Why South Africa is a Soviet-free zone

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Never mind the Irish; why is there no FSU (former Soviet Union) team heading to South Africa next summer?

Attempting to watch football on holiday for men takes on one of two uncomfortable forms:

i) Either perched awkwardly on the edge of the bed in their hotel rooms ploughing through countless channels of foreign tripe for ESPN while their girlfriends are in the shower washing their hair.

ii) Or sat transfixed by the television screen in a spit-and-sawdust bar next to their increasingly disgruntled missus who is muttering some drivel about who their friend Rachel is sleeping with that week.

Greetings from Cambodia, where NMTB is currently residing; a baffling country devoid of pavements, points of interest and public transport, and where confused and misunderstood loners from America can fuel their fantasies of going mental in a high school with a gun by firing a rocket launcher at a cow on scrubby wasteland for a couple of hundred quid. It brings a whole new meaning to the Killing Fields.

"Please don't"

NMTB was in Phnom Penh's aptly named Magic Sponge Bar for the World Cup play-offs (much to the chagrin of a girlfriend drowned out by the booming commentary), witnessing Russia and its little brother Ukraine put in two abysmal performances.

No, really abysmal.

So abysmal that the blog almost wished it was being subjected to the endless reel of Mr Bean videos that plague the television sets of Cambodian buses like some brutal form of Geneva Convention-dodging, Guantanamo Bay-trumping torture.

If the blog ever hears that exasperating, pietistic theme tune again, it is liable to track down Rowan Atkinson and throttle him to death.

The pair’s dismal 1-0 reverses to Slovenia and Greece respectively means that there’ll be no representative from the FSU flying the hammer and sickle in South Africa.

The communist baton has been passed to the hubris-stricken North Koreans.

Obviously NMTB never expected, or wanted, all 15 FSU nations to qualify: that would make for a rather odd and, let’s face it, frankly shit tournament of poor-quality football and vodka-swigging, bare-chested bruisers staggering around the streets of Durban.

But it would have been nice to have one, just one, in Africa, providing the blog with some work during the summer when it’s sat on the beach in Sochi.

Although it may well alter its destination, because any resort twinned with Cheltenham is bound to be as much fun as spending the day on a Cambodian bus witnessing Mr Bean attempting to get dressed while driving a lime green Mini down the motorway.

Yes, after a 10-hour journey from Stung Treng to Phnom Penh, the blog has every single episode indelibly etched onto its brain.

Mr Bean: "            "

Being a sister city of a dreary town in England seems to be à la mode for FSU beach resorts.

A couple of years ago NMTB was dragged to Yalta - twinned with Margate - and stumbled across a bizarre “love machine” which invited users to gyrate their pelvises against a mannequin’s arse while grasping two metal handles for extra thrust.

All in the vain hope of proving to their vacuous chums that they boast the sexual prowess of Genghis Khan.

The Love Machine. Nurse! The screens!

Moving very swiftly back on topic, how many of the FSU teams might have even contemplated scouring the internet for rooms in South Africa’s sparkling new opulent, post-World-Cup-white-elephant hotels? 

Realistically, the only likely candidates were Russia and Ukraine – and, if NMTB breaks character and becomes as optimistic as a Stalinist five-year plan, Uzbekistan, who might sneak through the Asian qualification process.

And that isn’t a huge surprise when you consider that these countries have only been competing independently for 17 years, and before that they were one big, happy (highly centralised) state, and the game is still in its infancy in some respects.

So what went wrong with Russia?

A resurgent football scene, a clutch of decent players, a world-class manager... yet over the two legs they put in a couple of performances so limp and lifeless against Slovenia that it appeared as if Guus Hiddink has slipped the lads some of what the tuk-tuk drivers in Phnom Penh try to flog to the tourists.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with Russian football – it’s indubitably in its healthiest state for some time – and NMTB never thought it would say this, but the Dutchman was simply outwitted tactically by Matjaž Kek.

The blog nearly fell off its barstool during the first leg when Diniyar Bilyaletdinov turned adroitly to score his second goal, prompting the monotonous Cambodian commentator to break from his Khmer ramblings to cry “eat my goal!” at the top of his voice.

But from then on, Hiddink seemed content with what he had and it was no surprise that Slovenia pulled one back.

Once again Roman Pavlyuchenko has pipped Peter Crouch to the “Least Talented Lanky Forward” prize and Hiddink perhaps should have looked to someone else to lead the line in Maribor.

NMTB honestly wouldn’t be shocked if he moved on from Tottenham next month: one forward line isn't big enough for both of them.

Pavlyuchenko: Bad touch for a big man

As for Ukraine, it is the end of an era. For many of Oleksiy Mykhaylychenko’s squad it was their last chance to reach a World Cup, and by 2014 most of them will have retired from international football.

Of the squad who played Greece, half of them will be in their thirties by the next finals. Andriy Shevchenko will be 38, Oleksandr Shovkovskiy 39 and Andriy Voronin will surely be too old for a ponytail, lest he looks like some kind of Ukrainian Francis Rossi.

Greece managed to stifle Ukraine home and away, but credit to Mykhaylychenko for fielding a front three in the second leg, even if he did inexplicably put Shevchenko on the right-hand side rather than in the centre where he would have been more effective.

Mykhaylychenko can take solace in the fact that at least the likes of Artem Kravets, Dmytro Chygrynskiy, Artem Milevskiy and Oleksandr Aliyev will have matured by the time the European Championships come round in 2012.

And it’s in Ukraine, so the FSU will have least one representative at that tournament.

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