By the time Russia had dispatched Saudi Arabia and Egypt in its first two games, however, the mood had shifted: from hope to excitement and on, ever upward, to elation. A loss to Uruguay in the final group game — with qualification in the round of 16 assured — did not dampen it.
When Russia then sent Spain spiraling out of the tournament in a wildly intense round-of-16 game decided by a penalty shootout, hundreds of thousands of jubilant Russian fans, if not more, spilled onto the streets of cities the length and breadth of this vast country.
Central Moscow ground to a halt, an impromptu street party that some compared to the celebrations at the end of World War II. From Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, the nation was in thrall. “The entire Russian country is in love with us,” as Cherchesov put it.
The rest of the world benefited, too. Russia’s unforeseen success illuminated the whole tournament. It meant that the host was not just a stage for the carnival, but a continuing participant in it. By knocking out Spain, Russia also did its bit to add to the air of the surreal that, most likely, will be the abiding memory of this World Cup.
That victory was not enough to ensure Russia a place in the planet’s collective heart, however. A note of doubt, remained. It is not unusual for World Cup hosts to exceed expectations, for an average team to be spurred by a partisan crowd and patriotic pride, and advance further into the tournament than its apparent talents might suggest.
Nor is it unusual for such homegrown success to attract raised eyebrows: Witness South Korea’s referee-assisted run to the semifinal in 2002; Argentina’s controversial appearance — and victory — in the final in 1978; even the longstanding South American allegations of a European plot to ease England’s path to glory in 1966.
In Russia’s case, those suspicions came easily. It is only four years, after all, since the Winter Olympics in Sochi, in which a vast state-backed doping program corrupted the results and boosted Russia to the top of the medals standings. Russia played Saturday’s World Cup quarterfinal in the stadium that opened and closed that event; the doping laboratory at the center of the accusations sits just outside the arena’s security zone. It is a restaurant now.
Grigory Rodchenkov, the whistle-blower at the center of the Sochi case, has alleged that he was told to make sure there was “no noise” when it came to failed tests for soccer players.
The Mail on Sunday, a British newspaper, has claimed FIFA knew of cover-ups in Russian soccer 18 months before this tournament started. Travis Tygart, chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, told USA Today in the past week, “We’re fools to believe it’s any different this time around from what happened in Sochi.” Denis Cheryshev, one of Russia’s breakout stars, has been forced to deny taking a growth hormone after his own father — apparently misquoted — suggested he had.
There is no documentary evidence of any wrongdoing, of course. It is all supposition and conjecture. It would all be roundly rejected not only by the Russian authorities but by much of the Russian people, inclined to be suspicious of anything any government tells them.
But in that climate, seeing a Russian team not only surpassing its fans’ wildest expectations, but doing so by running farther than every other team here — and by some considerable distance — it is hardly unreasonable to withhold a little affection for this Russian team, to wonder if what we have seen is real.
That is the price you pay, of course — just as all cyclists are vulnerable to being tarred by the sins of the past, regardless of their own guilt, so too all Russian athletes are now, unfairly, greeted with skepticism. But that is not to say that the culpable always bear the cost alone. Presuming their innocence, they are victims here, too. They are the ones who should be receiving garlands of praise for all they have done, and not dealing with any innuendo and rumor.
From the way they responded to the end of their journey, there is no question that it has all seemed real to the players, and to the staff. They arrived here in Sochi believing, with all of their hearts, that they could sustain this monthlong fantasy for a few more days.
When Cheryshev scored yet another wonderful goal in this dreamlike summer of his, it seemed they might; when Fernandes drew the game back to 2-2, deep into extra time, forcing yet another penalty shootout, the whole stadium seemed to believe fate and fortune were on Russia’s side.
And when, in the middle of the shootout, Dzagoev urged the crowd to make yet more noise, to make itself heard out across the Black Sea and into Turkey, and in the caldron, Mateo Kovacic duly missed his spot kick for Croatia, it seemed that, once more, they were.
The spell, though, could not hold. At some point, even at the best parties, everyone has to go home. Fernandes missed; Domagoj Vida scored for Croatia, and so, too, did Ivan Rakitic. Croatia’s players raced to their fans. Russia’s players sank to the floor. And as the lights came on and the reverie evaporated, Romaschenko sat on the turf, waiting for midnight, hoping to stretch it out just a bit more.
England vs. Sweden: Here’s what happened.
Here’s how Croatia beat Russia (by Joel Petterson):
PK: Russia 3, Croatia 4
GOAL CROATIA! Ivan Rakitic scores to send Croatia to the semifinals!
