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Hiddink Warns "Sleeping Giant" Russia is Just Waking up

Russia, described by Dutch coach Guus Hiddink as "a sleeping giant" when he took over the national side two years ago, is wide awake at Euro 2008 and the world has taken notice.

Russian soccer head coach Guus Hiddink celebrates after the Euro 2008 quarter-final match between the Netherlands and Russia

Coach Guus Hiddink believes the new Russian revolution is just getting underway

Unprecedented investment in the domestic game thanks to the backing of the country's oil magnates and oligarchs is turning Russia into a soccer superpower after almost 20 years in the doldrums following the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Whether or not Russia reaches Sunday's Euro 2008 final, the improvement can no longer be ignored as players such as Alexei Arshavin and others who were little known just a few weeks ago become household names.

Russia's emergence had already been indicated by CSKA Moscow's triumph in winning the UEFA Cup in 2005, while Zenit St. Petersburg proved that was no one-off feat by winning the competition this year.

Zenit, where Arshavin has played since a boy, are Russia's richest club, with oil company Gazprom the majority stakeholder.

CSKA Moscow are sponsored by Sibneft, an oil company owned by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, the man bankrolling England's Champions League finalists Chelsea.

Oil rubles financing new Russian revolution

As a result of the oil millions being pumped into the game and the healthy salaries earned by players nowadays in Russia, the days of its top stars leaving for middle European clubs has long gone.

All but one of Hiddink's 23-man squad play in the Russian Premier League, mostly for Zenit or the four big Moscow clubs, CSKA, Torpedo, Spartak and Dynamo. The one exception is striker Ivan Saenko of Nuremberg, just relegated from Germany's top Bundesliga division.

Andrei Arshavin during a training session

Arshavin says he fancies a move to Barcelona

However, as Russia awakes, top Europe clubs are also belatedly waking up to the fact that Russian football is producing some remarkably good players. Several of Hiddink's squad are also enjoying the taste they are getting of playing on a big international stage.

Arshavin, after two match-winning performances against Sweden and the Netherlands, is now being chased by top clubs such as Barcelona and Arsenal, and at 27 is keen to make the move abroad.

Hiddink believes the time is now ripe for the Zenit attacker to take the step up to a major European league, and says others in the team are also well qualified to succeed outside Russia.

"I think some players can survive and make a contribution to the big leagues in Europe," he said, while acknowledging that Russian clubs and fans would not appreciate another player drain.

However, he suggests that in a globalized game, there would be additional prestige for Russian football if role models like Arshavin were successful at top European clubs.

Loss of prestige following a humiliating 7-1 defeat to Portugal in October 2004 in a World Cup qualifier, and the team's failure to reach the 2006 finals in Germany, had helped prompt investment in the game and the appointment of veteran Dutch coach Hiddink that year.

A new generation of players grabbing their chances

Among players now in the spotlight is Spartak Moscow striker Roman Pavyluchenko, who has grabbed his chance with three goals following a pre-tournament injury to Zenit's Pavel Pogrebnyak.

Russia's Roman Pavlyuchenko celebrates with Russia's flag after the quarterfinal match between the Netherlands and Russia

Pavlyuchenko is being hailed by his colleagues

"I think Roman is the biggest revelation so far," Russia captain Sergei Semak said. "He has always played well in the Russian league and was top scorer for the last two seasons, but I think nobody expected him to play like he has at the European Championship."

Yuri Zhirkov, a UEFA Cup winner with CSKA Moscow, has meanwhile been one of the stand-out left-sided players in the tournament.

"Zhirkov is one of the best players on that left side at this moment in Europe," Hiddink said.

Nicknamed the "Russian Ronaldinho" for his skill on the ball, his tireless work up and down the pitch reportedly has Real Madrid ready to pounce.

Alongside Arshavin, Zenit team-mate Konstantin Zyryanov, Russia's Footballer of the Year in 2007, has been an influential figure in midfield.

Others such as Dynamo Moscow central defender Denis Kolodin, who is suspended for Thursday's semi-final against Spain, goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev and the midfield duo of Igor Semshov and captain Sergei Semak, have also made strong impressions.

The players have already restored national pride. They now have the chance to emulate the old Soviet side of 1988 by reaching the final, or go one better by winning it, as the Soviets did in 1960 in the very first tournament.

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