By Karolos Grohmann
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Despite the pre-World Cup barbs and snipes regarding Russia's quality and the politically-charged commentary related to the hosts, they bowed out in style, having exceeded expectations and injected the tournament with a healthy dose of enthusiasm.
The Russians as hosts did not need to qualify for the World Cup and their ranking of 70 in the world was the lowest among all teams in Russia, even lower than international football minnows Saudi Arabia.
That mattered little though for battling coach Stanislav Cherchesov who assembled a team that defied all forecasts and made the home nation proud.
Their quarter-final exit on penalties to Croatia, among the most skilled teams here, on Saturday was further proof that Russia never intended to just playing along.
The Russians lost only once over 90 or 120 minutes of football and that was in their final group match against Uruguay when they had already qualified for the knockout stage.
"We trusted ourselves. We could only prove our worth by working hard," Cherchesov said. "I believe that people did not only start trusting us but they are in love with us."
"From the first second I put together this team, I knew where it was heading," he said. "We have succeeded I believe, but it is time to take a step forward."
Russia had delivered the perfect opening salvo, firing five goals past the Saudis in the World Cup opening match that instantly gave the home crowd a reason to turn their attention to football.
This was quickly followed up with a 3-1 win over Egypt and Cherchesov's' team punching their ticket for the Round of 16.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had never managed to go past the group stage and their defeat to Uruguay that did expose some of the qualities they were missing, including in attack, mattered little at that point.
Cherchesov then devised a clever game plan to counter Spain's passing game, which allowed Russia to eventually squeeze past the 2010 world champions and into the last eight.
They handed them possession and despite playing four times fewer passes than Spain's 1,137 over 120 minutes, they successfully shut them out of their box.
Spain had a staggering 75 percent possession but found no way past Russia's hard-working defence, bowing out when keeper Igor Akinfeev saved two spot kicks in the shoot-out.
This tactic was turned on its head against Croatia, with Russia going all out and scoring first but conceding two more before an equaliser deep in the second half of extra time reignited their hopes of a last four spot, the first since the Soviet Union's 1966 run.
But it was not meant to be as Croatia won 4-3 on penalties to advance to a semi-final against England, leaving many of the 48,0000 fans at Sochi's Fisht Stadium in tears.
But their performances gave Russian players instant national hero's status and the country the right to be proud of a run no one had expected less than a month ago.
(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)