Fabio Capello was so pleased Russia battled back to secure a 1-1 draw against South Korea in their World Cup group H opener on Tuesday he even allowed for an uncharacteristic birthday celebration.
Capello turns 68 on Wednesday and had said in a gruff tone a mere 24 hours before the match that he expected no presents from anyone. But their second-half equaliser, six minutes after a goalkeeping blunder allowed South Korea to take the lead, softened up the Italian manager, a renowned disciplinarian.
“I thanked the team for their reaction and told them that was the greatest birthday gift I could receive,” Capello said after his first World Cup finals match as the Russia coach. “It means the team is great and they can do it.”
Looking for a new challenge after a storied career, Capello took over the Russia squad two years ago and has earned praise from players for his no-nonsense approach. He even banned them from using Twitter during the World Cup for fear it would be a ‘nuisance”.
But Capello was not able to calm the nerves of a team making their first World Cup finals appearance since 2002.
“In the first part of the game we were quite narrow, we were concerned, we were worried, we had problems getting the ball around,” he said.
WATCH: Igor Akinfeev allows Lee Keun-ho’s shot to slip through his hands
The wake-up call came in the second half when Russia keeper Igor Akinfeev allowed Lee Keun-ho’s shot after 68 minutes to slip through his hands for the opening goal at Cuiaba’s Pantanal arena.
Akinfeev stayed on the ground inside his own net, head in his hands, after making his error, clearly embarrassed after dropping what was a routine save from a shot from about 30 yards. He was consoled by a couple of teammates, who patted him on the back.
Alexander Kerzhakov came to the rescue for Russia, scoring three minutes after coming on as a substitute.
“We could have won the game,” Capello said. “[But] there was a wonderful reaction by our team after the goal we suffered. We developed a crescendo, we grew.”
The equaliser also made it easier for Capello to accept Akinfeev’s mistake.
South Korea may have let victory slip from their grasp but after a horror run of warm-up matches coach Hong Myung-bo was satisfied with a point.
Hong, who captained the Koreans on their glorious run to 2002 World Cup semi-finals on home soil, said the key was not to start the tournament off with a loss and praised his players’ performance.
“In a tournament like this, the first match is always the most difficult and there is a lot of pressure,” Hong said. “I think my players really did their utmost today. Tactically and physically, each and every moment, they played intelligently."
WATCH: Alexander Kerzhakov pounced to stab the ball home from close range
The South Koreans came into the tournament having lost four of their last five games, including a 4-0 rout at the hands of Ghana last week. Sloppy defending has been a feature of their woeful World Cup build-up and it cost them again on Tuesday.
Hong was optimistic the Koreans would get better as the tournament went on and was confident they would improve against group favourites Belgium and unfancied Algeria.
“Overall if we look at our players, I don’t think they did that badly,” he said. “I think in the next match they will do a lot better.”
Reuters, Associated Press