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Russian failure, like that of England, has its roots at home

FOR once, the Russians are not advancing.

Vasily Berezutskiy unleashes his frustration as Fabio Capello's Russia go down to a 1-0 defeat to Belgium. Picture: Getty
Vasily Berezutskiy unleashes his frustration as Fabio Capello's Russia go down to a 1-0 defeat to Belgium. Picture: Getty

Probably not to the knock-out phase of these World Cup finals and not in the bigger picture either. For a country of almost 150m people, their failure to make a sustained impact on the world and European stage must be viewed as a considerable underachievement.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and their formation as an independent state in 1992, Russia have reached just three of the six subsequent World Cups and never made it out of their group stage. They have featured more regularly at the European Championships but only once went past the first phase when they reached the semi-finals in 2008.

A large population does not necessarily guarantee a successful football team - China have only qualified once for the World Cup - but given the Soviets' proud record, it seems something of a surprise that the largest nation to emerge from its fragmentation is not among the biggest powers in European football.

Russia's stay in Brazil is already looking like being a brief one after they followed up their opening draw with Korea with this insipid display against Belgium. Marc Wilmots' side weren't much better in one of the worst games of an otherwise vibrant tournament but, bolstered by some magic from Eden Hazard, found a winner from Divock Origi late in the game to ensure their passage through to the knock-out phase.

Russia will now need to beat Algeria in their final group game to have any chance of extending their own involvement. Given their lack of firepower - Aleksandr Kokorin missed a first-half sitter in their best chance against Belgium - few would bet on them doing so.

Should they tumble out at this stage it will go down as a successive black mark on the record of Fabio Capello. The venerated Italian coach - a Champions League winner with Milan, with five Serie A and two Primera Division titles to his name as a manager - did not pull up any trees during his four years as England manager and now, two years into his tenure as Russian coach, he has been similarly uninspiring. Capello has rarely been seen as a cavalier coach but he has taken that safety-first approach to extremes with a Russian squad that seems inhibited and incapable of producing something special when most needed.

The comparisons with English football do not begin and end with Capello. Russia is the only squad competing in these finals with all 23 of its players operating out of their domestic league, with Celtic's Fraser Forster the solitary odd man out in the England squad.

The sums of money on offer in the domestic league explains why most of its players are staying at home these days - rather than heading to western Europe as used to be the case - but it is not only the locals who are benefiting from the investment of the oil and gas companies who have been ploughing millions of rubles into the domestic game.

That helps attract players from all around the world, including a sizeable South American contingent, which raises the profile of the league but also, as in the Barclays Premier League, limits the amount of opportunities for locally-produced players. The knock-on effect for the national team is obvious.

The problem has not gone unnoticed, with president Vladimir Putin among those calling for clubs to focus more on bringing through their own talent. A group of former professionals have also launched an initiative to have the number of foreigners at each club reduced to six by 2017 in the hope that it will force managers to play more domestic players.

With Russia hosting the next World Cup finals in 2018, another failure there will be substantially more high-profile and embarrassing than their tame capitulation this time around.

They were not the only ones, though, to have their reputations downgraded yesterday. Belgium, among the pre-tournament favourites and with one of the most talented squads in the competition, looked to suffer from the same "second game syndrome" that has afflicted Germany, Brazil, Argentina and others in the competition.

They looked lethargic here, without any real gameplan for breaking down the stodgy Russian defence, and barely troubled Igor Akinfeev in goal until late in the game when they came to life and found a winning goal.

Most disappointingly from their perspective, there was another lacklustre display from Romelu Lukaku. The striker, who enjoyed a stellar season on loan at Everton from Chelsea, was among those tipped to shine but this was a second match in which he failed to offer anything at the apex of Marc Wilmots' formation.

That will be a concern for the manager as he will need goals from Lukaku - with Christian Benteke absent from Brazil due to injury - if his team are going to go far in this tournament.

Belgium can at least console themselves with the knowledge that they have now made it out of the group. Russia may not be so fortunate. Another awkward retreat awaits.

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