“I follow the Moskva
Down to Gorky Park
Listening to the wind of change…” – Scorpions, ‘Wind of Change’

Has enough time really passed that praising Russia won’t get you blacklisted from Hollywood and or certain Chinese takeout joints?

See, when I was a kid all it took was someone busting out NES 8-bit ‘Ice Hockey,’ and impromptu “U-S-A” chants immediately rang out, so long as the hated Soviets were the opponents.

Guess I’m just a relic of a bygone era where Russians equaled the enemy. Apparently the Cold War’s been over long enough that a whole generation of kids have grown up without joking about Mikhail Gorbachev’s birthmark or, to a lesser extent, the daily fear of mutually assured nuclear annihilation. Either way. It’s sad these unfortunate tweens only know the letters ‘CCCP’ as hipster secret code and think Captain Ron was the man who orchestrated the ‘Miracle on Ice’. Gorbachev’s having the last laugh anyways. Russia dropped communism and now flaunts its free market status in our Yankee faces. Hell, they even have a thriving hip-hop scene.

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This new Russian frontier allows business magnates like Roman Abramovich to pour billions, yes billions, into world soccer, or his club Chelski. Ambramovich’s personal fortunes, built on oil/energy concerns, lets him personally pay a couple million bucks to Dutchman Guus Hiddink to coach the Russian National Team, and that investment paid off in spades Wednesday.

Russia, not the USSR/CCCP, advanced from the group stages of a major international tournament for the first time when it thoroughly eviscerated Sweden 2-0 in the final matchday from Group D. The fact that it was soccer, not baseball, was the only thing keeping Joe McCarthy’s grave from spontaneously combusting.

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Needing nothing short of a win, Russians threw caution into the wind and attacked the hapless Swedes without mercy. Zig-zagging runs, 70-yard passes, dangerous set plays -– all were part of the best Russian front since 1943. Against this, the Swedes held together about as well as that $59.99 Norrebo shelving unit you bought at Ikea last month. It was a fun to see what the Russians would try next, my Yankee blue jeans be damned!

The Ruskies now get an absolutely tantalizing match Saturday afternoon on ABC against the Dutch, whom Hiddink coached at the 1998 World Cup. Wonder if America can drum up any of its now-dormant anti-Russia spirit, or do people just not care any more aside from John Milius? Oh wait, it’s soccer, so 98.2 of Americans probably won’t care anyway.

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Wednesday’s heroes: Andrei Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko, Russia. With his second goal of the tournament, Pavlyuchenko all but punched his ticket to a Premier League team of his choice. (Newcastle I’m looking in your direction.) Arshavin would be an intriguing prospect, too, but he plays at Zenit St. Petersburg, which is funded by massive Russian oil company Gazprom, so it doesn’t exactly need the money. Zenit did win the UEFA Cup and has ambitions, so it’s a buyer, not a seller. (It’s only a matter of time before players really start flocking to Mother Russia.)

After sitting out the first two games, Arshavin brought entirely new dynamic to the Russian attack. All day Wednesday Arshavin rampaged around the field like a young Latarian Miltontaking the Swedish defense on one high speed chase after another.

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In Guus we Truust. Hopefully U.S. Soccer Federation honcho Sunil Gulati was watching the Russians today. If there’s any way to pry him away from Russia and get him to coach the U.S., it has to be done. Hiddink has now worked wonders with South Korea, Australia and Russia; why not import him stateside? Russia looked awesome Wednesday, playing with an attacking verve from the get-go. It could have been 4-0 or 5-0 very easily. Nothing against current coach Bob Bradley, but a mind like Hiddink could push the U.S. to the next level, not just some Nike ad campaigns. Yes, the US went down foreign coach route with Bora Milutinović a decade or so ago, but it could use some new brains in its think tank, even if it heads into Sunday’s first-stage World Cup qualifier with a paltry 8-0 advantage over Barbados. With Hiddink pulling the strings, Russia has to believe it has a chance vs. the Netherlands. He might single-handedly psyche out the entire Dutch team with his jowelly face.

Ouch: Needing to get a result or go home, Sweden was about as biting as dry white toast, embodied by alleged star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. His contribution Wednesday? Trying an audacious overhead scorpion-style kick, only to boot a Russian right in the dome. Yes, he pulled off a move like that against Italy four years ago, but it only proved you can only be that cheeky once and a while. This came two games after he kicked a Greek player in the junk. Ibrahimovic might have the best skill set of any player alive, but he’s got a 1-krona brain and shrinks on the big stage. Jose Mourinho, good luck with him at Inter. If you thought channeling the powers of Didier Drogba was fun, enjoy this.

