Sergei Semak was in danger of becoming the forgotten man of Russian football. Now it looks like he will captain his country at the European Championship.
The 32-year-old midfielder hadn't played for Russia for two years when coach Guus Hiddink called him up for Euro 2008, and he was as surprised as many other observers at his recall.
"Of course I was worried," Semak said Sunday through an interpreter when asked if he feared his international career might have been over. "It is a happy surprise for me."
Semak has played 43 games for Russia and scored four goals before he fell out of favor.
His inclusion in Hiddink's squad is not only due to midfielder Andrei Arshavin's two-match suspension for elbowing an opponent in Russia's 1-0 defeat of Andorra. Semak also played a key role in his club FC Rubin Kazan's surprise run to the top of the Russian league this season.
"Semak is a player with leadership qualities," Russia assistant coach Igor Korneev said. "In our view, he had them a long time ago. But from the start of this season he has improved so much and performed so well, that we are sure he has earned the chance to be here."
Semak has stood out in training at Russia's camp in this Austrian Alpine village, often appearing to work a little harder than the other players and seeming assured and confident within the squad. That could come from being the oldest member of Hiddink's young squad.
"He proves every day that we made the right decision and that he deserves to be captain," Korneev said.
Semak began making headlines as part of the strong CSKA Moscow team that went on to win the UEFA Cup in 2005.
However, by the time CSKA became the first Russian club to win a European title, beating Sporting Lisbon 3-1 on the Portuguese club's home ground, Semak had left on an ill-fated six-month loan to Paris Saint-Germain.
He caught the eye of the French team when he scored four goals against it in the Champions League, including a hat trick at Parc des Princes in December 2004.
But his time in Paris came amid a form slump for PSG that saw Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic fired soon after Semak's arrival. Even though he missed his old Moscow club's moment of glory, Semak has no regrets.
"Absolutely none," he said at Russia's mountainside team hotel. "For me, it was an honor to play for PSG because it is a very big European club."
Now, he is looking forward to finally showing off his skills at a major international championship.
He made his debut for Russia in 1998 and was part of the country's 2002 World Cup squad, but didn't play a minute at the tournament in South Korea and Japan. He was then left off the squad for Euro 2004. Since his return, he has played in all three of Russia's friendlies before Euro 2008.
Although Arshavin's absence is seen as one of the reasons for Semak's recall, the two players are not alike _ Arshavin preferring an attacking midfield role just behind the main striker, while Semak is a more defensive midfielder.
He will have to show off those defensive skills Tuesday, when he is expected to take on the tough task of marking Fernando Torres as Russia plays Group D favorite Spain in Innsbruck.
"I am not afraid," Semak said. "For me, it will be very interesting to play against Spain."