By Anatoly Kurmanaev | The Wall Street Journal
The victory triggered a rare spark of spontaneity in a country more used to choreographed celebrations on official holidays
A Russia supporter celebrated the victory in Red Square on Sunday. Photo: gleb garanich/Reuters
MOSCOW—Deafening honking, shirtless men riding the subway and smiling policemen: Russia’s heavily-controlled capital erupted in impromptu celebrations after the national soccer team, the lowest-ranked squad in the World Cup, toppled powerhouse Spain on Sunday evening.
One of the most surprising upsets in the history of the tournament triggered a rare spark of spontaneity in a country more used to choreographed celebrations on official holidays.
“It was very unexpected, but very pleasant,” Vladimir Dubov, who was wearing a team jersey, declared to the people around him in a subway car in central Moscow—a rare occurrence in a country where addressing strangers is often seen as suspicious. “I can’t believe we did this.”
It wasn’t meant to end this way. Spain, the 2010 world champion, dominated the entire game, keeping the ball for three quarters of the match and completing four times more passes than the hosts. But after evening the score at 1 to 1 on a penalty shot early on, the Russians dug in, keeping the Spanish at bay for nearly two hours.
The Spanish team then collapsed under the pressure of sudden rain and the noise of home fans in Moscow’s 80,000-seat Luzhniki stadium, missing two of its penalty shots and tumbling out of the tournament.
It was the first time Russia had advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals since the Soviet Union’s run in 1970. Bars across the capital played the Soviet anthem after the game on Sunday.
Few in Russia expected such an outcome. At a bar in the upscale Kutuzovskiy neighborhood in western Moscow, groups of sullen men watched the first half of the game.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin skipped the Sunday match, citing a busy work schedule, leaving his prime minister to accompany Spain’s King Felipe VI and the head of FIFA, the sport’s governing body, Gianni Infantino, at the game.
The victory gives a further boost to Mr. Putin’s campaign to improve Russia’s international standing amid tension with the West. The Kremlin has used the World Cup to break out from the political isolation imposed by the U.S. and Europe in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and alleged meddling in foreign elections, which Russia has denied.
The city was transformed by the final whistle. Traffic came to a standstill as fans poured onto the streets, waving national flags. Strangers high-fived each other on subway escalators. Muscovites filled major plazas and subway stations, hugging foreigners and chanting “Russia, Russia.”
It was a far cry from the typical reserve of a country used to humiliation in the nation’s favorite sport. The last time the two countries met in a competitive match, Spain drubbed Russia 3 to 0.
“I just wanted to go home without feeling embarrassed,” said businessman Denis Artemin as he celebrated outside a bar in western Moscow. “This is beyond my wildest hopes. I don’t remember this ever happening before.”