This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
While Marco van Basten lit up the final of Euro 88 with his stupendous volley to seal the Netherlands’ win over the Soviet Union, few realised how pronounced a zenith they were witnessing from the vanquished finalists. The Soviets hadn’t even qualified for the finals since 1972, and following the breakup of the USSR in 1991 neither the CIS nor Russia managed a single Euros win until a dead rubber in 2004.
In fact, once the Russian Federation had been formed, the national side were knocked out at the earliest opportunity or failed to even qualify for every single major tournament until 2008.
Their passage to the finals in Austria and Switzerland had been less than convincing; 18 goals was their lowest tally in any qualification campaign other than for USA 94, which had contained four fewer fixtures. Their place was only confirmed on the last day with a scrappy 1-0 win away to whipping boys Andorra while England collapsed 3-2 in the Wembley rain made famous by Steve McLaren’s forlorn umbrella.
So when Guus Hiddink took a squad short on tournament experience to Austria and Switzerland, there was little expectation back home of success. A 4-1 thrashing by eventual champions Spain in the opening group match did little to assuage fears of another humiliation.
Andrey Arshavin, by far Russia’s most lethal attacking threat having just spearheaded Zenit St. Petersburg’s charge to UEFA Cup glory in May, was suspended for the first two matches after his red card in Andorra. After a 1-0 win over reigning champions Greece was secured without his mercurial touch, he returned to score in the 2-0 winner-takes-all victory over Sweden to set up a quarter-final clash with the Dutch.
Hiddink’s compatriots had blasted their way through a group of death with swashbuckling swagger. World champions Italy were hammered 3-0 before France were destroyed 4-1 to leave the Netherlands as not only the highest scorers in the group stage, but also with the most feared reputation.
An early Yuriy Zhirkov free-kick and Roman Pavlyuchenko’s free header gave hope to the Russians before Arshavin’s guided shot was tipped wide at full-stretch by Edwin van der Sar. Even centre-back Denis Kolodin sent Van der Sar scrambling with a rasping 40-yard effort. When Pavlyuchenko tapped in a low cross shortly after half-time, it was nothing short of just deserts for a breathless opening.
Rafael van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie were reduced to long-range sighters as Arshavin danced his merry dance, skimming a cross agonisingly in front of Ivan Saenko. The relief on Ruud van Nistelrooy’s face after he stopped low with five minutes left to force extra-time told the story.
The Dutch defence had little answer to Arshavin’s incisive runs behind as he laid chances on for Ivan Saenko and Dmitriy Torbinskiy. He was far from the only dangerman: Pavlyuchenko’s rocket smacked against the bar, Zhirkov waltzed around Johnny Heitinga in the box before being bundled over – but inexplicably not being awarded a penalty – and Kolodin’s right foot once again exploded through the ball giving Van der Sar’s post precious little breathing space.
This was not the look of a side used to failure and disappointment; there was a coursing confidence flowing through Russian veins.
Still the score remained level into the second period of extra time, though. Heitinga shepherded Arshavin wide but had no answer to the swerving hips that squeezed a couple of inches of space. With his weaker left foot, Arshavin lifted a deep cross to the back post for Torbiskiy to slide it in at the back past.
The playmaker sealed a famous win with a close-range finish through Van der Sar’s legs with five minutes left as Van Basten watched on from the bench, helpless to conjure up some magic like his from 20 years earlier.
Spain proved a class above in the semi-final as they punctured the dream, but nothing could detract from the euphoria. Other than the hedonism of a home World Cup in 2018, there had never been a moment of such untarnished joy and pride in the Russian national team; it wasn’t just the win, but the manner in which it had come. Arshavin was the toast of Europe, and Hiddink’s men had proven they could not only compete but dominate the best in Europe – if only for a fleeting moment.
By Andrew Flint @AndrewMijFlint