EXCLUSIVE: Former Russian international Dmitri Bulykin on the World Cup's "unbelievable story"

Despite a dramatic exit versus Croatia in the quarterfinals, the Russian national team’s run thsi summer at the World Cup was nothing short of a fairytale. A team widely expected to disappoint (as any Moscow cab driver would attest), the Russians easily advanced from their group and then upset the always-vaunted Spanish side in the Round of 16. The results had Russians cheering and singing in the streets.

One of those celebrating was former Russian international striker Dmitri Bulykin, who scored 7 goals in 15 caps for his country between 2003-2005. At the club level, he enjoyed a 17-year career with clubs in Russia, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, including Lokomotiv Moscow, Dynamo Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen, Anderlecht, ADO, and Ajax. Today, he is an executive for Lokomotiv, a FIFA ambassador, and a TV analyst.

Kicking & Screening’s Gillian Kemmerer recently caught up with Bulykin over dinner at Moscow’s Modus Friends to talk about the Russian squad, the value of teamwork, and, of course, his favorite soccer film. 

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KICKING + SCREENING (K+S): It’s the 115th minute and Mario Fernandes scores that stunning equalizer to keep Russia in the game. What was the first thought that pops into your head?

DMITRI BULYKIN: The first thing I thought was that all Russian citizens [would be] so happy. It was truly an important moment to score, to equalize — and to believe in the Russian national team. I think that after this goal, everyone started to believe that we could pass Croatia. It’s a pity that we lost in penalties, but there was incredible emotion in this game. I want to say thank you to the whole team and the coaches because it was an unbelievable story for all Russians.

K+S: Every Russian cab driver warned me not to get carried away with the national team. There was so much skepticism, even after the success of the group stages.

BULYKIN: Before the World Cup, it was for sure that nobody believed. We had only friendlies, no official qualifiers, so nobody knew how we would start. Two weeks before the World Cup when the list of the players was published, a big discussion started in Russia. A few [expected] names were not there, and it kicked off a lot of skepticism as you said. But if you see the city now, everybody loves the Russian national team.

K+S: The global audience was not immune to it either. The doping scandals and political environment have cast a shadow of doubt from some commentators abroad.

BULYKIN: You know, I don’t like when politics starts to interfere with sports. I think we’ve seen true sport here, and a fair World Cup. Of course politicians always try to find their way in, but many who have been in Russia have changed their mind about our country. I believe many think of Russia in a new way now, and I hope we’ll find ways for political negotiation. But I think those who have come from the West enjoyed the World Cup, the cities, and the Russian people. The Russian people are very kind…and they like celebrating!

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K+S: How has the management of the Russian team changed since the days when you played?

BULYKIN: I like the coach [Stanislav] Cherchesov because he can change the style of football in every game. He always does the right thing during the game, before the game. If you see how we played against Saudi Arabia, Spain or Croatia — it was completely different ways and formations. I think everyone enjoyed his work.

Additionally, the players were so hungry for the wins. They fought a lot on the field and the result was obvious.

K+S: Russians are so enamored with your captain, Igor Akinfeev. How much did his leadership make an impact?

BULYKIN: We have a lot of leaders in our national team. The captain [Akinfeev] is so experienced and knows everyone. He is a goalkeeper — a very important position on the field. A lot of confidence is received from the goalkeeper.

I want to say that we have more leaders in our team too…[Artem] Dzyuba the striker, Cheryshev, Golovin, Zobnin…they played so well. I think they are leaders in the dressing room too. I hope that this team will keep the great energy next year as we move into the Euros.

K+S: Your discussion of great leaders makes me think of stars with early exits — Ronaldo, Messi. Are we watching these stars make their final descent to earth, or were their national teams not organized in a way to profit off of them?

BULYKIN: We like football because it’s an unpredictable game. If you see Portugal or Argentina, they have the top stars in the world—Ronaldo and Messi—but everything depends on the team. Of course leaders are important, but when you have big pressure from your supporters and country, somebody needs to help [the stars]. You need a team of fighters.

Russia fought in every place on the field. Everyone wanted to play well, and to show that they are a strong team. If you see Germany, for example, or Portugal or Spain, they were not so passionate. We call it having a light in your eyes.

In the Russian team, I saw that light and the fire in their eyes. It’s difficult to translate. Our supporters gave so much energy as well, and I think it helped us to do great things.

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K+S: What do you think the legacy of this World Cup will be for Russian club teams?

BULYKIN: I hope it will be fantastic. We have nice stadiums, infrastructure, and a lot of cities changing — especially where the World Cup was. I expect that we will see a rise of Russian football. We have to invest not only money, but also our passion. I hope Russian football makes a big step forward and that we will go nearer to the top leagues in Europe.

