How deep can a World Cup team’s impact be on its nation? Hristo Stoichkov, Bulgaria’s most inspirational footballer, who ended up as the top scorer in USA ‘94, has a village named after him. That, however, is small change as compared to what Russia’s national side achieved before, during and after France ‘98.
Unlike Bulgaria in 1994, when they beat Germany in the quarters to reach the last-four for the only time in their history, Russia did precious little in 1998. In fact, they didn’t even make it to the main draw, having lost during the qualifiers and failing to qualify for the first time since 1978. So, when a state-sponsored tribunal was held to look into their failures, the reason for their humiliation was overwhelming as it was unanimous — Russia’s national anthem.
Patrioticcheskaya Pesnya had been Russia’s anthem since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The team of 1998, though, had only one problem with it. It was lyric-free. “Without words in our anthem, we have nothing to sing and inspire us before the start of a match,” complained one player. “And it gets even worse when the opposition’s anthem plays and they are fully charged up to destroy us on the field,” cried another.
That was it. A nation-wide anthem hunt was called for and 60,000 entries were registered within the first couple of days, but president Boris Yeltsin seemed unconvinced. With the Sydney Olympics looming, the anthem debate gained great ground in 2000 under Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, who made a new national anthem top priority after a meeting with the Class of ‘98.
Words were written and Russia qualified for the 2002 World Cup. These words will next be chanted on June 17, when they meet Korea in their opening match of the 2014 World Cup.
One teammate the Russians will gladly not take advice on all matters music will be Igor Akinfeev. The goalkeeper’s music choices are the stuff of legend and ribbing. An unabashed fan of a band named Ruki Vverkh (Hands Up), mostly popular among schoolgirls, he even requested their lead singer to sing with him.
With their goalkeeper making some diabolical music choices, the Russians will hope the anthem inspires him to make better ones between the sticks.