When the moment came, nerves taking hold of the Luzhniki Stadium, 144 million Russians and so many more across the globe looking upon him, Igor Akinfeev flew one way and the ball flew the other. But just as it appeared he might be beaten, somehow he, like his team, found a way to win. His left leg swung to kick Iago Aspas’s penalty clear and take the hosts through to the quarter-finals of the World Cup, a 1-1 draw giving way to a 4-3 victory on penalties that sent white shirts flooding across the field while in the stands they erupted, celebrating the most improbable success, perhaps the most significant they have ever had.
It had been said that they were the worst team in Russia’s history, but they are still here, in their tournament. It has been said that their opponents were the best team in Spain’s history, but no more. This was Andrés Iniesta’s final international game – the “saddest day of my career” he said – and others will follow the man who scored the winning goal in 2010, the last of their golden generation. Ultimately it had been a long, epic night, exhaustion and anxiety preparing an explosion. To resist is to win, as Juan Negrín famously declared. Russia had resisted, all right.
Spain passed the ball 1107 times but could not pass Russia. Fernando Hierro, the accidental manager who had to take over the day before the World Cup began, talked about the “fine line” and Spain had been close towards the end. When it came to the penalty shootout, David de Gea got a touch on three of the four but could not save any. Yet when they look back on these three weeks in Russia, Spain will reflect that they fell short, and it all began without a coach and in crisis.
That feels a long time ago now, but they have not been in Russia for long. Certainly not long enough.
“We feel empathy with the fans, we feel the same way,” Hierro said. “My last message to the players was that whatever happened, after the game when we came back into the dressing room we had to be able to look each other in the eye and we can, all of us.”
They know that they have underperformed, though, especially here. It is never easy to overcome an ultra defensive side – and the Russians admitted they had hoped for penalties – but for too long Spain rarely even looked likely to.
Put bluntly, this game was mostly dreadful. There had been an own goal and a penalty and then there had been not much else until, at the last, there were nine more penalties, the tournament’s first shootout. One of them, Russia’s last, was scored by Denis Cheryshev, raised in Spain; two were saved by Akinfeev. Koke and Aspas missed. It has been a strange, strange World Cup for Spain.
It was 7.45pm when they were finally eliminated. It had been just after 5.30pm when a Mexican wave began to make its way around the Luzhniki, but this was no celebration, and certainly not like the one that followed later. It was instead born of boredom, maybe even resignation. Russia were trailing, their plan to resist damaged by an own goal that arrived after 11 minutes, and any hope of a quarter-final place seemed to be slipping bloodlessly away. As the wave circulated the stands, in front of them the ball circulated on the pitch. A little slower. And always at the feet of Spain.
And that summed it up. Yet momentarily it changed – with the wave itself. Most importantly, it changed just long enough to put Russia level before they returned to defensive defiance. As if stung by the wave, suddenly Russia hit a long ball up the pitch that saw Artem Dzyuba leap with Sergio Ramos, beating him to the ball and Russia were running, Roman Zobnin bending a shot just wide. A warning that, despite appearances, there was a game going on here. Something shifted. There was an intent now and soon there was even an equaliser.
Aleksandr Samedov took a corner and Dzyuba leapt again to head. Gerard Piqué jumped, arm outstretched above his head, inviting trouble. The ball rebounded from it and Björn Kuipers pointed to the spot, from where Dzyuba finished calmly.
It was Russia’s second shot on target. Which, tellingly, was two more than Spain had. Diego Costa had barely touched the ball, both penalty areas virtually untrodden territory. The Luzhniki had been lulled into a warm afternoon snooze, virtually nothing of note happening bar the occasional touch from Isco. Maybe Spain’s early lead was part of the reason they let it slip: the sense that there was no danger was precisely the danger.
They knew now but could not react sufficiently. And so it continued, sapping the life out of everyone until the clock ticked towards drama, the abyss drawing urgency from them. Spain sent on Aspas, adept at accelerating, the saviour against Morocco, and he was quickly involved, but a sad fate awaited. He cleverly laid off for Iniesta with his chest, the shot saved by Akinfeev. From the rebound Aspas struck just wide.
The best opportunity, if it can be called that, fell to Fedor Smolov, who swung wide. But mostly the fans just wanted the final whistle, even if they knew that would bring 30 more minutes to endure – for everyone. Yet the prize at the end of extra time was gigantic.
Rodrigo, sent on in extra time, turned sharply and raced up the right, forcing a good save from Afinkeev. Following in, Dani Carvajal was denied. For the first time it was getting frantic. The rain came down, exhaustion crept in and Spain demanded the VAR as Ramos fell, held as he went down. Up in the VAR room, they did not see much of note. Rather like everyone else in the stadium, then. Russia’s target drew closer, yet penalties were almost denied by Rodrigo 12 seconds after this reached 120 minutes. And then, at last, the referee sounded the whistle they pleaded for. And Akinfeev flew.