amid allegations of systemic doping. When Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, the celebrations were fraught with anger and political division that broke up friendships and families.
When Russia beat Spain, though, Russia seemed unified in its joy in a way that it hasn’t been in a very, very long time. Before the throngs of fans poured into the streets of Moscow, clogging them with their tricolors and their jubilation, the chattering classes weighed in.
“Victory!” tweeted Alexey Pushkov, the ubiquitously ultra-hawkish member of the upper house of the Russian parliament. “The Russian national team has entered the ranks of the world [soccer] elite! . . . Unexpected! Inspiring! Stunning!”
“This is outer space,” Russian slang for “groovy,” tweeted Dmitry Rogozin, a former deputy prime minister who now heads the Russian state version of NASA, along with a picture of the Sputnik satellite.
State media immediately glutted their sites and airwaves and Twitter feeds with jubilant photos of the team, and one tabloid even secured video from the national team’s locker room, where players jumped up and down, chanting, “Great job! Great job!” (It sounds better in Russian.)
But none of that was surprising. Of course state media and Kremlin politicians would celebrate such a win. The unexpected element was the equally giddy celebrations of the opposition, which is so opposed to President Vladimir Putin and his stunts to gain global legitimacy — stunts such as hosting the World Cup and the Olympics — that it would rarely celebrate something like this. And yet, here the opposition was, temporarily putting aside an issue that worries so many: Putin raising taxes and the retirement age as the economy continues to putter along.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil magnate turned revolutionary after Putin jailed him for a decade on trumped-up charges, was jubilant. “Incredible!!” he tweeted.
Even Alexei Navalny, the undisputed leader of the opposition, was over the moon. On Saturday, Navalny met his younger bother, Oleg, outside the prison gates where Oleg had spent three years, often in solitary confinement for months at a time, for the crime of being Alexei Navalny’s brother. Yet when the Russian team rocked Spain in the shootout, Navalny wasted no time in calling for protests — to make the Kremlin bestow Russia’s highest honor, Hero of Russia, on Akinfeev, the goalie. (“It’s so wonderful,” he gushed later.)
After the past two years, Americans would readily recognize the Russia these Russians inhabit, a country so deeply polarized that every little thing is viewed through a political lens: Does this help the president, or hurt him? Does it legitimize him in the eyes of the world, or bring him one step closer to self-destruction? But Russia has existed this way for far, far longer. And since the war against Ukraine began in 2014, Russia has been keyed up at a level of previously unseen jingoism. Yet there was no anti-Western schadenfreude Sunday, even though Spain is a member of both NATO and the European Union, which issued sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. More surprisingly, there was very little anti-Putin rhetoric even among the people who spend their waking hours imagining a Russia after his demise.
Putin wasn’t at the game. He has never been much of a soccer fan; he’s much more of a hockey man, and the World Cup was more of an exercise in securing global legitimacy than in celebrating the beautiful game. (That, and who wants to be there if the team loses?) But he was present behind the scenes, reportedly calling the Russian coach before the game and telling him that he is interested only in “results.” (This would explain the comically tense joylessness of the Russian coach.) Putin may be on to something: A victory like this feels like a win for every Russian, regardless of whether they support his authoritarian rule or not. Something like that gives him a bump in approval at home that is hard to parallel, especially after a year in which he sees himself increasingly isolated from the West after his interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The question is what he does with this beautiful, well-deserved victory. The last time Russia did well in a global sporting event, Putin, riding high, invaded Ukraine — twice. Let’s hope that this time, he does something more benign, or just lets his country celebrate for the sake of it.
But if you’re hoping for that, or Russia’s victory in the final, don’t hold your breath.