The UEFA European Championship: a Russian view

The UEFA Euro 2016, hosted by France, kicks off this Friday, and Russia is playing. The national teams of the Soviet Union, and then Russia, have excelled more than once in the tournament’s nearly 60-year history, making the finals four times, winning the very first Euro 1960, and finishing third at Euro 2008. As Euro 2016 approaches, recalls the best Euro moments from the Russia squad’s history.
10 June 2016
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Roman Pavluchenko and the squad celebrating first score in the Euro 2008 quarter-finals, Russia playing Netherlands. Basel, Switzerland, 21 June 2008

Maiden gold

France has hosted more Euro finals than any other country. 2016 is the third year when Europe’s strongest national teams will compete on French soil. France was the host of the premiere European Championship in 1960, which the Soviet Union won.

Deputy chief of the Soviet Football Federation Andrei Starostin, national squad players Lev Yashin and Igor Netto (left to right) with the Euro trophy at Moscow airport, 1960. © TASS photo files

Seventeen teams competed in the first European Championship. The knockout stage was played according to the Olympic system: the losing team just dropped out. Because of the odd number of teams participating, the draw worked out so that Czechoslovakia and Ireland would play the tournament’s only qualifying set of two games. In the end, the top four – Soviet Union, France, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia – met in France to determine the winner.

In a fantastic match at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome, the Soviet Union thrashed Czechoslovakia (3-0), then one of the strongest teams around, the would-be vice-champions of the world two years later. Feeling excited after the great game, crowds of spectators poured onto the pitch in Marseilles to give the Soviet footballers a toss up in the air.

Everyone was hoping to see France play in the finals, but the hosts had lost their privilege of vying for the gold, having miraculously lost to the Yugoslavs, although the French had held the lead with 4-2. In the middle of the second period, between the 75th and 79th minutes, the Yugoslavs scored three goals in a row and made the finals.   

The final at Parc de Prince was arduous, but the Soviet team prevailed. The teams tied 1-1 in the main game time. During the extra time, striker Viktor Ponedelnik scored the casting goal, earning the Soviet squad its first – and only – Euro gold.  

Maiden silver

The second Euro in 1964, hosted by Spain, was held according to the same regimen, but with a much increased number of participants: 29. This time, Hungary, Denmark, Spain, and the incumbent champion the Soviet Union were the four teams in the finals.

Spanish striker Jesus Maria Pereda hits the Soviet goal and scores in the 1964 Euro final. Madrid, 21 June 1964. © Allsport Hulton/Archive

Like four years before in France, the Soviet squad was off to a triumphant start, routing Denmark 3-0 at Barcelona's Camp Nou. In the other semi-final, it was a struggle for the hosts to overpower the Hungarians during the extra time.  

The final was played at another famous arena, Madrid’s Santiago Barnabeu. The sides exchanged goals early in the game, Jesus Maria Pereda scoring first at 6th minute, and Galimzyan Husainov restoring the balance two minutes later.   

The adversaries appeared to be evenly matched the whole game. Spanish striker Marcelino Martinez Cao scored another one a few minutes before the game’s end, leaving the Soviet Union with silver.  

That could have been taken as a success, but the Soviet government didn’t think so. Politically, the defeat by Spain didn’t look good. "It’s OK to lose sometimes, but not to the Franco regime,” was the general consensus within the communist party. In the end, the team’s head coach Konstantin Beskov lost his job.  

Tschenscher’s coin toss

In 1968, when Euro was hosted by Italy, the Soviet squad once again found itself among the top four, and had all the makings of getting to the finals, but then something went wrong. What happened in the semi-final, between USSR and the host team, would be unthinkable nowadays, but was somehow “let slide” at the time.

The teams played a great match, with lots of goal attempts, in Naples, but the goalies were impregnable. Generally, fortune seemed to be on the side of the defending team that day. The teams tied 0-0, and failed to break the tie in the extra time. The rules then in force did not provide for a post-game penalty series. The matter was decided by… a coin toss.  

