It was the 19th century writer, Nikolai Gogol, who said that Russia's two greatest misfortunes were its roads and fools, to which the Russian people, with equal measures of irony and spite, added soccer in the late 20th century. However, after Wednesday's win ensured that Russia would make it out of the group stage at a major tournament for the first time since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., that list may have just got shorter.
"It was a good achievement," said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a long-time Zenit St. Petersburg fan. "We are going further!" screamed the headline of Sovetski Sport newspaper. "We can take on any side as equals," said Russian captain Sergei Semak after the game, adding that "We are afraid of no one!"
It was not just the result which impressed; the skill shown by the Russian players in carving out chance after chance was a joy to watch and had pundits all over the world gushing. "They are just fabulous to watch this Russia side. Are you watching Holland?" wrote the BBC, with ex-Chelsea player Pat Nevin adding, "Russia could have won by six goals tonight and it would have been a fair result. Sweden haven't played that badly but they have been beaten by a far, far better side."
Since taking over the side in 2006, Dutch trainer Guus Hiddink has worked wonders with the Russian team, ridding it of the ultra-cautious tactics that stifled the potential of earlier squads. As a foreigner, Hiddink has been able to stay out of inter-club squabbles and has shown an enviable courage in refusing to be dictated to by the country's soccer chiefs.
The man Hiddink built his side around, Andrei Arshavin, missed the side's first two games at Euro 2008 through suspension, but his return to the side caused panic in the Swedish defense as Russia got the win they needed and deserved.
Russia will now face Hiddink's Holland in the quarterfinals on Saturday. Whatever happens in that match, the team has made history, and with the 2010 World Cup always Hiddink's real target, soccer in Russia looks to be making a long awaited comeback.
Viktor Chernomyrdin, the country's premier prior to the 1998 financial crisis that wiped out the life savings of many Russians, once said that, "We hoped for the best, but things turned out like they always do." The phrase was subsequently adopted by the country's sportswriters and quoted throughout Russian soccer's long dark night of the soul. After Wednesday's display, coupled with Zenit St. Petersburg's UEFA Cup victory in May, it could be a long time before the phrase sees the light of day again.