Russia's World Cup star and captain Igor Akinfeev has finally proved his critics wrong
On June 20, 2016, Igor Akinfeev did everything in his power to save Russia from total humiliation. Not only was the team's performance disastrous during a 3-0 defeat to Wales in the last game of the Euro 2016 group stage, their attitude was inexcusable as well. For a moment in the second half, circumstances got so bad that the captain's armband was suddenly abandoned.
Vice-captain Vasily Berezutsky had already been removed due to injury when captain Roman Shirokov was substituted. Someone else had to take the role, but nobody wanted it. Aleksey Berezutsky refused to take the armband, and so did Sergei Ignashevich, who then pointed at Akinfeev. The goalkeeper came to the rescue, took up the responsibility and was also the only player who had the guts to thank the fans after the final whistle, while the rest of the team hurried into the dressing room.
That could have been the moment Russia recognised Akinfeev's leadership abilities, but that wasn't the case. He's been the captain at his club, CSKA Moscow, since 2008, but when Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov gave him the honour on regular basis with the national team, not everyone was convinced.
To the casual onlooker, Akinfeev might seem to be Russia's most admired star, but in reality he has divided opinion for quite a while. CSKA fans have always adored him, but Spartak Moscow and Zenit supporters used to despise the keeper and argued that he got a lot of protection for no apparent reason.
Because Akinfeev is a man of many faces.
On one hand, he is stable, cool under pressure and rarely makes mistakes. On the other, those errors tend to come at the most unfortunate moments. At the 2014 World Cup, he dropped an easy ball over the line in the game against South Korea and then completely misjudged a corner in the crucial fixture vs. Algeria. Russia dropped points on both occasions and went out at the group stage. At the 2017 Confederations Cup, Akinfeev was guilty of conceding a dramatic goal against Mexico and the team crashed out once again.
On one hand, Akinfeev holds the Russian record for career clean sheets, overcoming the legendary Lev Yashin and Rinat Dasayev in the process. On the other, he has the record of conceding a goal in 43 Champions League matches in a row, and was mercilessly ridiculed by Spartak fans for that.
On one hand, he is the role model of a sportsman, always dedicated and never involved in off-the-pitch controversies. On the other, his introverted character was constantly criticized, and he wasn't considered the right leader. "His personality won't enable him to make emotional speeches in the dressing room," Sport24.ru columnist Artyom Kalinin told ESPN FC.
Akinfeev was linked to the top clubs at the beginning of his career, and Sir Alex Ferguson reportedly considered signing him for Manchester United. Yet he remained at CSKA, claiming that no specific offers had ever been made, and thus was criticized for lack of ambition.
"Is Akinfeev good enough to play for a great team? Probably not, because he never moved to one," former Russia star Aleksandr Mostovoi told ESPN FC.
Russian journalist Aleksandr Vishnevskiy added: "Akinfeev had no competition in the national team, and his progress had stalled. He chose to keep clean sheets against Russian Premier League minnows instead of moving abroad. I would have preferred to see another goalkeeper playing for Russia at the home World Cup in order to feel more affection for the national team."
Thus Akinfeev approached the biggest tournament of his life with huge question marks hovering around him. For the CSKA faithful, he was the only world-class star in Russia squad. For others, he was the overrated sacred cow expected to make yet another dreadful mistake. That was the hardest test for the captain.
Now, after his heroic performance in the round of 16 match against Spain, even Akinfeev's harshest critics have to admit that he has passed his test with flying colours. A magnificent performance over the 120 minutes was followed by saves from Koke and Iago Aspas in the penalty shootout. Sport Express even compared him to Yashin and called him a "Great Goalkeeper" (with capital letters).
"Akinfeev is a true leader. He never panics, and even Spartak owner Leonid Fedun says that he has no nerves," Sport Express' Filipp Papenkov told ESPN FC. "A lot of journalists are Spartak fans, and that could be one of the reasons for the criticism in the press. But now he had proved himself. After this World Cup, it won't be possible to laugh at him."
Russia's tournament is not over yet. If Akinfeev is the saviour again in the quarterfinals against Croatia, edging them closer to an improbable final, surely nobody could argue he wasn't world-class.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced international football journalist who writes for ESPN, Blizzard, Guardian and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @yokhin.