The Soviet national side entered life without Lev Yashin on a high note, advancing through the convoluted qualifying rounds to reaching the final stages of the 1972 European Championships in Belgium.
A goal from Anatoliy Konkov would propel them past Hungary in the tournament’s semi-final, setting up a meeting with West Germany in the final Heysel Stadium in Brussels.
Unfortunately for the Soviets, they struggled to make any headway in the final; Gerd Müller scoring a trademark poachers goal in the 27th minute to open the scoring, Herbert Wimmer getting on the end of a Jupp Heynckes ball in behind the defence to make it 2-0 in the 52nd minute and Müller securing his brace after starting and finishing an attack in the 58th minute to make it 3-0.
Despite this bright start to the post-Yashin era, the Soviets would then sabotage their own momentum, failing to qualify for the 1974 World Cup after refusing to play Chile in the return leg of an inter-confederation qualification playoff.
The first meeting between two sides had been fraught with tension, the Soviets and Chileans playing out a 0-0 draw at Lenin Stadium in Moscow.
Two Chilean players had been held up at the Soviet border by immigration officials prior to the match due to issues with the photos on their passports and Chilean journalist Hugo Gasc, who attended the match, believed that the referee was a “rabid anti-communist” who “helped us [Chile] significantly.”
But, with the return leg set for the Estadio Nacional in Santiago, the Soviet’s refused to play, citing the recent coup d’état that had deposed the Socialist government of President Salvador Allende and complaining that the stadium had been, and still was, the sight of the torture and murder of Allende supporters.
With the Chilean football federation refusing the Soviets request for the game to be played in a neutral nation, FIFA had no choice but to disqualify the Soviets.
Whilst the Soviet team never made the trip to Santiago, a farcical “match” was still played at the Estadio Nacional on the day the match had been earmarked to take place; newly installed dictator Augusto Pinochet demanding that the Chilean side line up, dribble the length of an empty field and “score” a goal.
Following that “match” Pinochet hosted the players at his palace and shook the hands of all but one, leftist Carlos Caszely, who refused to take the dictators hand. Repercussions for his display of defiance would arrive swiftly not for Caszely himself, but his mother, who was subsequently arrested and beaten by Pinochet’s men.
The years following the politically charged disqualification were not kind to Soviet football, with the national side failing to qualify not only for the next World Cup in Argentina but also the 1976 and 1980 European Championships.
Nevertheless, despite the 70s proving a bleak period for the national side, the same couldn’t be said for Soviet club sides; with Dynamo Kyiv becoming the first side from the Soviet Union to win a European title when they defeated Hungarian side Ferencvárosi TC 3-0 in the 1975 European Cup Winners’ Cup Final; Volodymyr Onyshchenko netting a brace and Oleh Blokhin also grabbing a goal in the win.
Kyiv would win two European Cup Winners’ Cups as a part of the Soviet Union, with the now Georgian side FC Dinamo Tbilisi also winning the same competition in 1981 when they beat East German side Carl Zeiss Jena 2-1.
Of sides that have remained a part of the Russian League since the collapse of the Soviet Union, only CSKA and Zenit St Petersburg have tasted European success; CSKA winning the UEFA Cup by defeating Portuguese side Sporting 3-1 in 2005 and Zenit Saint Petersburg winning the Europa League by defeating Scottish side Rangers 2-0 in 2008.
The Soviet Union finally returned to major international competition at the World Cup in 1982, after a ten-year absence, eventually advancing to the second round of the competition in second place in their group thanks to wins over Scotland and New Zealand.
Placed into a three-way group with Belgium and Poland in the second round as part of the 1982 tournaments unique format, the Soviets were soon on their way home; their 1-0 victory over Belgium and a 0-0 draw with Poland not enough to secure progression to the semi-finals thanks to Poland’s 3-0 win over the Belgians.
Whilst the Soviets would then fail to qualify for the European Championship in 1984, they were able to once again secure qualification to return to the World Cup in 1986.
A 6-0 win over Hungary and a 2-0 triumph over Canada, combined with a 1-1 draw with France ensured that the Soviets topped their group in Mexico; only to be then be knocked out 4-3 after extra time by Belgium, who had advanced to the knockout stages as one of the best performing third-placed sides in group play.