K+S: There’s always a big fear with events like this that the investment in stadiums will go to waste when the party ends. You seem to think Russia will make use of the new sporting infrastructure.

BULYKIN: I hope. On the UEFA MIP [executive master for international players] program, we spoke with Brazilian star Maxwell. He said there are already three stadiums that are now impossible to play in [since the 2014 World Cup]. I hope we will have a different situation and that all stadiums will be used properly. Like I said, football should take a big step forward…and the stadiums can now accommodate 40,000. I hope these will be full in a few years, and I will do everything I can to help this.

K+S: What is your favorite soccer film right now? What will you turn to watch when we are in the lull between the World Cup and the regular season? 

BULYKIN: We have a lot of patriotic films lately about football and hockey. There’s a new film called Coach in Russia. Everyone really liked it before the World Cup and it gave us strong emotions in the lead up. And now, the World Cup has given us so many emotions to move forward.

K+S will be at "GOLASO - UNION" football celebration in London, July 10-15

As most of you know, we love to partner with and support soccer people around the world who are doing cool, creative stuff to celebrate the game and explore its culture. Keith Foggan, the founder of GOLASO, a soccer-focused creative studio in London, is one of those types of people.

Which is why we're supporting GOLASO - UNION, a week-long celebration of football-inspired creativity being held in London to coincide with the final week of the World Cup.

Running from July 10-15, GOLASO - UNION presents a series of exhibitions, talks, watch parties, and, yes, soccer films.

That's where K+S comes in. On Saturday, July 14, we will co-present with football streetwear brand Guerrilla FC the film Short Plays. We have never shown this collection of soccer short films before at any of our festivals, and we are thrilled to do so now. 

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Short Plays is a collection of 21 short films made by 21 directors, exploring soccer in 21 nations. The project was curated and organized by Mexican director Daniel Gruener.

Among the films are works directed by Vincent Gallo (yes, that Vincent Gallo), Gaspar Noe (7 Days in Havana), Fernando Eimbcke (Temporada de Patos), Carlos Reygadas (Light After Darkness), Duane Hopkins (Better Things), and Doris Dörrie (Am I Beautiful?).

Short Plays screens at 12 noon on July 14.

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"It is amazing to have Kicking + Screening Soccer Film Festival involved in GOLASO - UNION," Foggan says. "The goal of our event overall is to celebrate the variety and depth of creativity in and around football culture, and Kicking + Screening have given us the chance to showcase directors from across the world, across numerous genres -- all linked to their passion for the game."

Other events at GOLASO - UNION include a photo exhibition from Football Beyond Borders titled "City of Nations," and panel discussions about football and fashion, one hosted by Internaotional's Naomi Accardi and another hosted by Season Editor-in-Chief Felicia Pennant.

All the GOLASO - UNION events take place at the pop-up space Unit 8, Old Street Station, in Shoreditch (MAP).

CHECK OUT THE FULL "UNION" PROGRAM

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American soccer icon Alexi Lalas dishes on Russia, the World Cup, and his favorite soccer film

 Alexi Lalas (wearing the dark blue tie) in Fox's World Cup studio in Red Square, Moscow.

Alexi Lalas (wearing the dark blue tie) in Fox's World Cup studio in Red Square, Moscow.

Former U.S. Men’s National Team star Alexi Lalas has seen the beautiful game from all angles: the field as a player for more than 10 years, the board room as the former GM of three MLS clubs, and currently the broadcast booth as a soccer analyst for Fox Sports.

These days, Lalas is busy with Fox's broadcast of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. You'd be hard-pressed to find a soccer fan who hasn't seen him in the studio with the network's other soccer experts. He seems to be on every minute, every day! 

Kicking & Screening’s Gillian Kemmerer recently sat down with Lalas in Fox's Red Square studio to speak about his experiences in Russia so far, his hopes for the 2026 World Cup in North America, and, of course, his favorite soccer film.

K+S: You’ve prepared for World Cups both as a player and as a broadcaster. How are the processes similar?

LALAS: There are similarities in the need to be able to distill things down to their essence, and not waste time, resources and energy doing things that you are never going to use. As a player you try to prepare for all possibilities, and your ability to react is part of the skillset you need for both. From the television standpoint, you do all of this work, research, and have all of this data, and what ends up happening is what I call the “iceberg theory” — where only the tip of the iceberg actually makes it on air. In order to have quality, you have to have all of the other foundations; that’s what gives you perspective, and that’s what gives you depth. You have a lot to get done, but it’s doing research on a game that I really love.