Croatia piles onto Subasic near the endline in jubilation, just feet away from a devastated Akinfeev, still sitting in the goal mouth. The Russian fans are giving their team a muted standing ovation as their dream run as hosts is officially over.
PK: Russia 3, Croatia 3
GOAL RUSSIA! Daler Kuziaev coolly puts in the left corner. It all comes down to this next one.
PK: Russia 2, Croatia 3
GOAL CROATIA! Vida cracks it into the left side, as Akinfeev goes the wrong way.
PK: Russia 2, Croatia 2
GOAL RUSSIA! Sergey Ignashevich powers it into the left side.
PK: Russia 1, Croatia 2
GOAL CROATIA! Luka Modric’s barely sneaks in, as Akinfeev got a hand on it to send it off the inside of the right post and in!
PK: Russia 1, Croatia 1
MISS RUSSIA! Mário Fernandes sends it wide left, smashing it low on the ground!
PK: Russia 1, Croatia 1
SAVE RUSSIA! Akinfeev gets down to his left and stops Mateo Kovacic’s roller!
PK: Russia 1, Croatia 1
GOAL RUSSIA! Alan Dzagoev slides it into the lower right corner.
PK: Russia 0, Croatia 1
Marcelo Brozovic blasts it into the upper right corner, past a diving Akinfeev!
PK: Russia 0, Croatia 0
Smolov tries a chip and it’s saved by Subasic’s hand!
The Goal That Got Us Here
120+1’: Final Whistle
Nearly every player on the field doubles over in exhaustion. Penalties will decide the final semifinalist of this World Cup.
The good news for Croatia: Subasic, as we mentioned before, made three saves in Croatia’s penalty shootout against Denmark in the round of 16.
The bad news: he appears to be on one leg, essentially. And Russia’s ‘keeper, Akinfeev, also made two saves in Russia’s penalty win over Spain.
120’: One More Minute
One minute of added time. But at this pace, we could have, like, four goals in that period.
118’: Russia On Edge
The Russian fans, many in tears or near them just a few minutes ago, have roared to life and are all standing for the final couple minutes of stoppage time. And their team is not satisfied with a tie: Roman Zobnin fizzes a low shot that Subasic scrambles to smother on the left side of the goal
115’: GOAL RUSSIA!
Mário Fernandes with a header to save the host nation!
Russia had a free kick from just outside the right corner of the penalty area after Josip Pivaric’s silly handball. The kick is a beautiful one, curled right to Fernandes, and he thunders it into the left side of the net to send Fisht Stadium into absolute delirium.
113’: Subasic, Again
Subasic again comes up big. Smolov tore down the left side, cuts back with a nice move, then plays a dangerous ball right across the face of goal. But Subasic stretches and just gets a hand on it to swat it out of danger. That hamstring seems like it’s just fine.
112’: Great Save by Subasic!
Russia’s corner kick pops out to Daler Kuziaev just outside the area, who rockets a shot back in. But Subasic, a few yards out after trying to punch the ball away, takes it right in the chest and is able to smother it and end the danger.
109’: Croatia Pushes for Possession
The roles have switched, as expected: Croatia is keeping nine or 10 men behind the ball, whenever possible, and is just trying to break out and keep possession with a couple players whenever they break out of their half.
107’: One More Yellow Card for Russia
Yury Gazinskiy gets the yellow this time.
106’: Russia’s Last Chance
The second period has started, and Russia has 15 minutes, give or take (probably give), to keep its 2018 fairy tale going.
105+2’: All Eyes on Subasic
In the dying seconds of the first extra period, Russia gets a free kick about 35 yards out near the right sideline. Subasic stretches to get his hands on it, then fumbles it amid a scrum, but the referee blows the whistle for a foul on Russia — and then ends the period. Subasic grabs at his leg again, and his status will be something to watch for the final 15 minutes.
Russia, as expected, is pushing everything toward the front in a desperate attempt for an equalizer in the last few minutes of this first period of extra time. It won two corner kicks, and got a good look on the second, but neither produced the goal Russia needs.
103’: Worth It
Vida gets a yellow card for taking off his shirt in celebration after the goal, but he likely won’t care (mostly because yellow cards are cleared off the record after the quarterfinals).
101’: GOAL CROATIA!
Domagoj Vida scores off a corner kick!
Right after Russia had a golden opportunity on a counterattack, Croatia scores a dagger of a goal off a corner kick on the other end. Vida directs a header toward the right corner from the middle of the area, and it sneaks past two Russians and into the net!
99’: Modric Makes His Move
Modric looks like he wants to finish this himself. He made a straightaway run from the center circle toward the penalty area on his own, but he’s tripped up at the last minute with a nice tackle. Not a whole lot of rhythm from these exhausted players in the extra period.
