MOSCOW: It is impossible to do justice to that moment at Luzhniki Stadium when Igor Akinfeev saved Iago Aspas’ penalty, but one has to try nonetheless. The roar that echoed through Moscow was one of jubilation and at the same time, a release of pent-up frustration. A thousand flags were waved and even more clenched fists were shaken at whoever its owners thought were enemies. “Ra-Si-Ya”, shouted Luzhniki in unison. On the field, Sergio Ramos — who had celebrated Spain’s only goal of the game, a Sergey Ignashevich own goal in the first half, as if it was his own — had his face in his hands.
The home team, clad in their white away jersey, dived on the grass that had just been moistened by a sudden burst of rain. Their target was Akinfeev, a man whose blunder in the Brazilian city of Cuiaba had cost them three points against South Korea, sending them out of the World Cup four years ago. On Sunday, the rain that fell on him, as he first dived to his right to save Koke’s penalty and then stuck out his left foot to deny Aspas, was one that washed away all his previous sins. If Vladimir Putin called an election on Monday, he would still win, but Akinfeev would probably come to a lot closer than most of his previous opponents. As for Spain, the less said, the better.
For many of their players, Akinfeev’s final save must have served as the snap that woke them up from the twisted nightmare that this tournament had been for them. Things started going horribly wrong for Spain even before this event started. Their manager Julen Lopetegui packed his bags a day before the opener, him and Real Madrid — ironically the club favoured by Spanish nationalists — chose to go public with the news he had agreed to replace Zinedine Zidane.
In came, Fernando Hierro whose experience as a full-time manager was a single season with Real Oviedo in the Spanish second division. That showed as they were held to a stalemate by Cristiano Ronaldo, narrowly squeaked past Iran before being denied all three points by Morocco. Yet they still managed to finish top of the group and were given the easy route to the semifinals. It was evidently not easy enough.
A particularly mind-numbing passage of play summed up their night on Sunday. It was the second period of extra time and experienced defender Gerard Pique, who conceded the penalty that landed them in this predicament, had the ball. He passed it to fellow defender Dani Carvajal, who did not have any particular use for the ball and duly returned it to Pique. He then tried passing it to his Barcelona teammate Jordi Alba, who chose to mix things up a bit by getting it out of defense, with Sergio Busquets being the recipient this time.
Busquets tried launching an attack by giving it to one of their more creative players, Isco, who had been pretty ineffective all game. He pinged it to Carvajal, who was now making a run and the defender found fellow substitute, Rodrigo. The latter, seeing no options ahead of him, tried going sideways to Jordi Alba, who gave it to Koke, who then gave it to Andres Iniesta. The Barcelona man, presumably as bored as everyone else at watching this unending conveyer belt of pointless passes, chose to take a shot despite the fact that there were two defenders blocking his view of the goal.
The ball duly took a heavy deflection and bounced gently to Akinfeev. Whoever wrote the algorithm for the Spanish team for this game, and indeed the entire tournament did a shoddy job. Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, lose the ball, win the ball back, and repeat. It was a poorly planned siege that the Russians withstood without too much trouble, their tired legs being roared on by a voracious home crowd. One of the main Western complaints with Russians is that they don’t smile much. But, no one was complaining about that today.