K+S: What has Russia gotten right, and what could have they have done better?

LALAS: There’s nothing I’ve seen that they’ve really gotten wrong…there’s a lot of traffic, but everybody understands that. So far, all of the travel stories have been good. The crowds have been wonderful, and they have been big.

I’m a child of the '70s and '80s growing up in suburban Detroit. We were talking about it back then, and we’re still talking about it now: “big, bad Russia.” It’s a place I had never been before, so it has been really interesting for me to see it through the lens of the World Cup, but also to compare and contrast and confirm or deny those preconceived notions that we all have about the country. At least initially, it has been wonderful. Some of it’s stereotypical, but I think there’s a recognition that this is their advertisement to the world, and many are on their best behavior.

Generally everyone has been friendly—and yes, some of those stereotypes that we have about the Russian attitude, you can find—but they are really using the World Cup to their advantage to put the best face of their country out to the world.

 Lalas (standing, left) watches the Nigeria-Iceland match in Fox's World Cup studio with host Rob Stone (seated at the desk on the right).

Lalas (standing, left) watches the Nigeria-Iceland match in Fox's World Cup studio with host Rob Stone (seated at the desk on the right).

K+S: We knew coming into the World Cup that the U.S.'s failure to qualify would be a headwind for Fox. In light of this, how are you benchmarking success?

LALAS: It would be disingenuous for me or anybody to say that [the USMNT's absence] doesn’t matter. It does matter, and it’s not something that we wanted or that we planned for. When it happened, we all looked around and said “that sucks.” But the business of broadcasting is exactly that — a business, a responsibility to deliver. You want to live up to what others have done in the past. I’m proud of the fact that I was part of the [2014] ESPN team that broadcasted. I want to live up to that, but also I want to surpass that and do it the Fox way.

The other part is, I don’t think there’s another country that is better equipped to deal with a World Cup that doesn’t have the home team than the United States because of our incredible diversity. The soccer culture in the U.S. is passionate, it’s discerning. I would argue that it’s one of the most educated because it’s had to be. It’s no longer niche and underground, it’s well above-ground…and I think you’re seeing it really beat its chest this summer, whether it’s the numbers that we’ve had or just the response.

The time zone isn’t easy, and the fact that the U.S. isn’t here isn’t easy, but those are all excuses. At least initially, it’s been wonderful the response that we’ve had.

K+S: Speaking of American soccer culture, how has the U.S. fan base changed since your playing days? Has it become more demanding of you?

LALAS: I think so. I think that there has been an evolution and a continued education—and that’s a good thing. We have a unique soccer culture that doesn’t exist elsewhere because of the fact that we aren’t necessarily a soccer-first country with all the competition from other sports. We are a young country, and very different in how we approach sports in general. We’ve created this unique version of the game both on and off the field, and I think we take real ownership of that.

We can be hard on ourselves and we have an inferiority complex sometimes, but I think we need to pat ourselves on the back for what we have because it has been special. And the speed at which it has grown —multiple generations that define themselves through this game, but specifically through the American game: how they talk, how they dress, the games that they play—is remarkable. It’s a unique culture that I remain incredibly proud of.

K+S: In eight years, this culture you’ve described will have quite the spotlight shown on it. How much will the anticipation of hosting the 2026 World Cup impact U.S. soccer?

LALAS: This is a great thing for us as a soccer-playing nation. And for the actual team that will play there, it’s a great beacon to go toward. I was on this set when that announcement was made, and it really hit me because I started to think of what ’94 did for me individually, what it did for the sport -- and it will do it again, but in a different way for the 2026 version of the U.S., Canada and Mexico. It will be special. I know how seminal that moment was for us in 1994.

K+S: When we are all devastated with post-World Cup blues, which soccer film would be on your must-watch list this summer?

LALAS: I grew up watching Victory. And that was really something for an American growing up in the '70s in the suburbs. But it still remains a classic soccer movie. It was an incredible balance that they were able to have—a sports movie based around the World War II concentration camps. That was ballsy to be able to do that, and to make it work.

I don’t think that the ultimate and defining soccer movie from an American perspective has been made yet. I’m not talking about documentaries — I mean a feature that is based on some story that speaks to the culture that we’ve been talking about. The trick, as you know with any movie, is to make it so good that you don’t have to know a damn thing about the game to enjoy it. And not everyone is able to accomplish that, but there’s a sweet spot where you make a film that while based on a sport, you don’t have to know about it to fall in love with it. There’s an American soccer movie out there to be made.

K+S: I think you just threw down the gauntlet to America’s filmmakers for next year’s festival.

