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After three victories, and at times scintillating soccer, the Russian national
After three victories, and at times scintillating soccer, the Russian national side faced a reality check as they came up against a strong Spanish side in the semifinals of Euro 2008 in Vienna on Thursday night, going down 3-0.

While the team, which did not even make the 2006 World Cup, losing 7-1 to Portugal in a doomed attempt to qualify, far exceeded domestic expectations by making the last four, the match against Spain proved a step too far, and the youngest team at the tournament were opened up by a skilful and experienced opponent.

After Russia beat the Netherlands 3-1 on Saturday, some 700,000 Muscovites took to the streets of the capital to celebrate a historic victory. On Thursday, as prices for Russian flags went through the roof, thousands of supporters filled bars across the country in expectation of another win and another chance to party until dawn.

The world's favorite sport is a cruel game, however, and the Russian fans, many crying, left for home in a somber mood. There were no serious disturbances reported.

"For us it's the end of the tournament and disappointment is in our heads tonight," Russia's Dutch coach, Guus Hiddink, said. "When our emotions have calmed down we will be able to say we are very proud of not just our results, but at the way the boys have played in this tournament."

Indeed, Hiddink has transformed the Russian side, rendering it virtually unrecognizable from earlier, ultra-cautious incarnations. The attacking, open soccer demonstrated by Andrei Arshavin and co against Sweden and the Netherlands has done much for the image of the national team, and even stirred global interest in the country's Premier League.

The semifinal defeat was Hiddink's third at a major tournament, his Dutch team losing to Brazil on penalties in 1998, and his South Korean side going out to Germany in 2002.

"Big teams know how to use their experience, and the longer a game goes on they know they have better qualities. It was new for Korea and it's new for Russia," he commented.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev congratulated the side on its bronze, saying that, "We had the opportunity to see the kind of soccer that we have wanted to see for a long time from our players. We hope that our performance at Euro 2008 is just the start of success for Russia, and that new victories lie ahead."

Russia's soccer chief, Vitaly Mutko, said on Friday that, "Right now we are all upset that we lost in the semifinal. But let's look back a bit - our main aim was to get out of our group, and we far exceeded that. Don't forget that we are still growing. Hiddink proved to this generation of Russian footballers that they are able to play at a high level."

"No one believed that we could achieve the results we did," said Roman Pavlyuchenko, the man Hiddink called a "sleeping giant" before the championships. "We worked a lot. The whole team was like one big family at that tournament."

The Russian team are due to arrive in Moscow at 7:00 p.m. (15:00 GMT). Spain will now face Germany in Sunday's final in Vienna.

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