Igor Akinfeev fronted up after his high-profile error gifted South Korea the lead in Russia’s opening World Cup Group H game on Tuesday night. It would have been the easy option for the CSKA Moscow man to duck out of his media duties but to his credit he walked into the throng of Russian reporters and faced the music – albeit with his eyes to the floor like a condemned man.
“It was a kid’s mistake,” he said. “I take full responsibility for it. The goalkeeper of the national team should not be making errors like that.”
Akinfeev, who has six times been named Russian goalkeeper of the year, had just fumbled Lee Keun-Ho’s tame effort over the line to hand the initiative to the Asians before Alexander Kerzhakov equalised. It was not Akinfeev’s only mistake on the night. On at least three other occasions he spilled routine shots into his goal mouth. He was lucky no Korean was around to take advantage.
Akinfeev, now in his 11th year as an international, has faced competition for the No.1 shirt before with Vyacheslav Malafeev and Vladimir Gabulov preferred at times during his period with the national team. Calls for the inclusion of young Zenit St Petersburg pretender Yuri Lodygin may increase after Akinfeev’s howler. “Lodygin is already at Akinfeev’s level and I can see him taking over in the near future,” former Spartak Moscow president Andri Chervichenko told Sports.ru earlier in the year.
Now is not the first time Akinfeev has been called into question this year. His form for CSKA Moscow throughout their title-winning season in the Russian Premier League wavered. He came under close scrutiny in March when his inexplicable error cost CSKA the derby against Dynamo Moscow. Sloppy footwork allowed national team colleague Yuri Zhirkov to nip in and make it 4-2 and put the game beyond the reach of the Army Men.
Calls for Akinfeev to be dropped in favour of the Zenit man may be hasty but it will certainly be on coach Fabio Capello’s mind despite his assertions to the contrary in the post-match press conference. Don’t forget he was ruthless in his jettisoning of Robert Green following his blunder against USA in the opening game of the 2010 World Cup. What he had to say about Green then bears uncanny resemblance to his quotes about Akinfeev now. “A keeper can always make a mistake,” he said. “We can accept a mistake from a great goalkeeper, which is what Akinfeev is.”
Lodygin only has three caps to his name but his statistics will appeal to Capello. He has conceded only once in Russian colours, on his debut against South Korea, and kept clean sheets against Slovakia and Morocco – arguably their best warm-up display. However, he has just completed his first season of first-team football in Russia.
Akinfeev will be looking at how another teenage prodigy-cum-national institution is currently faring and wonder if the same uncertain fate is in store for him as Iker Casillas. Akinfeev admitted afterwards he felt uncertain throughout the encounter. It is perhaps easy to overlook that, despite his experience, the 28-year-old was making his World Cup debut after Russia’s failures in 2006 and 2010.
For Capello, it’s history repeating. In 2010, as now, Algeria were in his team’s group and Germany lay in wait for those who failed to finish top. Belgium already have a two-point headstart on the Russians and that is exactly how things are shaping up.
Next up is the Belgians in the Maracana with qualification chances at stake. Capello needs to decide whether it’s riskier leaving Akinfeev out or keeping him in. Once the trust goes between a defence, their goalkeeper and his coach, trouble starts.
Russians here have made reference to the different mentality of Lodygin, who is Greek. He is more laid back they reason – more ‘European’ as they put it – and is unlikely to be flustered by the conditions Russia will face on Sunday in Rio. In that respect, what Akinfeev had to say after his mistake was illustrative. “Maybe I wasn’t sure of myself,” he said.