Guus' tough love turned Russia around

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Guus Hiddink was offered South Korean citizenship and a luxury villa on a paradise island after taking that country to the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup. Four years later, an Australian radio station touted him for the role of Prime Minister and suggested a national "Guus Tax" be imposed to fund a new contract to keep him Down Under.

Now, after leading Russia to the semifinals of Euro 2008, the 61-year-old head coach is guaranteed another round of accolades and adulation for pulling off a seemingly impossible task with another underdog team.

Just like with South Korea and Australia, what Hiddink has already achieved with Russia has surpassed all pre-tournament expectations. By getting the better of his native Holland in the quarterfinals, he masterminded a victory over Euro 2008's most in-form team.

However, there is a growing sense that even greater things are within reach for this Russian team, which was decimated 4-1 by Spain in its opening game of the tournament but has since rebounded spectacularly.

The Spaniards lie in wait again in Thursday's semifinal, but no one, especially the Spanish, is foolish enough to predict such a straight-forward victory this time.

"We've played them already, but this game will be totally different," Spain midfielder Andres Iniesta told a news conference on Wednesday. "It is a semifinal with a lot at stake and it will be far more intense."

This is an entirely different Russian team to the one that frustrated Hiddink with its nervousness and ineptitude in that lopsided June 10 defeat. The return of midfield maestro Andrei Arshavin has been a huge factor in breathing life into Russia's campaign, with the Zenit St. Petersburg star having excelled against Sweden and Holland after serving a two-game suspension.

But those close to the squad insist that the angry speech which Hiddink meted out following the opening match has had just as much to do with revitalizing the Russians' fortunes.

As he stood before his players in the locker room at Innsbruck, Hiddink spoke primarily about suffering. Just as he did in his former international roles, starting with the Dutch job from 1995 to 1998, he instilled a brutal physical training regimen that had his players working out to the point of exhaustion up to just a few days before the competition.

"He told the players, 'You suffered for this and you let all that suffering go to waste,' " a Russian source said. "It made everyone have a hard think about things. In the next game, all that tension and hesitation was gone."

Hiddink is widely acknowledged as a tactical genius, but his preparatory methods are simple. They revolve around blood, sweat and tears and those who can't or won't accept it are not welcome.

"If you want to be competitive in this very difficult tournament, you have to be at the top of your fitness," Hiddink said. "That means you have to suffer and invest a little bit in your body and in your mind, which the players did. It was very intensive."

There is that word "suffer" again. The players got tired of suffering themselves and decided to inflict some pain on their opponents in wins over Greece and Sweden. The victory over Holland was as deserved as it was surprising and established Russia as a genuine threat to win the tournament.

In the 3-1 triumph, Arshavin was masterful for the second game in a row, fully justifying Hiddink's decision – questioned by many – to include his most talented player despite his suspension for kicking an opponent in a qualifier with Andorra last November.

"The challenge is for Russian football to establish itself and to regain its position in European and international football," Hiddink said. "It's not just for me. The challenge is for Russia to make use of the momentum we've achieved here to improve infrastructure in the country."

The Russian public has celebrated wildly after each victory and is ready to unleash another outpouring of joy on Thursday night. Because for the first time in the young history of "New Russia" – since the breakup of the Soviet Union – there is a team to be genuinely proud of.

And a coach, in Hiddink, to cherish.