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As the world prepares for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, it is time to delve into some of the historic peak moments that define the very nation that hosts the tournament. Soviet football was huge its its heyday; the country is probably the largest geographical area to ever qualify for a World Cup or European Championships. Not only that, but they won the European Championships once and the Olympics twice, with a squad that could in theory have been formed from 19 different nations in the contemporary world.
Since the country disbanded in 1991, the only teams to qualify for a major tournament have been Ukraine, Russia and Latvia. Before all that, the Soviet Union enjoyed some huge success both in club and national team football, and these five high points are embedded in Soviet history forever.
The Soviet Union won a grand total of 98 medals at the 1956 Olympics, which were held in Melbourne, Australia. The country topped the medals table and in among those medals, was the gold medal in football. On the way to their triumph, the team beat the mighty Germans 2-1, Indonesia 4-0, Bulgaria 2-1 and a 1-0 victory over Yugoslavia in the final. The semi-final win over Bulgaria was particularly impressive; the Soviets fought back from 1-0 down in extra time to win 2-1. The team was full of stars, including Lev Yashin, often regarded as the best goalkeeper of all time. The winning goal in the final was scored by Anatoli Ilyin, who scored 16 goals in 31 caps.
The Soviet Union headed to the inaugural European Championships in 1960, just four years after its Olympic triumph. The tournament at the time was known as the “European Nations Cup.” France had been voted to host the tournament, which was due to winning semi-finals and a final, so four teams would compete in the first-ever tournament of its kind (to incorporate all countries in Europe). Before all that, there were qualifying rounds. However, 1958 World Cup Quarter Finalists Northern Ireland, West Germany and Wales decided not to enter. The same decision was made by England, Italy, The Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Iceland and Scotland. In fact, the only non-mainland-based international team to enter the competition was the Republic of Ireland, who, by no coincidence, was placed in the “preliminary round” where they lost 4-2 on aggregate to Czechoslovakia despite winning the home leg 2-0.
When the proper tournament came round, the Soviet Union were up against France, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. After beating Czechoslovakia 3-0 in a resounding semi final win in Marseille, the final was against Yugoslavia. And what a match it was. Yugoslavia led 1-0 at half time thanks to a goal from Milan Galic. The weird thing for some might be to hear that the match had a mere 17,000 in attendance yet earlier matches had over 20,000. The reason being, France were out and the final was seen as less of a big deal. But the rest is history, a goal from Georgian Slava Metreveli made it 1-1 and took the game into extra-time. In that period, the Soviet Union were too strong and won 2-1. The winning goal, headed home by Viktor Ponedelnik.
It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that a Soviet Union team finally won a major European title; namely, the European Cup Winners Cup. When they did, it was a team from (what is now) Ukraine that lifted the title. If you know about the former Soviet players who are actually from Ukraine, you will know how pivotal they were in this victory.
On route to the final, Dinamo Kiev knocked out Bulgarians CSKA Sofia, West German team Eintracht Frankfurt, the Turkish side Bursaspor and in the semi finals, they had a 4-2 win over Dutch side PSV Eindhoven. In the final though, it was expected to be a sterner test when Dinamo Kiev was up against Ferencvaros of Hungary. However, on the night, the Soviet side was too strong, winning 3-0. Two of the goals were scored by Vladimir Onyshchenko and the third and final goal by all-time Soviet Union top scorer Oleg Blokhin, which thus completed a truly memorable victory and achieved another high point in Soviet football history.
Unknown Georgian club Dinamo Tbilisi did the unthinkable in 1981 when it went away to English team West Ham United and won 4-1 at the Boleyn Ground. It was one of many memorable nights on route to the final of the 1981 European Cup Winners Cup. Feyenoord from the Netherlands were also dispatched in the semi final, with a 3-2 aggregate win (3-0 at home) before Dinamo Tbilisi travelled to Düsseldorf for the final to face East German side Carl Zeiss Jena. In front of one of the tournament final’s lowest ever attendances 4,750, Dinamo Tbilisi won the match 2-1 to take home the trophy. Dinamo Tbilisi came from 1-0 down to win it. The goals were scored by Vladimir Gutsaev and Vitaly Daraselia, making Dinamo Tbilisi only the second Soviet club team to lift a major European trophy. The feat has yet to be repeated by any ex-Soviet country smaller than Ukraine or Russia and, at a time where English, Italian and German clubs dominated European football, this achievement seems even more miraculous. It wasn’t the final Soviet victory in European club football though; five years later, Dinamo Kiev also won the trophy to prove its 1970s victory was not just a “flash in the pan.”
Before the Soviet Union ended there was one final flourish and those familiar with Chelsea goalkeeper Dmitri Kharin will be aware that he was an Olympic Gold medal winner. So this Olympic triumph turned out to be a final farewell for the Soviet Union, which could have won the World Cup in 1986 (were it not for a dodgy offside decision (v. Belgium)) or indeed the European Championships in 1988 had they beaten the Netherlands in the final.
To win the Olympics however seemed like the perfect swansong for the nation, which just three years later would cease to exist. The USSR had been placed in a tricky group up against Argentina which had Maradona and was World Champion in 1986. The Soviets were not fazed however, and they topped the group with three wins. In the quarter-finals they brushed Australia aside and then defeated Italy in the semis to set up a classic tie with Brazil in the final. At the time, Brazil were huge favourites with a team of superstars like Taffarel, Romario, Careca, Bebeto, and Jorginho. It was to be a close (and tough) encounter for the Soviet Union. Romario gave Brazil a 1-0 lead early on, and he was the tournament’s top goalscorer. But the USSR received a lifeline with 30 minutes left when Igor Dobrovolski converted a penalty to make it 1-1. As the Brazilians continued to dominate and press for a winner, it was the substitute Yuri Savichev who ran through to lift the ball over Taffarel in extra time to win the trophy and ensure the Soviet Union’s football legacy bowed out on a high.