LALAS: Do it, I’ll promote it! But only if they give me a role.

 Lalas (left) and our woman in Russia, Gillian Kemmerer, in Moscow's famous Red Square.

Lalas (left) and our woman in Russia, Gillian Kemmerer, in Moscow's famous Red Square.

11 great World Cup films from across the globe

Over the years, we've shown a lot of great World Cup-related films at K+S Soccer Film Festivals. With the World Cup kicking off in Russia, we thought we'd share 14 of our favorites.

 Zinedine Zidane, during downtime with France in 1998

Zinedine Zidane, during downtime with France in 1998

Les Yeux dans Les Bleus | Director Stephane Meunier tells the inside story of France's 1998 World Cup triumph, with amazing access and all the drama of a team of superstars, including Zidane, Henry, Deschamps, Desailly, and Djorkaeff. Les Yeux holds a special place in our hearts: It opened our very first festival in 2009.

The Game of Their Lives | Made by longtime K+S friend Daniel Gordon, who also directed the last two World Cup recap films for FIFA, this documentary recounts the story of North Korea's only World Cup appearance, in 1966. Gordon goes to North Korea to find some of the players from the team that charmed British fans and famously upset Italy.

 USSR vs. Poland, Camp Nou, Barcelona, in 1982

USSR vs. Poland, Camp Nou, Barcelona, in 1982

Mundial: The Highest Stakes Winner of the 2013 Golden Whistle, Michal Bielawski's documentary explores the intrigue surrounding the Polish national team at the 1982 World Cup while Poland was under martial law.

90 Minutes: The World Cup of New York City | Perhaps no city experiences the World Cup like New York -- because every nation is represented the Big Apple. This great little film follows fans in NYC as they cheer on their homelands or heritages at the 2010 World Cup.   

The Miracle of Berne | Two intertwined narratives -- one of the German national team competing in Switzerland, one of a stern German man whose son just wants to go see die Mannschaft play at the World Cup -- culminate when Germany face Hungary in the dramatic final in Berne.  

 Jaime Roos with Edison Cavani (l) and Diego Forlan (r), 2010

Jaime Roos with Edison Cavani (l) and Diego Forlan (r), 2010

3 Millones | Famous Uruguayan musician Jaime Roos and his son Yamandu travel to South Africa to support Uruguay at the 2010 World Cup. Along the way, they hang out with Cavani and Forlan, and plenty of hijinks ensue.

Shooting for Socrates | A young boy’s football passion comes alive in tumultuous 1980s Belfast as Northern Ireland prepare to take on Brazil at the 1986 World Cup.

Bosnia in Our Hearts | Finally allowed to compete in international soccer, the Bosnian national team brings the entire diaspora together. In this short doc, young director Sixten Bjorkstrand follows three Bosnians from Finland on their journey to their nation's final 2014 World Cup qualifier in Lithuania.

 The scoreboard after El Salvador's first World Cup match in 1982. 

The scoreboard after El Salvador's first World Cup match in 1982. 

One, The Story of a Goal | In 1982, as El Salvador descended into civil war, the nation's team shockingly qualified for the 1982 World Cup. It didn't go well. Politics and corruption won the day, and team lost 10-1 in their opening match -- to this day the worst defeat in World Cup history. But that World Cup -- that one goal -- still holds great importance and pride for Salvadorans.

The Two Escobars | Not just a great soccer film. A great film. The Zimbalist brothers' story of the Colombian national team at the 1994 World Cup, the team's connections to the infamous drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, and the murder of defender Andres Escobar in the wake of his own goal against the United States is a must for any soccer fan.

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Boniek et Platini | Winner of the 2018 Golden Whistle for short films, Jeremie Laurent's film evokes the politics and emotion of the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Two young boys in Poland recreate the action of their heroes until a pair of police officers confiscate their ball. Their only recourse is to challenge them to a match, with the ball -- and so much more -- at stake.

The 2018 Golden Whistle winners are...

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Since 2011, we have awarded the Golden Whistle to recognize the best soccer films screened at our New York festival, as determined by the K+S film panel. Previous winners include Soka Afrika (2011),  Club Frontera (2016), and Inside a Volcano (2017).

Over our first decade, only feature films were eligible for the Golden Whistle. This year, we have expanded the Golden Whistle program to include the best short film.

Here are this year's winners:

FEATURE FILM: Football for Better or Worsedirected by Inger Molin
SHORT FILM: Boniek et Platinidirected by Jeremie Laurent

The winners were announced on Thursday by our co-founders Rachel and Greg, exclusively on Compass Football.

Congratulations to the films and filmmakers!

Complete list of Golden Whistle Award winners: