Igor Akinfeev eager to prove he is the real deal

Russia's goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev is likely to have a big say in today's last-16 match against Spain. Pic: Getty images
Russia's goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev is likely to have a big say in today's last-16 match against Spain. Pic: Getty images
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Maybe Igor Akinfeev was never what they wanted him to be. He is still only 32 and for probably the past seven years he has to carry with him the accusation that he hasn’t quite lived up to expectations. Perhaps he has not, but then 
those expectations were impossibly high.

Russia wanted him to be the new Lev Yashin, to be acknowledged as an all-time great. But Akinfeev is just quite a good goalkeeper, prone to the sort of inexplicable technical issue that led to Uruguay’s opening goal in the final group game and a Russia defeat that means they meet Spain later today in the last 16.

It may be that Akinfeev is a better captain than he is goalkeeper.

Over two difficult years for the national side, he has been a consistently dignified presence, while his blunt press-conference after the defeat by Austria in a 
pre-tournament friendly is credited by many as the point at which Russia woke up and realised what might be necessary if this World Cup were not to be an embarrassment. But then, if there is anybody used to dealing with criticism, it is him.

Akinfeev was only 16 when he made his debut for CSKA. He saved a penalty in a 2-0 win over Krylya Sovetov and responded by “taking a load of beer to the sauna to celebrate”. Russia had heard of him; he had been at CSKA since he was four after his grandfather, who had been a goalkeeper in the Soviet second flight, pulled a couple of strings to get him admitted early to the academy.

For years there had been a desperation to unearth a second Yashin, another charismatic and athletic goalkeeper who could gain global recognition. There’d been Rinat Dasaev, but he had disappointed after a move to Spain. Sergei Ovchinnikov had the talent, but also a ferocious temper. Mikhail Yeremin, who’d made his CSKA debut at 18, helped his club to the last ever Soviet Cup (they would go on to do the double) but was killed in a car crash as he drove home from the final. The mantle was passed on to Akinfeev.

At first, he seemed to embrace the expectation. “He’s got courage,” said Vyacheslav Chanov, CSKA’s former goalkeeping coach. “He doesn’t get nervous. His main strength is his confidence, which transmits itself to his team-mates.”

He made 13 league appearances in 2003 as CSKA won their first league title since the break-up of the USSR. The following year he established himself as CSKA’s first-choice. He was named Russian goalkeeper of the year and, the season after that, CSKA became the first Russian side to win a European trophy, beating Sporting 3-1 in the final of the Uefa Cup in Lisbon.

Although he too has a temper – as demonstrated by the five-game ban he collected for smacking Krylya Sovetov’s Serbian midfielder Ognjen Koroman who had kicked the ball at him while celebrating a goal – Akinfeev matured into a gentle, reflective, almost melancholic figure.

Back in 2005, he was contemplating a move abroad, with Manchester United and Aston Villa both reportedly interested, only to decide his love of Russia and the Orthodox Church were too great to leave.

Whether because of that, or because of the serious knee injury he suffered in 2007, Akinfeev seemed to stagnate. He had an excellent Euro 2008 as Russia reached the semi-finals, but he has made a habit of errors in high-profile games. There was another knee injury in 2011 and, at the last World Cup, he let a shot from South Korea’s Lee Keun-ho slip through his hands. It wasn’t in the same league of errors, but when Luis Suarez scored for Uruguay in the third group game at this World Cup, he was caught in mid-air having taken a skip, unable to push off to react to the shot.

There could be a sadness to it, or the sort of frustration that for so long hung around Wayne Rooney in England, the sense that he had never quite became what he ought to have done. But Akinfeev remains popular.

The former Chelsea midfielder Alexei Smertin, who now works for the Russian Football Union, calls him “a great captain” and speaks of the example set by his professionalism. Nobody, it seems, has a bad word for Akinfeev; it’s just a shame about the actual goalkeeping.

Oddly, Akinfeev probably isn’t the keeper under the greater pressure at the Luzhniki today. David de Gea may have been Manchester United’s player of the year in three of the last five seasons but his error against Portugal, letting a Cristiano Ronaldo shot scud in off his leg, was the culmination of a number of wobbly displays. Jose Mourinho reportedly was moved to send him a supportive text message at the end of the group stage amid suggestions that the Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper Kepa will be selected against Russia.

That will almost certainly not happen, but there is a major issue. In part it’s an issue of confidence, and in part to do with the fact that De Gea is a reactive keeper who hangs back, while Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos are used to proactive goalkeepers who like to play outside their box.

And so this afternoon’s game becomes a battle between a goalkeeper struggling to live up to the standards he set 12 years ago, and another struggling to live up to the standards he set 12 weeks ago.