MOSCOW — We have a saying in Russia, Stanislav Cherchesov told reporters from behind his fearsome mustache on Saturday afternoon.
“Anyone,” said Cherchesov, the coach of Russia’s World Cup team, “can be a god if he tries.”
The statement — made a day before Russia would play Spain in the World Cup’s round of 16 — was both pushback and premonition. Cherchesov knew what everyone was thinking: that his Russia team, the lowest-ranked in the field, had surpassed expectations as the host of the World Cup but would surely reach the end of the line when it took on Spain, a former world and European champion.
But Cherchesov seemed to know better. He thought his team had more to give. And he was right.
In a stunning upset, Russia eliminated Spain on penalty kicks, 4-3, after a 1-1 tie on Sunday that extended through 90 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes of extra time.
The long day finally ended when the Russian goalkeeper, Igor Akinfeev, kicked away Iago Aspas’s fifth penalty attempt for Spain. The Russians had been dominated throughout the game, but a penalty kick by Artem Dzyuba before halftime allowed them to tie the score at 1-1, and a gritty, disciplined, defensive effort ultimately led to the penalty shootout — and to a result that many had considered unthinkable.
Cherchesov and Russia now have any number of players to toast as they begin to look ahead to their next game, on Saturday in Sochi, where they will play a quarterfinal match against Croatia, which won its own penalty-shootout battle on Sunday against Denmark.
One hero, for sure, is Akinfeev, who saved two of Spain’s five penalties. Then there is Dzyuba, who created and then converted the penalty that drew Russia level in a game in which it appeared comically overmatched at times. And maybe Sergey Ignashevich, the 38-year-old center back, who was drafted into the World Cup squad late in Russia’s preparations. He has played every minute of this tournament, and he anchored the five-man defensive back line with the leadership and the direction to hold off Spain again and again.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” midfielder Aleksandr Golovin said. “To be honest, I do not even know what to do right now. We are in some kind of dream, a fairy tale.”
To say Russia played Spain to a draw was technically true. But in reality Spain played and Russia chased for most of the match inside the cavernous Luzhniki Stadium. Spain was content to keep possession of the ball after an early goal and Russia was, well, content to let Spain have it.
For 10, 15, 20 passes at a stretch, Spain worked the ball around the field at will — a game of keepaway disguised as a World Cup elimination match. The pro-Russian crowd whistled its disapproval early and repeatedly, and urged its team on whenever it managed — even briefly — to steal the ball away from the Spaniards. But Spain, inevitably and repeatedly, simply took the ball back. And kept it.
“We knew that Spain would play the ball in the match and leave it to them: We were prepared for this,” Golovin said. “We knew that we would keep them as far away from the penalty area as possible.”
Spain was so dominant in the first half that it nearly made it to halftime with a 1-0 lead despite having taken no shots: its opening goal came off the right ankle of Ignashevich, who unwittingly scored this World Cup’s 10th own goal — a record total already — as he fell to the ground while tangling with Spain’s Sergio Ramos on a free kick in the 12th minute.
Staked to the early lead it sought, Spain continued to pass and Russia continued to chase. The game quickly devolved into a high-stakes training session.
And then, in the 40th minute, everything changed. Russia won a corner kick, Alexander Samedov fired it in and Dzyuba headed it directly onto the arm of Spain’s Gerard Piqué — who, for some reason, had jumped to challenge Dzyuba with his back turned and one arm over his head.
The Dutch referee, Bjorn Kuipers, called a hand ball. Dzyuba buried the ensuing penalty kick past David De Gea and, just like that, Russia — and its crowd — came to life.
Russia had ridden that kind of full-throated support right through its first three games at the tournament. Its maximum-effort style on the field and early success — two victories in its first three games — had quickly got its countrymen on board, easing fears that the tournament might be an afterthought for the host country if the Russian team exited early.
Dzyuba’s goal seemed to revive those fans on Sunday, and perhaps made them imagine a victory might just be possible. The start of the second half was more even, and the free kicks and corners Russia won — with increasing frequency — soon began to create two and three half-chances at a time before Spain would force the ball clear.