97’: Injury Forces Croatia’s Final Sub
Sime Vrsaljko is out; Vedran Corluka is in.
96’: Croatia is Down a Man
Sime Vrsaljko is limping toward the sideline just four minutes into the first extra period. There wasn’t any apparent contact or rough play on his part, but he’s being looked at off the field while Croatia plays with 10 men for a bit.
94’: Energy Levels Dropping
The Russians fans even seem a little winded. Their bootleg “Viking” chant, borrowed from Iceland’s fans, feels much more lackadaisical here in extra time.
91’: Extra Time Underway
There are 30 minutes for either side to score before penalties. Subasic, by the way, appears to be O.K. and has stayed on despite both teams getting another substitution for extra time.
Will This Moment Decide the Match?
90+5’: Headed to Extra Time!
Croatia certainly had the better of that second half, especially in the final minutes, but it couldn’t put together the needed finish.
We’ve got 30 more minutes from two teams that look quite tired, and one (Russia) that looks dead-set on bunkering until penalties arrive.
90+4’: Close Call for Croatia
Smolov with a dangerous shot! He had the ball on the right side near the end line, and instead of crossing it he has a go at goal from a tight angle. It’s a bit of a surprise for Subasic, but he knocks it away without much trouble.
90+1’: Russia is Pinned
Croatia trying to force one home in stoppage time. Two corner kicks went to waste, but they’ve got Russia pinned all the way back.
89’: Croatia Has a Problem
Danijel Subasic, the goalkeeper, slid to collect a ball and immediately grimaces and clutches at his hamstring. He looks like he’s in a lot of pain, and Croatia is out of substitutions. They’re desperately trying to loosen him up to avoid putting a field player in goal for the final minutes of regulation.
Subasic stays on, and there’s five minutes of stoppage time.
88’: Croatia Makes Last Sub
Croatia makes its third change, with Mateo Kovacic of Real Madrid coming on for Andrej Kramaric, the goal scorer.
87’: The View From England
85’: Free Kick Headed Off
Russia gets a free kick in a dangerous area after Sime Vrsaljko is called for a handball on the left side of the Croatian penalty area. It’s well-placed, but Croatia is able to get a strong head on it and clear.
82’: Uh Oh, Russia?
Aleksandr Erokhin goes down after a hard collision in the Croatian penalty area, which is either a serious problem for Russia, which is out of substitutions, or a convenient opportunity for everyone to take a breather.
79’: Russia Makes Last Sub
Russia uses its final substitution, as Dzyuba’s day is done. He comes off for Iury Gazinsky.
77’: Croatia Attacks
Russia survives a dangerous attack from Croatia! Modric’s slicing run up to the area leads to a chance for Sime Vrsaljko after a couple passes back and forth across the area, but Vrsaljko’s shot is blocked by a defender.
75’: Croatia Change
Ivan Strinic comes off for Josip Pivaric, who plays in Ukraine with Dynamo Kiev.
Checking In on Russia’s Fans
72’: Painful Miss for Russia
A chance for Russia! After a bit of nice possession in the Croatian end, Fernandes floats a cross into Aleksandr Erokhin, who had a good amount of space, but Lovren gets just enough of a challenge to force Erokhin’s header over the bar.
67’: Another Russia Substitution
Fedor Smolov of the Russian club Krasnodar comes on for Denis Cheryshev, who scored Russia’s lone goal.
66’: Croatia is Pushing
Croatia’s tightening the screws on offense a bit, probing and looking for an opening. Russia’s done a good job of clearing it when needed, for the most part, but it’s a one-way game at the moment.
63’: Substitution for Croatia
Croatia making a change: Marcelo Brozovic of Inter Milan comes on for Ivan Perisic just moments after Perisic put the ball off the post.
62’: Easy Save
Dzyuba gets his head on a corner kick on the other end, but can’t get enough power to trouble Subasic, who collects it easily off the bounce.
60’: OFF THE POST!
Ivan Perisic collected a loose ball off a cross in the Russian penalty area, took a touch to give himself a clean look on goal, and then pings it off the inside of the post! Russia gets some serious home-team luck.
57’: Russia Gets Sloppy
Russia isn’t quite Belgium. It had numbers on Croatia on a counter attack, but a couple sloppy passes gives the ball right back to Croatia.
54’: Substitution for Russia
Aleksandr Erokhin of Zenit St. Petersburg is coming on for Aleksandr Samedov.
52’: Kramaric Tries Again
Andrej Kramaric goes for another moment of glory with a bicycle attempt from inside the area. He gets it on target, but it’s no problem for Akinfeev to collect easily.
