Let’s start at the beginning and the first-ever international football match played by any kind of “national Soviet team,” which happened in September 1922. Though billed as the Soviet Union v. Finland, it was actually a two-legged friendly affair against a representative team from the Finnish Workers Sports Federation. The Soviet Union XI recorded a 4–1 victory over the Finns in Petrograd, which also counts as the first international sports match for the Soviets since before the 1917 October Revolution. The re-match in Helsinki was in May 1923, with the USSR running out 5–0 winners. However, the first match against an official national team was played in August 1923, nine months after the establishment of the Soviet Union, when a Soviet team from the Russia region beat Sweden 2–1 in Stockholm.
Football was still growing in the Soviet Union, and early matches were infrequent. However, the first officially recognised match came in 1924; it was a 3–0 win over Turkey. This match coupled with a return match in Ankara were the only officially recognised international matches played by the Soviet Union prior to the 1952 Summer Olympics. Therefore FIFA regarded this as the first ever Soviet Union international; the irony is that in November 1991, the Soviet Union’s last ever international was also a 3–0 win, this time in favor of Cyprus.
Fast-forward through the Second World War and the rise of Stalin, and the Soviet Union was competing in as many global sports as it could. In December 1956, the Soviet Union now had an international football trophy to cheer once it won the Olympic Gold medal in the final against Yugoslavia. The wining goal in the final was scored by Anatoli Ilyin. It was some achievement at the time; on route to the final, the Soviet Union had knocked out Germany, Bulgaria and Indonesia. Ilyin scored 16 goals in 31 caps.
Hapless Yugoslavia was the victim again four years later when the Soviet Union won another trophy. This time, it was the European Championships. Not only did the Soviets win this, but it was the first-ever competition of its kind, and the team had to win it at an away game in France. The Soviets beat Czechoslovakia in the semi-final by a 3–0 score, and, when it really mattered, the team came from behind in the final in Paris to beat Yugoslavia 2–1 after extra time. The Soviet Union goalscorers were Slava Metreveli (who was Georgian) and Viktor Ponedelnik who netted the historic winner.
The highest position the Soviet Union secured in the World Cup was in 1966 when the highly regarded team came in fourth in the tournament, losing the third place play-off to Portugal. The moment when the Soviet team finally collapsed was in the semi-finals when they faced a strong German side featuring Franz Beckenbauer, who scored the second goal in his team’s 2–1 win. England went on to win the trophy, and the Soviets had to make do with fourth place after a Eusebio-inspired Portugal won the third-fourth place play-off 2–1.
Domestically, there were some truly scintillating matches and climaxes to the season in the former Soviet Union. One that stands out was in 1973 when FC Ararat Yerevan (from modern-day Armenia) had a chance to win a truly historic and unexpected double. They surprised a lot of people in the Soviet Union when they finished runner-up in the league in 1971. It was even more of a surprise when, in 1973, they won the league outright and faced the mighty Dinamo Kiev in the Soviet Cup Final. In a tight encounter, FC Ararat hung on for a memorable 2–1 win, sealing a historic double.
1975 was a historic year as the Soviet Union finally had a club which lifted a major European trophy. Dinamo Kiev knocked out PSV Eindhoven and CSKA Sofia en route to the final in Basel, Switzerland. It was here that they faced Hungarian cup winners Ferencvaros. Dinamo Kiev demolished the Hungarian team with some aplomb, two goals being scored by Vladimir Onyshchenko and a goal by all-time Soviet Union top scorer Oleg Blokhin to complete the rout.
Against all the odds, little Dinamo Tbilisi from modern day Georgia and the then Soviet Union lifted the European Winners Cup back in 1981. It was a final against a rival eastern-block side, FC Carl Zeiss Jena from East Germany. It was no fluke that Dinamo Tbilisi won the match 2–1 to take home the trophy. On route, they had already beaten English Cup winners, West Ham United, with a 4–1 win in London, and had beaten Feyenoord from the Netherlands, 3–0 at home in the semi-finals.
After becoming the first Soviet Union team to lift a European trophy in 1975, Dinamo Kiev repeated the feat in 1986, again winning by a 3–0 score in the European Cup Winners Cup Final. On the way to the final, they knocked out FC Utrecht, Dukla Prague and Rapid Vienna. The Final was held in Lyon in France and the 3–0 romp again featured a goal from Oleg Blokhin, in front of an attendance of 39,000.
You wouldn’t have known this at the time, but it was the Soviet Union’s last World Cup knockout match since, four years later, they would finish bottom of their group. It was a cracking game hosted in the heat of Mexico. The Soviet Union twice held the lead at 1–0 and 2–1. However, it was a controversial goal by Belgian striker Jan Ceulemans which the Soviets claimed was offside that meant the game went into extra time, poised at 2–2. In the end, Belgium won 4–3 and their team progressed, later reaching the semi-finals. It was a highly memorable and entertaining spectacle, and the Soviets could still be proud of their striker Igor Belanov, who scored a hat-trick in the game.
When the Soviet Union beat the Netherlands 1–0 in the group stages of Euro 88, it looked like England, USSR and Republic of Ireland were favourites to qualify from that group. The Republic of Ireland beat England 1–0 at the same time. However, the Netherlands soon beat both England and the Republic of Ireland en route to the final, where they met their group opponents the USSR again. The Soviet Union was now favourited to win their second ever European Championships, in a team flooded with stars from goalkeeper Rinat Dasaev to Igor Belanov to Andrei Mikhailachenko. But on the day, the Netherlands Milan trio of Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten reigned supreme. Gullit’s bullet header gave the Dutch a 1–0 lead before Van Basten smashed home a wonder volley to win the tournament for the Netherlands. The Soviets also missed a penalty in the match, and it wasn’t to be.
Having been placed in a tough group against Argentina (World Champions), South Korea (hosts) and the USA, the USSR romped to 6 points with three wins, winning the group. The Soviets then beat Australia in the Quarter Finals and Italy in the semi-finals to face the mighty Brazil in the Final. Brazil boasted superstars Romario, Careca, Bebeto and Jorginho. But the Soviets were here to give them a game. In the final, Romario gave Brazil a 1–0 lead and took the tournament’s Golden Boot, but after 61 minutes, Igor Dobrovolski levelled the scores from the penalty spot. Brazil dominated play but couldn’t score and in extra time; Yuri Savichev ran through and lobbed Taffarel to secure the gold medal for the Soviet Union.
Why was an insignificant match with Cameroon important in Soviet history? Nobody was really sure, but the USSR was on fire that night, despite having already been eliminated and Cameroon was virtually assured of top place in the group, winning their first two matches. This was their Swansong of the truest order. As a result, on a colder than normal night in Italy in June, Cameroon fielded a weakened team and the Soviet Union duly ended on a high by thrashing them! The problem was, the Soviet Union were already out and started the match with a minus four goal difference. In the irony, Cameroon won the group with a goal difference of minus two and the USSR went out. It was the end of an era and the USSR’s farewell to international football tournaments. Two years later, some of the players would play again at Euro 92, but, for the CIS and by 1994, there were multiple new teams and the newly formed Russia team was nothing of the shadow it was before.