Dip in fortunes

Following the break-up of Soviet Union in 1991, the picture has been far from rosy. Russia has progressed past the group stage in a major tournament only once: when it reached the semi-finals of EURO 2008.

Much of Russia’s glorious past in world football falls in the era of the erstwhile Soviet Union. The Soviet Union failed to qualify for the World Cup only twice, in 1974 and 1978 whereas Russia qualified only twice — 1994 and 2002 — and endured first round exits.

Soviet Russia went to seven finals in total, with the best finish being a fourth place in 1966. Inspired by goalkeeper Lev Yashin and forward Igor Chislenko, it topped the group and beat a formidable Hungary 2-1. It also qualified for five European Championships, and even won the inaugural edition in 1960. It also earned three second place finishes: 1964, 1972 and 1988.

But following the break-up in 1991, the picture has been far from rosy. In fact the team has progressed past the group stage in a major tournament only once: when it reached the semi-finals of EURO 2008. This fall in fortunes might be due to a diminished pool of players to select from, as the Union broke into several pieces, but it has nonetheless been a history of underachievement. Its record in the European Championships reads thus: bottom of its group in 1996 and 2004 and inexplicable self-destruction when given the easiest of draws in 2012.

The group phase elimination at USA 1994 did have a silver lining. In a crushing 6-1 defeat of Cameroon, Oleg Salenko scored five goals and ended the tournament as joint leading marksman. But 2002 was a failure by all counts. With Oleg Romantsev in charge, one expected Russia to perform well. But instead it lost both to Japan and Belgium. That to date remains the Russians’ last appearance in a World Cup.

The country was ignominious in its finish beneath Portugal and Slovakia in the 2006 qualifiers. Guus Hiddink relieved some pain by taking Russia to the EURO 2008 semi-finals. Soon the country was spoken as one of the dark horses for the coming World Cup in South Africa, two years later. But yet again it failed spectacularly, losing to Slovenia in the World Cup qualification playoffs on November 2009.

The year 2014 offers yet another opportunity for the Russians to get their act together, especially when the country has been awarded the right to host the 2018 World Cup. A fortunate draw does leave the Russian fans hoping for the best, but as before, expecting the worst too.

* * * ‘The Black Spider’

Lev Yashin, nicknamed the “The Black Spider” or “The Black Panther” — dressed head to toe in black — is considered the greatest goalkeeper in the history of the game.

Yashin played in four World Cups from 1958 to 1970. It helped that the tournament in which he left football fans wonderstruck and an everlasting impression on them worldwide was also the first World Cup to be broadcast internationally: Sweden 1958.

Over 150 penalty saves and more than 270 clean sheets dot his career. It also saw silverware in the form of a Gold medal at the 1956 Olympic football tournament and the 1960 European Championships winners medal.

Yashin died in 1990 but the accolades kept coming even after. In 1994 he was named in the FIFA World Cup All-Time Team, and in 1998 chosen a member of the World Team of the 20th Century. In 2002 he was named in the FIFA Dream Team of the history of World Cups. He was also voted the best goalkeeper of the 20th century by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics.

Called the ‘Russian Pele’ Eduard Streltsov was widely regarded as one of the Soviet Union’s finest players and is its fourth highest scorer. His skill was such that the back-heeled pass he pioneered came to be known as “Streltsov’s pass” in Russia.

Interestingly he never played a game in the World Cup Finals. But he did help his team reach the 1958 edition by turning out five times in the qualifiers, before a prison sentence for sexual misconduct put him out of action for eight years.

Oleh Blokhin, the all-time top goal-scorer for the Soviet Union national team (42 goals), is also the only player to have been capped over 100 times for the Soviet Union. In 1975, he won the Ballon d’Or, becoming the second Soviet after Yashin in 1963 to win it.