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Best use of a 18th century tsar: Major, major respect to whomever in the Russian camp created and unfurled the massive banner of Peter the Great before Wendesday’s match. Mind-blowing, in a good way since it reminded me of when I learned Peter used to tax Russian citizens who wore beards. With that I issue a full challenge to Sam’s Army or the American Outlaws or whomever to unfurl a massive relief of either George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt or at the very least Rutherford B. Hayes for the next USMNT match on home soil. William Howard Taft is also acceptable.

Niko Belic half-beard award: I guess we could call it the Ryan Howard (Dunder Mifflin Infinity) award. Either way the entire Greek team except for Nikopoldis had a five o’clock shadow by the end of full time, especially defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos. Considering the defending champs went 0-0-3, they should gladly accept this one-of-a-kind honor. Oh, Spain won with a decidedly second choice team 2-1 thanks to a late header by Dani Güiza.

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Line of the day: ESPN’s Andy Gray -– rapidly morphing into this football’s John Madden -– on an attempted challenge by Russia’s Diniyar Bilyaletdinov (I think), “He couldn’t tackle a good dinner.”

All-group stage best XI:

My best of the Group Stages:

GK: Gianluigi Buffon, Italy
Defenders (3): Yuri Zhirkov, Russia; Gabriel Tamaş, Romania; Danijel Pranjić, Croatia; Midfielders (4): Wesley Sneijder, the Netherlands; Orlando Engelaar, the Netherlands; Arda Turan, Turkey; Libor Sionko, Czech Republic
Forwards (3): David Villa, Spain; Lucas Podolski, Germany, Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal

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Today’s Game, Quarterfinal 1

Portugal v. Germany, St. Jakob Park, Basel, Switzerland (2:30, ESPN): This is rematch of the 2006 World Cup third place match, which Germany won in a rout 3-0. It’s good enough to be a Euro semifinal or even final. If this game didn’t need any more intrigue, German coach Joachim Löw is banned from the sideline due to his hissy fit against Austria. This will give him time to pen a heartfelt emo ballad to Prime Minister Angela Merkel.

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Subplots?: Can Big Phil Scolari lead Portugal to glory before taking Chelsea’s blood money? … Will the new grass field installed hold up at St. Jakob Park? … Will Portugal’s lack of a true center forward cost them against the massive German central defense? … Will Miroslav Klose finish the tournament without a goal? … Can Torsten Frings go a full 90+ with a broken rib? … Will speed and step-overs trump the size and power? … Can anyone else on Germany score if Lucas Poldolski can’t play? … Is Portuguese defender Pepe up to the task in a match of this importance?
Player to watch, Portugal: Cristiano Ronaldo. Easy, obvious choice here. Germany is probably a shade better as a whole than Portugal, but Ronaldo is by far the best player on the field. If Portugal is to advance Ronaldo needs to do something special, perhaps from a deadball spot. We already know German captain Michael Ballack can do this, so the onus falls to the No. 7 Winker.
Player to watch, Germany: Jens Lehmann. Let’s face it, even Lehmann’s own ‘mutter’ doesn’t like him. Maybe all his whining in the press is overrated and at home with son Mats and daughter Lieselotte he’s delightful family man and works at soup kitchens. It still doesn’t change the fact he’s got the kind of face you’d pay money to kick. With Portugal likely firing from long distance, Lehmann can’t afford to fumble his much-hated Adidas Europass ball like he did vs. Croatia. Still, if the game does go to penalties, Lehmann has an edge, and maybe notes hidden in his shoe. Perhaps he should follow countryman Dirk Nowitzki’s lead and sing some Hasselhoff songs in his head, should such a situation arise.
Outlook: In the last three Euros, the Portuguese have gone from quarterfinals, to semifinals to finals. If the pattern holds, it should win this tournament, right? Though Portugal looked good in its first two games, they’re up against it with a German team that might have its number physically. The Germans are just bigger and stronger. Germany’s M.O. appears to crush the hopes of anyone its way, regardless of karma points. In fact I’d tab Portugal against anyone except Die Germans. … Portugal 1, Germany 2 (PKs)