Spain still ruled the statistics — it completed 1,029 passes to Russia’s 202 by the end of the match — but it stubbornly refused to adjust its style even after it became clear Russia would not yield. The Spaniards had good chances — a long-range shot by Andrés Iniesta in the second half, a dangerous run by the substitute Rodrigo in the second extra period — but a goal never came.
The defeat will be a bitter one to swallow for Spain. The team had rallied after stunningly firing its coach, Julien Lopetegui, two days before its opening match here, and it had emerged from the group stage without a defeat and with a favorable path to the final. Fernando Hierro, the former Spanish national-team player who took over for Lopetegui, tried to shield his players from blame — “I can look them all in the eyes” — but could not hide his disappointment.
“How do you think we are feeling?” Hierro said to a question about the team’s postgame mood. “We are feeling like all Spaniards are feeling this evening.”
But Russia is exulting. Having reached the penalty-kick shootout, its team seized its chance and finished the job. First Fyodor Smolov, then Ignashevich, then Golovin, then Denis Cheryshev — all beat De Gea.
Akinfeev did the rest, stopping Koke on Spain’s third attempt and Aspas on the fifth. Cherchesov, the coach, watched none of it from his post on the sideline, banking his emotions for what was to come. “I believe this is only the beginning,” he said, “so I have to save my emotions for the future.”
He did not join the celebrations as Akinfeev deflected the ball high into the air with his trailing foot to seal the victory. That was for the players, who piled on top of their goalkeeper as the crowd of 78,011 made a sound louder than any heard yet at this World Cup.
Those fans will now get at least one more chance to cheer.
Here’s how Russia beat Spain:
Russia Goes Wild!
The Russian team goes crazy as a jubilant Moscow crowd cheers on their advancement to the quarterfinals. Russia was considered one of the weakest teams in the tournament, and Spain one of the favorites. But in 120 minutes Spain could only force one own goal, and when it comes down to penalties anybody can beat anybody.
Andrew Das: Stunning finish there as Akinfeev kicks away the last attempt by Aspas. The Russians pour toward him and he dives, fists outstretched into the grass to absorb their love. The crowd has gone absolutely bonkers in here.
PK: Russia 4, Spain 3
MISS Spain! Akinfeev dives the wrong way but gets a foot on Iago Aspas’s penalty!
PK: Russia 4, Spain 3
GOAL Russia! Denis Cheryshev goes down the middle as David de Gea dives to his side.
PK: Russia 3, Spain 3
GOAL Spain! Sergio Ramos with exaggerated slow steps and sends Akinfeev the wrong way.
PK: Russia 3, Spain 2
GOAL Russia! Aleksandr Golovin powers the ball under a diving de Gea.
PK: Russia 2, Spain 2
MISS Spain! Koke’s shot isn’t enough to the side, and Akinfeev dives to his right and stops it.
PK: Spain 2, Russia 2
GOAL Russia! Sergey Ignashevich’s stutter step sends de Gea the wrong direction.
PK: Spain 2, Russia 1
GOAL Spain! Gerard Pique powers his shot into the bottom left corner as Akinfeev once again dives the wrong way.
PK: Spain 1, Russia 1
GOAL Russia! David de Gea gets his right hand onto it, but Fedor Smolov’s shot is too powerful.
PK: Spain 1, Russia 0
GOAL Spain! Andres Iniesta easily puts it into the back of the net as Akinfeev dives the wrong way.
PK: Spain Goes First
Spain wins the coin toss, and captain Sergio Ramos elects for Spain to shoot first.
Penalty Kicks On Tap
EXTRA TIME IS OVER! The referee blows his whistle, and we are going to penalties!
121’: One Last Chance for Spain!
Rodrigo gets off a low shot from the top of the box, but Akinfeev easily falls to his side and saves it.
117’: Spain Clears Russian Corner
Russia gets a corner kick but the ball is deflected out of danger. Just a few minutes left for Spain to get a winner here.
If you are wondering how attacking Russia has been for the last hour and change, the answer is: Not very!
116’: Spain Dodges Trouble
Another Spanish error almost frees Russia. Pique tried to navigate out of trouble in his own box and loses the ball, but Spain clears.
