Igor Akinfeev a Russian icon despite World Cup blunder

Moscow (AFP) – Igor Akinfeev’s international name has been marked by a calamitous error at the 2014 World Cup, but he remains Russia’s best goalkeeper and he is looking to make amends at Euro 2016. 

As the clock ticked towards 70 minutes in Russia’s opening group match in Brazil, South Korean Lee Keun-ho hit a speculative shot that looked an easy take. 

But Akinfeev fumbled the ball which looped agonisingly into the back of the net. Akinfeev was left to clutch his head in disbelief. 

“Not one goalkeeper, including myself I have to say, will ever be able to explain what happened until the end of my days,” Akinfeev, 30, told the Sport Express daily last year. 

“There is only one explanation and that is that it was a terrible mistake.”

The blunder set the tone for a dismal World Cup for Russia. The team under Italian coach Fabio Capello managed just two points and crashed out. 

Born just outside Moscow in 1986, Akinfeev was just four when he caught the eye of junior team coaches at Moscow’s CSKA Red Army team.

In 2002 he helped CSKA’s youth team win the Russian junior title.

Akinfeev was promoted and the next season made 13 appearance for CSKA’s main side as they win their first league title since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

His confident performances attracted national coach Georgy Yartsev and he became Russia’s youngest ever international goalkeeper in a 2004 friendly with Norway aged just 18.

Akinfeev did not make the squad for the European Championship finals, but another season at CSKA when they won the league title, Russian Cup and UEFA cup cemented his place in the national team.

He has never really given it up.  

In 2007 Akinfeev was linked with a move to England’s Arsenal but a cruciate knee ligament rupture sidelined him for almost six months. Hopes of a move to the English Premiership were dashed.

– Russian icon –

He fought back to fitness and reclaimed his place at his boyhood club, Akinfeev has played nearly 500 times for CSKA and won more than 85 caps for the national team. 

This month Britain’s Daily Telegraph ranked him 14th on the list of the 20 best keepers, describing him as a “one of the world’s most reliable goalkeepers”.  

“He is also that rarest of commodities in the modern game – a one club man,” the newspaper said. 

As for that jaw-dropping error in Brazil — Akinfeev says he has recovered even if it took time to shrug off the ignominy, and the often fierce reaction of some Russian fans. 

“I still love football just as I did before this but at times things became uncomfortable, difficult,” Akinfeev told Russian website Championat.com in December 2015. 

“Fans in Russia don’t forgive players’ mistakes. On the contrary they take pleasure from the failures of others.”

“But let them wallow in their own filth. Their opinions don’t interest me.”

Now with his club coach Leonid Slutsky in charge of the national team, Akinfeev is gearing up for the new challenge in France. 

And ex-players insist that Russia’s bid could not be in safer hand. 

“Akinfeev is an unbelievably gifted athlete,” former Russia keeper Sergei Ochinnikov, who now coaches at CSKA, told Sport Express when Akinfeev turned 30 last week. 

“He is the only world class goalkeeper in Russia in recent decades.”

“Igor has always been a kind and open-hearted guy. His career should serve as a guide for millions of youngsters. He’s an icon!”

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