Russia go into the 2018 World Cup as proud hosts, but the nation’s performances at past tournaments have largely been a mix of agony and underachievement. Can the team banish the ghosts of previous failures this summer?
The Soviet Union was frequently a force at major international tournaments, reaching the World Cup quarter-finals on four occasions and finishing fourth in England in 1966.
Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, however, Russia has fared significantly worse as an independent nation, consistently struggling to make its mark on global football’s biggest stage.
As Russia prepares to make its fourth appearance at a World Cup finals, RT Sport looks back at past failures – from the bitter to the bizarre – that the team will be hoping to avoid this summer.
The World Cup in America in 1994 was the first to feature Russia as an independent nation, after they reached the finals by finishing second in their qualifying group behind Greece.
Manager Pavel Sadyrin led a squad to the USA that included current head coach Stanislav Cherchesov as a goalkeeper, as well as midfielders Valeri Karpin and Aleksandr Mostovoi, and relatively unknown striker Oleg Salenko – who would later make the headlines for a remarkable one-off goal-scoring feat.
Russia were drawn in a group with Cameroon, Sweden, and Brazil, and seemed set to battle it out with the Swedes for second spot, behind the illustrious Brazilians.
Russia’s first-ever World Cup encounter came against the then three-time champions Brazil, and ultimately a Brazilian team which included the likes of Dunga, Bebeto and Romario proved too strong for Sadyrin’s men. Russia went down to a 2–0 defeat after a first-half Romario goal and second-half penalty from Rai.
That loss was followed by a 3–1 defeat to Sweden in the second game, when a Tomas Brolin double and Martin Dahlin strike overturned Oleg Salenko’s fourth-minute penalty goal, and sealed Russia’s fate.
Freed of any expectation, the Russians went into the final group game against Cameroon knowing they were already out. They proceeded to crush the Africans 6-1 in a remarkable game that was notable for 24-year-old Salenko’s haul of five goals – three of which came in the first half. Salenko’s feat remains a record for the most goals scored in a single World Cup finals game.
Salenko ended the tournament as joint top-scorer on six goals with Bulgarian legend Hristo Stoichkov, and provided the most memorable achievement of an otherwise disappointing World Cup debut for Russia.
JAPAN AND SOUTH KOREA 2002
Having been forced to watch the France ’98 World Cup from the sidelines after losing a qualifying play-off to Italy, Russia returned to the tournament in Japan and South Korea in 2002.
Led by legendary former Spartak Moscow manager Oleg Romantsev in his second spell with the national team, the Russians topped their qualifying group ahead of Slovenia.
At the finals, Russia were drawn in a group with Belgium, Tunisia, and co-hosts Japan.
Russia’s campaign got off to a positive start with a 2-0 victory over Tunisia, thanks to a goal from Yegor Titov and penalty from USA ’94 veteran Valeri Karpin.
However, things went rapidly downhill from there, with Russia losing their next match 1-0 against Japan – a result which led to rioting in Moscow in which two people died and more than 100 were injured.
Despite the defeat against Japan, Russia knew that a draw against Belgium in their final group game would be enough to send them to the knockout stages for the first time.
They looked set to get the point they needed when a 52nd-minute goal from Vladimir Beschastnykh cancelled out Johan Walem’s opener for Belgium, but two goals in the space of four minutes from Wesley Sonck and Marc Wilmots put the Red Devils 3-1 up with 10 minutes to play.
Russia pulled one back through teenager Dmitri Sychev’s 88th-minute goal, but despite a late onslaught they could not find the equalizer they needed.
Russia again packed their bags early, and Romantsev was sacked following the tournament.
After the early exit in 2002, Russian fans were forced to wait 12 long years before the team next qualified for the World Cup finals.
They missed out on Germany 2006 by finishing third in their qualifying group, and failed to reach South Africa in 2010 by suffering an unexpected play-off defeat to Slovenia.
The latter failure extinguished any hopes of the emergence of Russia as a genuine footballing force, following the team’s exciting run to the semi-finals of Euro 2008 under the management of charismatic Dutchman Guus Hiddink and the playing talents of forward Andrei Arshavin.
By Brazil 2014 that was a distant memory, with Hiddink gone after the failure to qualify for South Africa 2010, and his successor, countryman Dick Advocaat, leaving after the team’s group-stage exit at Euro 2012.
Italian heavyweight Fabio Capello followed Advocaat as manager, in a deal worth a reported $9 million a year.
Former Real Madrid, Milan and England boss Capello was seen as the man to take Russia into the World Cup in Brazil – and beyond that to the nation’s home tournament in 2018.
The Italian achieved stage one of the plan in guiding Russia to Brazil 2014, with the team finishing top of their qualifying group, one point ahead of Portugal.
Placed in a World Cup finals group with South Korea, Algeria and old foes Belgium, Russia drew the first game 1-1 against the South Koreans, with Aleksandr Kerzhakov notably scoring his 26th goal for Sbornaya, equalling Vladimir Beschastnykh’s all-time record.
However, Russia again came undone against Belgium in their second game, losing 1-0 after Divock Origi’s 88th-minute winner.
Capello’s team were still in with a chance of reaching the knockout stages for the first time, provided they could secure a win in their game against Algeria.
They seemed set for the victory they needed after taking an early lead through young striker Aleksandr Kokorin, but controversy struck in the 60th minute when a green laser was shone from the stands into the eyes of Russian keeper Igor Akinfeev just before Algeria were taking a free-kick. The Russian keeper missed the floated ball into the box, allowing forward Islam Slimani to head home.
The goal sent the Algerians through in second place, and consigned Russia to another early World Cup exit.
Afterwards, Capello said the laser beam had played a role in Russia being zapped out of the tournament.
“The goalkeeper was unable to do his job. The laser beam was in his face,” the Italian said. "He was blinded by the laser beam. It is not an excuse. There are pictures and you can see that in the footage."
Capello limped on as manager, but was dismissed after a poor start to qualifying for Euro 2016, which saw him replaced by Leonid Slutsky. The CSKA Moscow man guided the team to France, but big tournament woes struck again when the team finished bottom of the group.
As hosts, Russia have not had to endure the burden of qualifying for this summer’s World Cup, which is just as well considering the major questions that continue to hang over the team.
Euro 2016 was an unmitigated disaster, and while Slutsky has since departed, the team has seen minimal – if any – improvement under his successor, former international ‘keeper Stanislav Cherchesov.
The 54-year-old presided over the disappointment of last summer’s Confederations Cup, at which Russia failed to get out of a group containing New Zealand, Portugal and Mexico.
This summer they will be faced with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay in Group A – a draw which, on paper, appears to provide the best possible chance of them finally reaching the World Cup knockout stages.
But a casual glimpse at past tournaments means Russian fans will rightly be wary of being too expectant.
Russia's World Cup finals record in full:
Goals for: 13
Goals against: 13
Best finish: Group stage