“Mexico 86 had been the last time when the world feared and respected the Soviet Union in any major event”


When the Russian Empire disintegrated in 1917 so did its national football team, with players scattered across the world, fighting in the trenches of World War I, pioneering science, and even working for British intelligence.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, a new country was formed. International isolation complicated the creation of a Soviet national team, which was an issue of major importance for the Soviet leadership.

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The first international match played by a Soviet team  as Russian SFSR) came in September 1922, when the Finnish Workers’ Sports Federation football team toured Russia (Soviet Union was formed at the end of December of 1922, Treaty on the Creation of the USSR). The Soviet Russia XI scored a 4–1 victory over the Finns in Petrograd. This was also the first international contact for Soviet sports after the 1917 October Revolution. In May 1923, the Soviet team visited Finland and beat the Finnish squad 5–0.

The first match against the national team was played in August 1923, nine months after the establishment of the Soviet Union, when a Russian SFSR team beat Sweden 2–1 in Stockholm.

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The first match as the actual Soviet Union football team took place a year later, a 3–0 win over Turkey.

Turkey’s national team was not the strongest and played only one game in the 1924 Paris Summer Olympics, losing to Czechoslovakia. Still, the Turks wanted to play the Soviets, a team that no one knew anything about.

After Turkey received approval from FIFA, it sent an official proposal to the Soviet Union to play a friendly match. The Soviets’ Supreme Council of Physical Culture sanctioned the match and established the national team’s uniform: red T-shirts and white shorts.

Excitement and anticipation skyrocketed. The friendly match was scheduled for November 16, 1924, in Moscow. With a foreign national team visiting the Soviet Union, state propaganda portrayed it as a match of great importance.

As the day of the match approached, a new Soviet national team was put together.

Mikhail Butusov, a representative of the famous football dynasty and a talented player, was appointed captain.

The Soviet Union National Football Team 1924. Image Courtesy: Before the D
The Soviet Union National Football Team 1924. Image Courtesy: Before the D

On the day of the match the Soviet newspaper, Red Sport, wrote, “People hardly believe that the game will take place on Nov. 16. It has been snowing the whole week; thaws were replaced by frost and fields covered with ice. Yet nature allowed for this most interesting match to happen. There are more than 15,000 spectators — a record number for Moscow and the USSR.”

The excitement subsided as fast as it grew, however.

FIFA was opposed to other matches against the Soviet team.

Although Soviet players could not play big games, football nevertheless developed in the country. In 1928, a new stadium, Dinamo, was unveiled in Moscow.

After World War II, Moscow’s Dinamo made a historic visit to the UK, where they played against the finest clubs of England, Wales, and Scotland, including Chelsea and Arsenal. The Soviet players won two of the four matches and earned draws in the other two. The success of the Soviet football tour around Britain helped the country to join FIFA in 1947.

The 1952 Olympics was the first competitive tournament entered by the Soviet Union.

Bulgaria were defeated 2–1, earning a first-round tie against Yugoslavia. Before the match, both Tito and Stalin sent telegrams to their national teams, which showed just how important it was for the two heads of state.

Yugoslavia led 5–1, but a Soviet comeback in the last 15 minutes resulted in a 5–5 draw. The match was replayed, Yugoslavia winning 3–1.

The poster of the dramatic match between Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Image Courtesy: Sports Memories
The poster of the dramatic match between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Image Courtesy: Sports Memories

The defeat to the archrivals hit Soviet football hard, and after just three games played in the season, CDKA Moscow, who had made up most of the USSR squad, was forced to withdraw from the league and later disbanded. Furthermore, Boris Arkadiev, who coached both USSR and CDKA, was stripped of his Merited Master of Sports of the USSR title.

The first experience of the World Cup for the Soviet Union was in Sweden during the 1958 edition of the competition.

The Soviet Union had a great team and their scientific football became a revolution after the fall of the Magical Magyars.

Drawn in a group with Brazil, England and Austria, they collected three points in total, one from England and two from Austria.

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The Soviet Union and England went to a playoff game, in which Anatoli Ilyin scored in the 67th minute to knock England out. The Soviet Union were then eliminated by the hosts of the tournament, Sweden, in the quarterfinals.

In the 1962 World Cup, the Soviet team was in Group 1 with Yugoslavia, Colombia and Uruguay. The match between the Soviet Union and Colombia ended 4–4; Colombia scored a series of goals in the 68, 72 and 86 minutes.

Legendary goalkeeper Lev Yashin was in poor form both against Colombia and Chile.

His form was considered as one of the main reasons why the Soviet Union team did not gain more success in the tournament.

