Hosts Russia crash out of ice hockey in Sochi
'This is a severe and annoying defeat. We are all crying and we are crying with you too'
A Russian fan reacts as her team lose out 3-1 to Finland in yesterday’s quarter-final game in the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi. Photograph: Eric Gaillard/Reuters
Douse the torch, crack the ice, melt the snow. Just like that, Sochi 2014 is over. The Russian ice hockey team are gone and with them goes the interest, energy and emotional investment of the Russian public. The games will trundle along between now and Sunday but after the home side’s 3-1 defeat to Finland in the quarter-final here yesterday, they will be seeing themselves out.
“Dear friends,” lamented the commentator on Russian TV. “Life has not come to an end. But this is a severe and annoying defeat. We are all crying and we are crying with you too.”
With Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev watching on from high up in the Bolshoy Ice Dome, Russia actually took an early lead through Ilya Kovalchuk. But the Finns, bronze medal winners in Vancouver four years ago, were far more clinical and even had a lead before the end of the first period.
Juhamatti Aaltonen and Teemu Selanne scored to put the 2-1 ahead and when Mikael Grunland made that 3-1 early in the second, the early exuberance of the home crowd waned and withered.
“Inside I am absolutely empty,” Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk said afterwards. “The emotion we feel right now is disappointment, disappointment that we didn’t live up to the hopes placed on us.”
Those hopes can’t be overstated. No sport in these games means (meant) more to Russians than ice hockey, no medal is (was) more important.
Datsyuk as much as admitted last week that the pressure from the rest of the country was becoming too much. “Everyone is expecting only one thing from us,” he said. “The pressure is enormous and it’s growing every day. We don’t have the right to make a mistake.”
That right was revoked when they came home from Vancouver without having made the semi-finals and hammered 7-3 by Canada, also in the quarter-final. In the fall-out from what was a terrible Olympics generally for Russia, the ice hockey team was held up as a particular disgrace, stocked with uncaring NHL millionaires and an embarrassment to their history.
Their jerseys for the tournament had eight stars sewn into them, one for every Olympic tournament won under the Russian/Soviet banner. The last of those came in 1992 and no Russian team has won Olympic gold since the NHL players started being allowed to play.
Only a month ago, a group of Russian former gold medal winners put their name to an open letter to the current team and posted it on the federation’s website. “The entire country will be looking at you,” it read. “In our time, we did everything for the victory. We glorified the USSR, our people and our sports. Don’t let Russia down, guys!”
Oops. The extent to which Russia will feel let down was clear from the almost feral rage of their press corps when coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov came in afterwards. “How guilty are you feeling?” was an early question. “Is this a catastrophe?” was another.
“Let’s not play word games,” was Bilyaletdinov’s response to the catastrophe jibe. “I said it was unsuccessful. To the fans, I can only apologise for the results. It was an unfortunate game for us. Our expectations were quite different. I can only say words of apology.”
Well the room was in no mood to accept them. After a while, it stopped being a matter of questions coming from the floor, more a case of borderline abuse. Bilyaletdinov – who didn’t want the job of national coach in the first place and has said he only took it when Putin personally told him to – was losing patience and clearly decided he wasn’t going down alone.
“It’s difficult to explain why they didn’t score,” he said. “These are the players who score on their [NHL] teams, especially Alexander Ovechkin, who scored only in the first game. I cannot explain this.”
It only got tetchier from there. As he left the stage, Bilyaletdinov was surrounded by a scrum before he got to the door. Their exchange, translated by the nice man from the Wall Street Journal later on, went less than well.
“What future, if any, do you see for your own work and for your coaching staff? Because, you know, your predecessor was eaten alive after the  Olympics . . .”
“Well then, eat me alive right now.”
“No, I mean . . .”
“Eat me, and I won’t be here anymore.”
“But we have the world championship coming up!”
“Well then, there will be a different coach because I won’t exist anymore, since you will have eaten me.”
“But you’re staying, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I will remain living.”
Bilyaletdinov finished by confirming that no, he wouldn’t be hanging around Sochi to take in the rest of the games. Funny, that.