That Roar You Heard was from Russia

We have a saying in Russia, Stanislav Cherchesov told reporters from behind his fearsome mustache on Saturday afternoon.

“Anyone,” said Cherchesov, the coach of Russia’s World Cup team, “can be a god if he tries.”

The statement — made a day before Russia would play Spain in the World Cup’s round of 16 — was both pushback and premonition. Cherchesov knew what everyone was thinking: that his Russia team, the lowest-ranked in the field, had surpassed expectations as the host of the World Cup but would surely reach the end of the line when it took on Spain, a former world and European champion.

But Cherchesov seemed to know better. He thought his team had more to give. And he was right. In a stunning upset, Russia eliminated Spain on penalty kicks, 4-3, after a 1-1 tie on Sunday that extended through 90 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes of extra time.

The long day finally ended when the Russian goalkeeper, Igor Akinfeev, kicked away Iago Aspas’s fifth penalty attempt for Spain. The Russians had been dominated throughout the game, but a penalty kick by Artem Dzyuba before halftime allowed them to tie the score at 1-1, and a gritty, disciplined, defensive effort ultimately led to the penalty shootout — and to a result that many had considered unthinkable.

Cherchesov and Russia now have any number of players to toast as they begin to look ahead to their next game, on Saturday in Sochi, where they will play a quarterfinal match against Croatia, which won its own penalty-shootout battle on Sunday against Denmark.

One hero, for sure, is Akinfeev, who saved two of Spain’s five penalties. Then there is Dzyuba, who created and then converted the penalty that drew Russia level in a game in which it appeared comically overmatched at times. And maybe Sergey Ignashevich, the 38-year-old center back, who was drafted into the World Cup squad late in Russia’s preparations. He has played every minute of this tournament, and he anchored the five-man defensive back line with the leadership and the direction to hold off Spain again and again.

“It’s an incredible feeling,” midfielder Aleksandr Golovin said. “To be honest, I do not even know what to do right now. We are in some kind of dream, a fairy tale.”

To say Russia played Spain to a draw was technically true. But in reality Spain played and Russia chased for most of the match inside the cavernous Luzhniki Stadium. Spain was content to keep possession of the ball after an early goal and Russia was, well, content to let Spain have it.

For 10, 15, 20 passes at a stretch, Spain worked the ball around the field at will — a game of keepaway disguised as a World Cup elimination match. The pro-Russian crowd whistled its disapproval early and repeatedly, and urged its team on whenever it managed — even briefly — to steal the ball away from the Spaniards. But Spain, inevitably and repeatedly, simply took the ball back. And kept it.

“We knew that Spain would play the ball in the match and leave it to them: We were prepared for this,” Golovin said. “We knew that we would keep them as far away from the penalty area as possible.”

Spain was so dominant in the first half that it nearly made it to halftime with a 1-0 lead despite having taken no shots: its opening goal came off the right ankle of Ignashevich, who unwittingly scored this World Cup’s 10th own goal — a record total already — as he fell to the ground while tangling with Spain’s Sergio Ramos on a free kick in the 12th minute.

Staked to the early lead it sought, Spain continued to pass and Russia continued to chase. The game quickly devolved into a high-stakes training session.

And then, in the 40th minute, everything changed. Russia won a corner kick, Alexander Samedov fired it in and Dzyuba headed it directly onto the arm of Spain’s Gerard Piqué — who, for some reason, had jumped to challenge Dzyuba with his back turned and one arm over his head.

The Dutch referee, Bjorn Kuipers, called a hand ball. Dzyuba buried the ensuing penalty kick past David De Gea and, just like that, Russia — and its crowd — came to life.

Russia had ridden that kind of full-throated support right through its first three games at the tournament. Its maximum-effort style on the field and early success — two victories in its first three games — had quickly got its countrymen on board, easing fears that the tournament might be an afterthought for the host country if the Russian team exited early.

Dzyuba’s goal seemed to revive those fans on Sunday, and perhaps made them imagine a victory might just be possible. The start of the second half was more even, and the free kicks and corners Russia won — with increasing frequency — soon began to create two and three half-chances at a time before Spain would force the ball clear.

Spain still ruled the statistics — it completed 1,029 passes to Russia’s 202 by the end of the match — but it stubbornly refused to adjust its style even after it became clear Russia would not yield. The Spaniards had good chances — a long-range shot by Andrés Iniesta in the second half, a dangerous run by the substitute Rodrigo in the second extra period — but a goal never came.

The Russian team goes crazy as a jubilant Moscow crowd cheers on their advancement to the quarterfinals. Russia was considered one of the weakest teams in the tournament, and Spain one of the favorites. But in 120 minutes Spain could only force one own goal, and when it comes down to penalties anybody can beat anybody.

Andrew Das: Stunning finish there as Akinfeev kicks away the last attempt by Aspas. The Russians pour toward him and he dives, fists outstretched into the grass to absorb their love. The crowd has gone absolutely bonkers in here.

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