Four years later, Soviet Union were in great touch in England and since the tournament kicked off, they were regarded as one of the favourites

They were placed in Group 4 with North Korea, Italy and Chile.

In all three matches, the Soviet Union team managed to defeat their rivals. The Soviet team then defeated Hungary in the quarterfinals thanks to the effective performance of their star, Lev Yashin but their success was ended by two defeats against West Germany in the semifinals and Portugal in the third-place playoff match, respectively.

The 1966 squad was the second-best scoring Soviet team in World Cup history, with 10 goals.

During the ninth World Cup in Mexco, 1970, the Soviet Union brought a very competitive unit and critics expected them to give the opponents like England, West Germany, Italy, Uruguay and Brazil a tough time.

The Soviet team easily qualified to the quarterfinal where they lost against Uruguay in extra time.

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This would be the last time the Soviet Union reached the quarterfinals.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union became the first team to make a substitution in World Cup history in this match.

In the next twelve years, Soviet Union would not be seen in the Greatest Show on Earth but in between, they remained a powerhouse in Europe and always a favourite in the Euros. Back in 1960, they lifted the inaugural Euro trophy as well.

They were back in the World Cup in Espana 1982 and were placed in a very tough group that included hot favourites Brazil of Zico and Socrates, giant killers Scotland and new-bees New Zealand.

The Soviet Union earned a lot of respect by stretching Brazil in the opening match at Seville and ultimately came out the second-best side to qualify for the next round.

That Soviet Union team had both young and experienced players and playing in such a mega event after twelve years tested their temperament against the likes of Poland and Belgium in the second round. The match against Poland was a test of temperament where the experienced Polish unit survived and advanced to the semifinals and would be crowned as the third-best side of the event.

For the World Cup in Mexico in 1986, Valeriy Lobanovskyi – the much-respected name in Eastern European Football – was the manager.

Lobanovskyi began his playing career at Dynamo Kyiv in 1957, winning silverware of various types.

He was at the Ukrainian club for seven years until he moved to Chornomorets Odessa, on the Black Sea in 1964.

He was only at Odessa for a season before moving on to Shakhtar Donetsk, again only spending a short time there.  He hung his boots up aged only 29.

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Lobanovskyi was one of those people who only came to true prominence in football after he went into management.  As a player he was quite decent by all accounts, scoring over 70 goals.

One interesting nugget of info about Lobanovskyi is that he had a knack for scoring from corner kicks; he was an expert curler of the ball, back in the day when footballs were made from thick leather and football boots were nothing like the hi-tec creations they are today, no Adidas Predators back then.

As soon as he retired as a player he went straight into management, taking charge of Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.  However, this wasn’t the Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk football club no, the club with the nickname of The Warriors of Light; it was in fact the Dnipro of the sport known as Bandy. Bandy is similar to ice hockey, although it’s played with a ball and not with a puck.  It was first played in London late in the 19th century, but it never caught on in Britain.

Dynamo Kyiv pose with the European silver wire. Image Courtesy: Twitter
Dynamo Kyiv pose with the European silver wire. Image Courtesy: Twitter

His football management career began in earnest when he took the reins at his home town club, Dynamo Kyiv in 1973, bringing silverware to the club pretty much as soon as he took on the job.  It was Lobanovskyi’s Kyiv who became the first Soviet side to life a European trophy, when Dynamo defeated Hungary’s Ferencvaros in the 1975 European Cup Winners Cup final, in Switzerland.

For the next decade or so, he had spells managing the Soviet national team as well as running Dynamo.  So by the time the 1986 world cup came around, Lobanovskyi was an experienced manager with some notable victories under his belt.

The Soviet Union qualified for Mexico 86 world cup from the UEFA qualification Group 6, finishing as runners up to Denmark.

The Soviets finished two points ahead of Switzerland, so the Swiss along with Norway and the Republic of Ireland failed to qualify.  Lobanovskyi took a twenty-two man squad to Mexico, over half of that squad was made up of Dynamo Kyiv players.

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Those non-Kyiv players were goalkeepers Rinat Dasayev of Spartak Moscow and Serhiy Krakovskyi of Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, Oleg Protosov a teammate of Krakovskyi’s at Dnipro, Gennady Morosov of Spartak Moscow, Aleksandr Bubnov and Sergey Rodionov also of Spartak, Aleksandr Chivadze of Dinamo Tbilisi, Sergei Aleinikov of Dinamo Minsk, Nikolay Larionov of Zenit St Petersburg, then known as Zenit Leningrad and another Dnipro player, Gennadiy Litovchenko.