Two years later, after an absence of three straight tournaments, the Soviets would once again qualify for the European Championships in 1988; advancing to the final four of the tournament under the guidance of Valery Lobanovsky.
Lobanovsky was a former boss of Dynamo Kyiv, guiding the club to its European triumphs, and was a pioneer of incorporating sports science and sports medicine into his coaching methodologies; making doctors and scientists a part of his staff at Kyiv in the early 70s.
Sergey Baltacha, a member of Lobanovsky’s teams at Kyiv and the 1988 European Championships, said of Lobanovsky:
“He was the best coach I’ve ever seen. He was a coach who brought a scientific background to football in the early 1970s and when I joined Kiev in 1976, we had a background of doctors and scientists, the kind of thing that not even now many countries have.”
The Soviet’s defeated Italy 2-0 in their semifinal in Stuttgart thanks to goals from Hennadiy Lytovchenko and Oleh Protasov, who both scored within five minutes of each other in the second half.
They would then meet the Dutch in the final at the Olympiastadion in Munich for a chance to win their second European crown – a Dutch side they had already defeated earlier in the tournament.
On an overcast Munich day, Ruud Gullit opened the scoring for the Dutch in the 32nd minute of the contest, before Dutch and AC Milan superstar Marco van Basten scored his famous volley, one of the greatest goals of all time, in the 54th minute to make it 2-0.
Sergey Gotsmanov would win a penalty late in the game for the Soviets to give them some hope of a comeback, but Igor Belanov had his effort saved by Hans van Breukelen as the Dutch claimed their first ever major title.
Unbeknownst to them at the time, The Soviet Union would then play in its final major tournament at the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
Missing many of his Kyiv players due to political tensions, Lobanovsky was unable to recreate the magic of 1988, the Soviets ignominiously going out in the group stages despite recording a 4-0 thrashing of groups winners in Cameroon in their final match.
Fittingly, Italia 90 was won by another team playing in its last ever World Cup; West Germany lifting the trophy after defeating Argentina 1-0 at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome in what was their final World Cup match before unifying with East Germany.
Whilst the Soviets would then qualify for the 1992 European Championships in Sweden – the site of the first-ever World Cup appearance the Soviet Union made – developments at home put a sharp stop to their planned campaign.
With the Berlin Wall being torn down in 1989, Soviet power, spurred on by economic weakness, had rapidly waned as the world entered the 90s.
Numerous Republics within the Soviet Union were agitating for independence, the Soviet people were clamouring of for a liberalization of society and the Soviet central government was increasingly finding that it was rapidly losing control of the state.
In 1991, as numerous Republics began to declare outright independence, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev discovered that he had little power beyond Moscow; the last leader of a nation that had absorbed the full might of Nazi Europe and pushed it back to the halls of the Reichstag, that had sent both the first satellite and man into space and had pioneered the harnessing of the atom for power finding himself reduced to a meaningless figurehead, ruler of a nation that didn’t know it was already dead.
At 7:32pm on Christmas Day, 1991, the Soviet flag was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time and four hours later the Russian tricolour raised in its place. The next day the Upper Chamber within the Union’s Supreme Soviet voted both itself and the Soviet Union out of existence and on December 31, the United Nations accepted the Russian Federation as the successor state of the Soviet Union.
Whilst the fall and break-up of the Soviet Union resulted in chaos throughout the former USSR and Eastern Europe and caused a complete re-imagining of global politics, it also resulted in their place in the European Championships being forfeited to a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) team. Soviet players represented the CIS in lieu of their nations, be it Russia or one of its former Soviet satellites, as their homes began the process of creating their own national football federations.
Adopting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as their anthem, the CIS finished last in their group at the 1992 European Championships, drawing 0-0 with the Dutch and 1-1 with Germany side before losing 3-0 to Scotland.
The Soviet Union eventually breaking into 15 separate nations upon its collapse, 15 new footballing associations were born, with FIFA allocating the Soviet team’s history to the newly formed Russian Football Union.
