Russians cannot wait for Hiddink's arrival
MOSCOW, June 6 (Reuters) While most of the world's top players are busy preparing for the World Cup, members of the Russian team are heading for their holidays.
Russia, including its previous guises as the Soviet Union and the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), have not often missed out on the finals since they first qualified in 1958.
These will be only the fourth finals they have missed since then, and one of those was for political reasons in 1974.
Despite not being in Germany, Russia are optimistic about the future, looking forward to the qualifying rounds of Euro 2008 and closely following the fortunes of Australia.
That is because Australia's Dutch coach Guus Hiddink will be taking over the Russian team once the finals are over.
The 59-year-old, who led Netherlands and South Korea to the semi-finals of the last two World Cups, will take charge of Russia after signing a 2-1/2 year contract in April.
''It's not as if I'll wrap myself in an Australian flag and root for the Aussies in Germany,'' said striker Dmitry Sychev, voted Russia's best player at the 2002 World Cup.
''But I think it would be beneficial for us to watch them play and take notice as we might have a similar system when Hiddink comes here.'' At first, Russian players greeted the news of Hiddink's appointment with reserve or even scepticism, but have now embraced the idea of working under him.
''I must say we were a bit apprehensive about a foreigner taking charge of our national team,'' said Spartak Moscow captain and one of Russia's most influential players, Yegor Titov.
''Often it's difficult for an outsider to understand the Russian mentality, the secret of the Russian soul.
''But we know Hiddink has worked in many countries, with different cultures and backgrounds like Holland, South Korea and Australia, and what's more important is the fact everywhere he went, he had success.'' BOOT CAMP ''I think Hiddink will bring a Western mentality and discipline to our team. I just hope it won't feel like we're in the army, marching together for a team meal or while boarding a bus,'' added the 30-year-old playmaker.
''We had that a couple of years ago at Spartak when Italian Nevio Scala was our coach. But I think Hiddink has a lot of international experience not to make it a boot camp.''
Captain Alexei Smertin agreed. ''I think Hiddink will bring a winning mentality and add confidence to our young team,'' said the ex-Chelsea midfielder, who credited his former boss Jose Mourinho with instilling a similar attitude when he joined the west London club in 2004. ''Since day one, Mourinho had been preaching that confidence is key to achieving success. I think Hiddink will try to instill that same feeling in our side.'' Russia have often reached major tournament finals but failed to make any impact once there.
The Soviet Union won the inaugural European championship in 1960 while their best performance in the World Cup was reaching the semi-finals in England in 1966.
Russia's last two friendlies have given them a boost.
CONTROVERSIAL DEFEAT Under caretaker manager Alexander Borodyuk, the Russians lost 1-0 to world champions Brazil in Moscow in March before holding World Cup-bound Spain to a 0-0 away draw last month.
''We had plenty of chances against Brazil and were unlucky to lose as Ronaldo scored the winning goal with his hand. Against Spain we also held our own and achieved a respectable result,'' Borodyuk told Reuters after the match in Albacete.
''Hiddink inherits the team in good spirits, eager to work and achieve success,'' added the former Soviet striker, who will become one of the Dutchman's assistants.
Russian soccer chief Vitaly Mutko, the man responsible for luring Hiddink to Moscow, explained the appointment.
''Don't get me wrong, I'm quite happy with what Borodyuk has done with the team,'' Mutko told Reuters in an interview.
''Players listen to him, respect him, but they have yet to see him as a top-notch coach, capable of making them a world class team.
''That's why bringing Hiddink should not be considered a slap in the face to Russian coaches as some of our media would have us believe,'' said Mutko, who lists Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chelsea's billionaire owner Roman Abramovich among his close friends.
''I think this team needs some minor adjustments to make us serious title contenders and Hiddink is the man to do it.'' REUTERS