50’: Wasted Chance
Croatia is resorting to whipping balls in toward Mandzukic in the area, and one squirts through to Rebic. He makes about two feints too many, and wastes the opportunity from about eight yards out.
Croatia’s Fans Are Ready
46’: Second Half Underway
No changes for either team.
Lineup Change Pays Off for Croatia
Croatia’s manager, Zlatko Dalić, gets some credit for his team’s goal. The only change in his starting lineup from the round of 16 win over Denmark was bringing on Andrej Kramaric, a forward, in place of midfielder Marcelo Brozovic.
Kramaric, who plays for Hoffenheim in Germany, went on to become Croatia’s seventh player to score in this tournament. Quite the contrast from Russia, which has seven of its goals from two players: Cheryshev (4) and Dzyuba (3).
Halftime: One Moment of Brilliance
That was far from the most exciting half of soccer we’ve seen at the World Cup, but it was punctuated by a brilliant strike from Denis Cheryshev and a poor moment of defense from Russia that led to Kramaric’s goal. Croatia has looked more threatening, but it may take some adjustments to break down Russia’s defense in the second half.
Croatia has one shot on target, and one goal. Russia also has one shot on target, and one goal. Pretty much sums up that first half.
45’: Good Luck Getting Another Goal
With the score tied again, the game’s devolved back into what it was before Cheryshev’s goal: stiff defensive play and little by way of chances on goal for either team. Two minutes of stoppage time are added to the first half.
39’: GOAL Croatia!
Andrej Kramaric heads Croatia level!
Mandzukic collected the ball behind the Russian defense on the left side and had a clear run into the penalty area, where he played a simple little chip right to Kramaric’s head to knock in past Akinfeev from about 5 yards. Russia’s defense was caught completely out of position on that, and Sochi has gotten significantly quieter.
38’: Another Yellow
This time it’s for Ivan Strinic of Croatia.
38’: Russia Roars
The crowd was never out of it, exactly, even as the game lulled, but they’re back to full-throated support in Sochi. Their Russian team has responded well after the goal, too, getting the ball back into the Croatian end a couple times in the last three or four minutes.
35’: First Yellow Card: Croatia
Dejan Lovren gets a yellow card for tackling.
34’: Surprise for Russia
That was … unexpected, both considering the talent disparities between these teams and the way the first 30 minutes of this game played out. But Russia got exactly what it wanted: the first goal against the run of play, and now the red shirts will cluster even tighter around the Russian net.
31’: GOAL RUSSIA!
Denis Cheryshev out of nowhere!
He plays a seemingly innocuous give-and-go with Dzyuba about 35 yards out, then takes a touch on the return pass and rips a near-perfect shot from about 25 yards out into the upper-left corner of the net.
27’: Possession Edge Goes to Croatia
Croatia has 64 percent of the possession so far, but aside from a slightly frenetic first six minutes or so, it hasn’t been able to turn it into many opportunities. Russia’s players are content to pack their defense around their area, then send a long ball toward Dzyuba’s general area when they win possession.
20’: Croatia’s Offense Struggles
This game has settled into a bit of a sluggish rhythm, with Russia sitting back and absorbing Croatia’s forays. The Croatian offense has struggled to find many lanes the last few minutes, and Russia is focused on trying to spring Dzyuba on a counterattack any chance they get.
16’: Croatia Gets Free Kick
Rebic gets dragged down just a couple yards outside the left corner of the penalty area, giving Croatia a dangerous free kick. But Ivan Rakitic sends his shot well high.
12’: Missed Opportunity
Mandzukic gets a great opportunity off a cross near the six-yard box, but he can’t make good contact and his shot goes well wide. The field has tilted a bit in Croatia’s favor the last few minutes.
7’: Russia’s Goalkeeper Tested
Rebic forces Akinveev into his first save right away at the other end, sending a hard pass into the middle from near the goal, but the Russian goalkeeper gets his hands on it and knocks it out of bounds. Rebic gets a head on the ensuing corner kick as well, but it goes a couple feet high. Plenty of offense so far in this one.
5’: Early Danger for Russia
Aleksandr Golovin produces another dangerous moment for Russia, with a good hustle play to win the ball before it went across the end line and send it into the area, where Dzyuba gets a powerful foot on the ball. But it blasts off a Croatian defender’s back and out.
2’: Pressing Early
Russia with an early chance, as Dzyuba feeds a sprinting Cheryshev in the area, but Cheryshev scuffs his shot and it goes out for a goal kick. Plenty of pressing from both sides early.
We’re underway, with a spot in the World Cup semifinals on the line: Russia’s in red, and Croatia, disappointingly, is in dark blue instead of its classic white and red.