Domestically, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent loss of powerhouse sides such as Dynamo Kyiv, led to the Russian Top League forming 1992.
Incorporating the six Russian sides from the 1991 Soviet Top league – CSKA, Spartak Moscow, Torpedo Moscow, Dynamo Moscow, Spartak Vladikavkaz, and Lokomotiv Moscow – and a further 14 Russian teams from the lower divisions – Spartak Moscow crowned as the first champions.
The top division was subsequently reduced to 18 sides in 1993 and then down to 16 in 1994, which is the current number in the Russian Premier League – which was adopted as the name of the competition in 2002.
Lokomotiv Moscow is the current champion of the competition, winning the league despite only having two members of the Russian squad at this year’s World Cup – twins Anton and Aleksei Miranchuk – in their squad.
The newly formed Russian national team, under famed Spartak Moscow manager Oleg Romantsev, took part in their first major tournament at the 1996 European Championships in England, where they were eliminated in the group stages of the tournament after 2-1 and 3-0 defeats to Italy and Germany and a 3-3 draw with the Czech Republic.
Subsequent letdowns, however, would see the Russians fail to qualify for both the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championships.
Finally qualifying for the World Cup in Japan and Korea in 2002, Russia would win their first group stage match of any tournament since 1988 in their opening match with a 2-0 win over Tunisia thanks to goals from Yegor Titov and Valeri Karpin.
The Russian’s second game, however, resulted in a 1-0 defeat to Japan, sparking riots in Moscow that resulted in running battles between police and hooligans and left two, including a police officer, stabbed to death.
Despite then entering their third fixture only needing a draw to progress to the Round of 16, a 3-2 defeat at the hands of Belgium saw the Russians eliminated from their first post-Soviet World Cup.
More poor results would then follow for Russia, finishing bottom of their group in the 2004 European Championships, despite defeating eventual champions Greece 2-1 in their final group game and then failing to qualify for the 2006 World Cup.
Russian football’s post-Soviet high point came two years later at the 2008 European Championships in Austria and Switzerland where, despite losing their opening match 4-1 to Spain, they reached the semi-finals of the tournament; defeating the Dutch 3-1 in extra time thanks to goals from Roman Pavlyuchenko, Dmitri Torbinski, and Andrey Arshavin in a famous quarterfinal win.
Despite this success, Russia was unable to follow it with World Cup qualification; failing, under the guidance of former Socceroos boss Guus Hiddink, to defeat Slovenia in a playoff after finishing second in their qualifying group.
Despite subsequently qualifying for all the major tournaments since the 2010 World Cup and being managed by luminaries such as Dick Advocaat and Fabio Capello, Russia has failed to get out of the group stage in any their subsequent tournaments.
And despite there being no worries about qualification for the 2018 tournament, with the Russians gaining automatic qualification by virtue of hosting of the competition, their journey to this year’s tournament has been fraught with controversy.
One of nine original bids for the tournament, Russia was one of four UEFA bids left standing as the process entered the final bidding stages – alongside bids from England, Netherlands/Belgium, and Portugal/Spain. Russia earned nine first-place votes in the first round of the vote and 13 in the second, securing the rights to the tournament amid the already circulating rumours of bribery and foul play.
Such scuttlebutt was not conjured out of thin air. FIFA had suspended two executive committee members, Reynald Temarii and Amos Adamu, only weeks prior to the bid for soliciting bribes for the bid and in May of 2011 Former English FA chair David Triesman told British parliament that four FIFA executive committee members had requested gifts in return for their votes in the process.
Potentially most damning of all however, was an interview given by the now former President of FIFA Sepp Blatter in October of 2015, in which he told Russian news agency TASS that the decision to go to Russia had been pre-determined, saying “For the World Cups it was agreed that we go to Russia because it’s never been in Russia, Eastern Europe.”
Whatever the case with the voting process may be, Russia will in just days host the World’s biggest sporting event; where for one month all politics and history will be forgotten – as 32 nations compete to etch their names in the history books.
For Russia, dreams of World Cup triumphs seem destined to fail, with many experts not even certain of their prospects of emerging from Group A.
However, as Russian history – both footballing and in general – has shown, funny things can happen in Russia.