It’s quite a story. The referees, with Kurt Tschenscher in the lead, were summoned to the dressing room to decide the outcome of the game with UEFA officials and the team captains, Albert Shesternev and Giacinto Facchetti. The Soviet squad’s head coach Mikhail Yakushin also slipped in. As he would admit later, he’d had to “use every trick in the book to get in.”

They took a coin – a French 10 franc piece. Yakushin claimed he’d had a chance to notice that one side of the coin – the “tails” – was embossed. When UEFA official Augustin Puchol asked Shesternev how he called, Yakushin whispered in his ear urging him to call “tails,” but Shesternev remained silent.

The Soviet captain was so shocked he was speechless. Then Puchol asked Facchetti, who called “tails.” Tschenscher tossed the coin up and tails won. Italy won a fortuitous pass to the finals.  

It was after that incident that the decision was enacted to resolve the hopeless tie situations by means of a penalty series. And the Soviet squad went down as the only football team in the history of European championships that lost by the toss of a coin.  

Gerd Muller ruined everything

The Soviet squad once again made the Euro finals in 1972. The Soviet footballers did well in the playoffs, beating out their group sparring partners Spain, Northern Ireland and Cyprus. The seeds of success were planted in the second round, when the Soviet Union scored an immensely hard victory, 2-1, over Spain in Moscow.  

The Soviet teams demolished Yugoslavia, one of Europe’s football leaders at the time, with 3-0 for the two games in the quarterfinals.  

In the finals, hosted by Belgium, the Soviets were matched to play the Belgian hosts, the Hungarians and the Germans. The German team at the time boasted such greats as Franz Beckenbauer, Uli Hoeness and Gerd Muller. The latter would be the architect of a grand disappointment for the Soviet fans.

The Soviet squad reached the finals without a hitch, leaving the Hungarians behind, but hit a brick wall in the final with West Germany. The German team left the Soviets no chance, and much of it was Muller’s fault. He scored twice.   

The long-awaited comeback

The 1972 silver was the last successful Euro appearance by the Soviet squad before a protracted spell of setbacks. In 1976, the Soviets were stopped short of the finals by the Czechoslovak team, who would end up winning the tournament that year. Euro 1980 was a complete fiasco: the Soviet Union came last in its playoff group with Hungary, Greece and Finland. In 1984, they almost made it, but lost the decisive game to Portugal, ending up second in the group. Years would go by before the Soviet team made its fans proud again.   

At the Euro 1988 playoffs, the Soviet Union emerged victorious from its group, which also included France and East Germany. In the group stage of the finals, played at arenas across West Germany, the Soviets first defeated the Netherlands 1-0 and then beat England 3-1 in the final round.  

Soviet Union vs. Holland (1-0) at Euro 1988. Soviet footballer Vagiz Khidiyatullin (front) grapples with Dutch player Ruud Gullit. © TASS photo files

By the draw, Valery Lobanovsky’s team was to play a semi-final with Italy. Igor Belanov, Europe’s footballer of the year 1986, could not play on account of an injury, but the team did well anyway, winning the Soviet Union its fourth pass in history to the Euro finals.

The Soviet squad had to play the Dutch again over gold, having defeated them previously in the group stage. The teams were equally good in the final, but the football just wouldn’t fly into the Dutch goal. Contrarily, Rinat Dasayev’s sheet was soiled twice. Shortly before the break, Ruud Gullit leveraged a Soviet defence mistake to facilitate one of the most breathtaking goals in football history at the 55th minute, assisting to Marco van Basten, who shot a fantastic volley at a sharp angle. The football followed an uncanny trajectory around the Soviet goalie – and into the mesh. That kind of kick was impossible to save. Even still, Dasayev was titled World Goalkeeper of the Year in 1988.

