Transmissions from an American journalist's 44 weeks in Moscow.



Some teams are carried by a striker. Others rely on surgical precision, algorithms, proprietary software. Some win with redemptive goalkeepers, physical prowess, political vendettas or talisman managers. Others still rely on club team camaraderie, or youth academy brotherhood, or the bittersweet nudge of prior shame.

But every once in a while, there is a special case.

A team that, despite its expectations, appears to be carried on the wings of millions of secular prayers. Waving flags and echoing chants in the metro at night create a collective breeze that lifts boots from the ground at precisely the right time. Desperate cries that will never reach the ears of their intended recipients pool as currents of electricity — a source energy that powers improbable goals and impossible defeats. An unexpected squad is filled with stunning audacity; the light in their eyes is powerful enough to dispel the shadow of circumstance. This is how I would characterize Russia’s success in the World Cup this year.

I had the pleasure of speaking with former striker Dmitri Bulykin on his country’s football fairytale over dinner at Moscow hotspot Modus Friends. Formerly with AFC Ajax, Lokomotiv and Dynamo, Bulykin was most recently a striker for Volga Nizhny Novgorod, and logged 7 goals in 15 appearances for the Russian national team. He is now an executive for FC Lokomotiv Moscow, FIFA ambassador and Match TV analyst.

Bulykin & Kemmerer at Modus Friends in Moscow.

Bulykin & Kemmerer at Modus Friends in Moscow.

Correspondent's note: During the course of this interview, Alexander Ovechkin casually walked through the front door with the Stanley Cup in hand.

Gillian Kemmerer (TCD): It’s the 115th minute and Mario Fernandes scores that stunning equalizer to keep Russia in the game. What is the first thought that pops into your head?

Dmitri Bulykin (DB): The first thing I thought was that all Russian citizens [would be] so happy. It was truly an important moment to score, to equalize — and to believe in the Russian national team. I think that after this goal, everyone started to believe that we could pass Croatia. It’s a pity that we lost in penalties, but there was incredible emotion in this game. I want to say thank you to the whole team and the coaches because it was an unbelievable story for all Russians.

TCD: Every Russian cab driver warned me not to get carried away with the national team. There was so much skepticism, even after the success of the group stages.

DB: Before the World Cup, it was for sure that nobody believed. We had only friendlies, no official qualifiers, so nobody knew how we would start. Two weeks before the World Cup when the list of the players was published, a big discussion started in Russia. A few [expected] names were not there, and it kicked off a lot of skepticism as you said. But if you see the city now, everybody loves the Russian national team.

TCD: The global audience was not immune to it either. The doping scandals and political environment have cast a shadow of doubt from some commentators abroad.

DB: You know, I don’t like when politics starts to interfere with sports. I think we’ve seen true sport here, and a fair World Cup. Of course politicians always try to find their way in, but many who have been in Russia have changed their mind about our country. I believe many think of Russia in a new way now, and I hope we’ll find ways for political negotiation. But I think those who have come from the West enjoyed the World Cup, the cities, and the Russian people. The Russian people are very kind…and they like celebrating!

TCD: How has the management of the Russian team changed since the days when you played?

DB: I like the coach [Stanislav] Cherchesov because he can change the style of football in every game. He always does the right thing during the game, before the game. If you see how we played against Saudi Arabia, Spain or Croatia — it was completely different formations. I think everyone enjoyed his work. Additionally, the players were so hungry to win. They fought a lot on the field and the result was obvious.

TCD: Russians are understandably enamored with Igor Akinfeev. How much did his leadership make an impact?

DB: The captain [Akinfeev] is so experienced and knows everyone. He is a goalkeeper — a very important position on the field. A lot of confidence is derived from the goalkeeper.

I want to say that we have more leaders in our team too…[Artem] Dzyuba the striker, Cheryshev, Golovin, Zobnin…they played so well. I think they are leaders in the dressing room too. I hope that this team will keep the great energy next year as we move into the Euros.

TCD: Your discussion of great leaders makes me think of a few with early exits — Ronaldo, Messi. Are we watching these stars make their final descent to earth, or were their national teams not organized in a way to profit off of them?

DB: We like football because it’s an unpredictable game. If you see Portugal or Argentina, they have the top stars in the world—Ronaldo and Messi—but everything depends on the team. Of course leaders are important, but when you have big pressure from your supporters and country, somebody needs to help [the stars]. You need a team of fighters.

Russia fought in every place on the field. Everyone wanted to play well, and to show that they are a strong team. If you see Germany, for example, or Portugal or Spain, they were not so passionate. We call it having a light in your eyes.

In the Russian team, I saw that light and the fire in their eyes. It’s difficult to translate. Our supporters gave so much energy as well, and I think it helped us to do great things.

TCD: What do you think the legacy of this World Cup will be for Russian club teams?

DB: I hope it will be fantastic. We have nice stadiums, infrastructure, and a lot of cities changing — especially where the World Cup was. I expect that we will see a rise of Russian football. We have to invest not only money, but also our passion. I hope Russian football makes a big step forward and that we will go nearer to the top leagues in Europe.

TCD: There’s always a big fear with events like this that the investment in stadiums will go to waste when the party ends. You seem to think Russia will make use of the new sporting infrastructure.

DB: I hope. On the UEFA MIP [executive master for international players] program, we spoke with Brazilian star Maxwell. He said there are already three stadiums that are now impossible to play in [since the 2014 World Cup]. I hope we will have a different situation and that all stadiums will be used properly. Like I said, football should take a big step forward…and the stadiums can now accommodate 40,000. I hope these will be full in a few years, and I will do everything I can to help this happen. 

TCD: What is your favorite soccer film right now? What will you be watching when we are in the lull between the World Cup and the regular season?

DB: We have a lot of patriotic films lately about football and hockey. There’s a new film called Coach (2018) in Russia. Everyone really liked it before the World Cup and it gave us strong emotions in the lead-up. And now, the World Cup itself has given us so many emotions to move forward.