In some ways, Guus Hiddink - the coach of Russia's soccer team who hails from The Netherlands - is the elephant in the room that many Russians don't want to talk about. See, the problem is "Tsar Guus," as he is now referred to in Russia's moody media, is actually a foreigner (Shhh. He can't help it; he was born that way!).
It must be said, however, that Russia did its best to cure him of the nasty affliction by attempting to crown Guus with Russian citizenship, and possibly even changing his name. After all, any man who could grab Russia's young, undisciplined team by its figurative jockstrap and twist it into a goalpost battering ram overnight must have a drop of the strapping Slavic in his veins.
Briefly, for those who prefer their football with full metal jackets washed down with Budweiser beer commercials, Guus Hiddink is the man who marched Russia's soccer team smack into the thick of Euro 2008, the Old World's closest equivalent of America's Super Bowl. Ironically, one of the teams to fall hard to the resurrected Russian squad was Guus' very own native Netherlands, where taunts of `traitor' resonated for a long time on the cobblestoned streets and in some of the less salubrious sports pages.Russia was knocked out in the semi-finals by Spain, 0-3, the team that eventually went on to win the championship. Russia's bronze performance, however, says a lot about the potential of the upstart squad, but even more about Hiddink.
Today, Russia - with one foot in its dusty communist past and the other stuck in the oil fields - is just starting to wake up to the painful dawn of the global village. In this borderless world, the details of a person's passport mean next to nothing so long as he or she can help hoist home a trophy. And Russia could never be accused of being a slow learner. Today, the Motherland - in much the same way that it adores its Siberian-born tennis prodigy Maria Sharapova, despite the fact that she got her start at Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy in sunny Florida - has largely thrown its support behind Dutchman Guus Hiddink.
Does this mean that the wacky world of sports and entertainment actually has what it takes to end Europe's bitter legacy of nationalistic strife? Today, players and coaches switch allegiances faster than the kids can collect their trading cards, and somehow people still pay fantastic ticket prices to watch these veritable businessmen play games. So maybe instead of healing Europe's internecine feuding, cross-border sport dressing may actually be the fuel that ignites the next big battle on the warring continent.
But one thing is for sure: Guus, despite some ugly comments to the contrary, has proven to be a godsend for Russia. As one Russian football fan smartly explained the situation: "In Russia's past, it was almost the rule that our monarchs and empresses came from foreign countries, so I think Guus should have no problem here either."
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