Andrew Das: Dramatically cooler in here suddenly as the weather changes — just what the tiring Russians needed. What they needed more was the corner they just won.
114’: Penalty? No.
A beautiful Spanish free kick drifts achingly beyond three Spanish players, and they IMMEDIATELY sprint to referee Bjorn Kuipers to argue that Pique and Ramos were held and deserve a penalty.
Andrew Das: That really should have been a penalty for the hold on Ramos. He couldn’t get free of his man and the ball sailed within a few feet of him. Nope. Kuipers waves play on.
112’: Spain Keeps Hammering Away
Spain is generating a good chance every two minutes. If there were an hour left in this game they would surely score, but Russia might be able to hold out for just 10 minutes more.
Andrew Das: Did they chant “Russ-see-ya!” this much in Rocky IV?
111’: Russia Playing for Penalties
Russia with a free kick just inside their own half … and it is kicked out for a Spanish goal kick. You almost get the sense that Russia doesn’t care one bit about trying to score.
Andrew Das: There is something you have to respect about the stubborn way Spain plays on days like this. It’s as if they’re refusing to change — flatly refusing — in the face of overwhelming evidence what they’re doing isn’t working.
“We will win our way,” they seem to be saying. “However long it takes.” The trust, the belief, inherent in that is admirable. The question is: will it be successful?
109’: Spain on the Attack, but Russia Firm
Rodrigo with a beautiful dummy along the sideline, and he sprints forward in the most pulsing move a Spanish player has made all day. But his tight angle shot is blocked by Akinfeev, and Dani Carvajal can’t get a strong shot on the rebound.
Andrew Das: Was that Spain’s best chance to win it before penalties? Maybe. Rodrigo loses his man with a brilliant dummy in the open field, but Carvajal lashed the rebound into a defender. Soooooo close there.
106’: Spain Needs to Push
Fifteen more minutes before we go to penalties. A basically 50/50 chance at winning on penalties would be a great outcome for Russia, so perhaps Spain is going to push even higher for a winning goal?
Andrew Das: You have to wonder if the crowd is giving Russia a vital lift here. Let’s be honest: Spain’s the better team, and they’re quicker. But Russia isn’t breaking, isn’t surrendering a yard. And every time they need someone to make a play, he makes it. That’s infectious, especially as this thing goes on and on and on ….
105’: Free Kick for Spain
Spain earns a free kick in the final minute of the first period of extra time, and Pique gets a head to Koke’s ball, but it is straight at Akinfeev.
Andrew Das: Pique’s header is saved and the crowd rises and cheers as one. They really believe now.
102’: Aspas Provides Some Energy
Iago Aspas attempted to go one-on-four but his shot was blocked. At least he went for it though!
Andrew Das: The 38-year-old Ignashevich fighting off the substitute Aspas — twice — to clear on that break just now is the most tangible sign of how much Russia is willing to give here today. Disciplined, noble effort under sustained pressure. They can be proud, however it ends.
100’: Akinfeev Handles Asensio
Marco Asensio gets a clear shot, but a soft kick from 20 yards out goes right into Igor Akinfeev’s hands.
Andrew Das: Asensio follows up Koke’s long-range attempt with one of his own. Maybe one of those will shake something loose here, but it telegraphs that Spain realizes it might want to score soon rather than leave this to PKs in a hostile stadium. Momentum in those can do funny things.
97’: Koke Lets One Fly
Koke with the most un-Spain moment of the day there, firing off a shot from 35 yards. Maybe he’s had enough, too. That was a frustration ball that landed 35 rows up.
92’: Spain Strikes First
Isco immediately plays a piercing ball through to Aspas who cuts it back for Dani Carvajal, but his shot is blocked.
91’: Who’ll Tire First?
We are back underway. It is a hot day in Moscow and a few players have cramped up already. This game may come down to one side making a tired mistake.
As a reminder, for the first time in the World Cup, the teams will be given a fourth substitute to hopefully spice up the extra time period.
Andrew Das: That could be big for Russia, which used its first three early (by the 65th minute).
Passes in regulation: Spain 854, Russia 227