It’s worth mentioning that the Soviet squad included another great name of Soviet football, Oleg Blokhin.  Blokhin spent nineteen years playing as a striker for Dynamo Kyiv, appearing in 432 games and scoring 211 goals, that’s just under a goal every other game.

In Mexico in 1986, the Soviets were drawn into Group C, along with Canada, Euro Champions in 1984 – France and Hungary.

On June 2, 1986, György Mezey’s Hungary provided the Soviets with their first test in Mexico.  It was an easy test for the Soviet Union at the Estadio Sergio Leon Chavez. By half time the Soviets were 3 – 0 up, the goals courtesy of Pavlo Yakovenko, Igor Belanov via a penalty and Sergei Aleinikov.

The Soviets were comfortably in control and to an extent, the second half was a mirror image of the first half.  The Soviet Union scored another couple of times, Ivan Yaremchuk and Sergey Rodionov finding the net.  To rub salt into the wound for the Hungarians, László Dajka scored an own goal, so it finished in a 6 – 0 victory for Lobanovskyi’s side.

The way the Soviet Union steamrolled Hungary in the opening match sent chills down the spine of the other opponents in the group and the rest of the big guns in the event.

Next up for the Soviets was Henri Michel’s France, three days later at the Estadio Nou Camp.

As the Brazilian referee blew for halftime, it was goalless.

Vasily Rats of Dynamo Kyiv opened the scoring for the Soviets about thirteen minutes into the second half.

In keeping with the closeness of the game, it didn’t take long for the French to draw level with the Soviet Union, less than ten minutes later it was 1 – 1 after Luis Fernández scored for Les Bleus.

The final group game for the Soviet Union was a meeting with Tony Waiters’ Canada.

Waiters was originally from Southport and had played professionally for Blackpool and Burnley.  It was a straightforward game for Lobanovskyi’s team, they defeated the Canadians 2 – 0, the goals coming from Oleh Blokhin and Oleksandr Zavarov.  The Soviets topped the group with five points, just pipping France for the top spot on goal difference.  So the Soviet Union were into the last sixteen knockout phase, waiting for them was Guy Thys’s Belgium.

For the last sixteen World Cup games it was poorly attended, only 32,000 showed up for the Soviet Union’s encounter with Belgium.  It took place at the Estadio Nou Camp, in Leon on the 15th of June.  It began well for the Soviets when Igor Belanov put his team ahead in the 27th minute.  When Erik Fredriksson, the Swedish referee, blew for half time it looked good for the Soviets, they deserved their lead.

The Belgians came out for the second half looking for an equalizer, but it was the Soviet Union who started the second half the better team.  However, in the 56th minute, Enzo Scifo levelled for the Belgians, putting the ball in the Soviet net via a cross from Frank Vercauteren.  With about twenty minutes to go, the Soviets hit on the break from midfield after Jan Ceulemans gave the ball away. After a pass from Zavarov, it was Belanov again who put the ball past the Belgian goalkeeper, 2 – 1 to the Soviet Union.  Only a few minutes later Ceulemans redeemed himself when he scored for Belgium making it 2 – 2.

That’s how it finished in normal time, extra time would be needed.

Going into this game, the Soviet Union were the favourites of most informed pundits, however, the Belgians were giving their opponents something to think about.

They certainly did that in the 102nd minute when Stephane De Mol put the Belgians ahead in the game after a great headed goal.

The Belgian’s tails were up, in the 110th minute Nico Claesen put Belgium further ahead via a sweetly struck volley into the Soviet goal.

It was a game of exciting incidents and the Soviets had to provide another one to save their world cup, and that’s what they did only a minute or so after Claesen had scored Belgium’s 4th.  Igor Belanov was fouled in the eighteen-yard box, it was a penalty and it was Belanov himself who scored the penalty.

However it wasn’t enough, the Belgians won the match 4 – 3 and the Soviet Union were going home.

Two years later, the Soviets lost against Holland of Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten and with that, the great legacy of the Soviet Union ended dismally because two years later in Italy, they were out from the group stages of the World Cup despite being a very good unit and a year later, the communist Soviet Union broke and football would never be the same in the new Russia.

The great generation of the 1980s left the scene and those that came after them; were not of the same calibre, bar a few notable exceptions. The strength in depth was no longer there. The Russian Premier League has made a resurgence in recent years, with new money being poured in, but success at the international level seems as far away ever. The conditions for success should still be ripe enough, but the national team remains immersed in its mediocrity.


Mexico 86 had been the last time when the world feared and respected the Soviet Union in any major event.

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