Hard as they tried, the Soviet squad could not beat the Dutch again in the Euro 1988 final. 25 June 1988. © David Cannon/Allsport/Getty Images

The squad that defied the champions

In a curious twist of history, the Russian team that played in the Euro 1992 finals was the Soviet team, and the team that went to the finals was the CIS team, which had less than six months to live, from January through June 1992.  

The draw placed it in a highly challenging group environment with the incumbent champions, the Netherlands, 1990 world champions and would-be Euro 1992 winners Germany, and the Scotland squad which, as time would tell, the Russians should have feared the most.

CIS squad tied with incumbent champions at Euro 1992 group stage. © Simon Bruty/Allsport/Getty Images

Anatoly Byshovets’ squad tied with the world champions, and settled peacefully with the Dutch. The Soviet successor team had every reason to keep its hopes up as the final round loomed. Rumour had it, the Scots had lost heart and taken to the bars a couple of days prior, so chances looked 100% certain for the CIS squad to make the semi-finals. But then all hell broke loose… The Scots, crawling out of the bars, put CIS to shame with a score of 3-0.   

That was the last match the CIS squad would ever play.  

The more recent triumph

Russian footballers registered no notable achievements at the European championship for a long time after Euro 1992. Euro 1996 was a failure. At Euro 2000, Russia didn’t even make it to the finals. Russia beat Greece, the would-be champion, in 2004, but lost to Spain and Portugal and didn’t get to the playoffs.

Russia’s only win at Euro 2004 was over Greece, which would end up winning the tournament.  © Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

The coaching of the Russia squad was entrusted to a foreigner for the first time in 2006. It was the Dutch coach Guus Hiddinck. The Russian team did well at Euro 2008 under his tutelage, beating England out on Russian turf. In fact, Russia had been greatly assisted by Croatia’s win at Wembley, which had cemented Croatia’s placement in the finals.  

As usual, Russia was in for some tough competition in its group in Austria and Switzerland, confronted with the incumbents, Greece, the champion in the making, Spain, and Sweden, starring a young Zlatan Ibrahimovic.   

Russia was off to a bad start in its group, taking a beating 1-4 from Spain. But the squad remained unbroken, and won the following two games: 1-0 with Greece and 2-0 with Sweden, earning Russia a ticket to the quarterfinals.  

The Russian footballers were eagerly awaited by that tournament’s headliners the Netherlands, who had thrashed Italy 3-0 and France 4-1 at group. Russian football fans will probably remember that final forever as, quite possibly, the most awesome football game in post-Soviet Russian history.

The Russia vs. Netherlands final was the centrepiece of Euro 2008. © Vitaly Belousov/ТАSS

The Russian squad played amazing football, matching the other team in everything, fighting for each square inch of the pitch, radiating 100% assurance of success. Roman Pavluchenko broke the seal right after the break. Then the score would stay the same almost until the final whistle. However, a few minutes before end-game, Ruud van Nistelrooy returned the goal, and extra time had to be added.

We might as well thank Fortune for that goal by Nistelrooy. If it hadn’t happened, the world would never have seen the incredible 30 minutes that followed, a veritable half-hour of nonstop triumph. Russia won 3-1, thanks to then goals scored by Andrei Arshavin and Dmitry Torbinsky. The late hour notwithstanding, crowds of people took to the streets in jubilation across Russia. Crowds packed the central squares of Moscow. People would leave their cars in mid-road, joining the jubilant multitudes. Even though Russia lost to Spain and never made the finals, the elation from that game still lingers on.

An open finale

The fields of France always looked kindly upon Soviet and Russian footballers. It was in France that the Soviet Union clinched its first European championship. Russians have beaten their French hosts on their turf more than once, even though France has always boasted one of the strongest football teams in the world.

Russia will be playing England, Slovak Rep. and Wales in its group. Not exactly a sleep-walk. But, as Soviet and Russian football history proves, our squad is full of surprises. 


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