From back in the USSR to 2018 surprise: 10 things to know about Russia

World Cup host Russia, which faces Croatia in the quarterfinals on Saturday, is considered by FIFA as the successor team of the Soviet Union, which split in 1991 when Russia was by far the largest Soviet republic by population and geographically. The USSR’s soccer records were allocated by FIFA to Russia, but not its Olympic medals (gold in 1956 and bronze in 1972 and 1976), because of IOC policy. A win on Saturday would mark the first Russia/USSR World Cup semifinal passage since a USSR fourth-place finish since 1966.

1. The Black Spider
Lev Yashin, nicknamed the Black Spider and Black Octopus, for often wearing black and making his two arms look like many more, played for the USSR in 1954-1967, and appeared in four World Cups (1954, 1958, 1962, 1966). He is considered by many the best goalkeeper of all time; while he dazzled crowds with his reflex saves, it was his positioning, marshaling of defenses, and his tendency to rush off his line that revolutionized the position.

Yashin's goalkeeping education was likely helped by playing the same position in ice hockey in his youth until he quit in favor of soccer in 1953. By the end of his career he had saved over 150 penalty kicks, won the Ballon D’or in 1962, and was given the Order of Lenin, the most coveted award in the USSR.

The USSR’s Iron Curtain curtailed any chance for him to play at more prestigious clubs than Dynamo Moscow, where he won the league championship five times over a 20-year club career. It is the Black Spider who graces the host nation’s poster for this year’s World Cup.

2. Europe’s first champion
With Yashin in goal, the USSR won the inaugural European Championship, in 1960, thanks to a 2-1 final win over Yugoslavia in overtime. The entire tournament, from qualifying to a final four in France, was single-elimination. West Germany, Italy and England didn’t take part. Spain withdrew in the quarterfinals, its right-wing Dictator Francisco Franco refusing to allow his nation’s team to play against the USSR, which had supported his foes during the Spanish Civil War.

3. Heartbreak at Goodison Park
After a strong showing in the group stage, beating North Korea, Chile, and Italy in the 1966 World Cup hosted by England, excitement surrounding the USSR heightened when they beat a strong Hungary side, thanks to two mistakes from Hungarian goalkeeper Jozsef Gelei. But in its semifinal against eventual winners West Germany at Goodison Park (Everton’s current home) in front of 26,000 spectators, even the heroics of the Black Spider could not stop the bulldozing Germans. The Soviets lost, 2-1, but to this day this semifinal appearance is their best performance at a World Cup.

4. The oddest goal ever scored in World Cup qualifying
Needing an intercontinental playoff to qualify for the 1974 World Cup in West Germany, the USSR tied Chile, 0-0, in Moscow. Then Chile announced it would host the return leg in Estadio Nacional, which was used by CIA-backed capitalist dictator Augusto Pinochet as a concentration camp during his military coup. The USSR refused to play in the stadium. With no FIFA intervention, Chile, in front of a half-full Estadio Nacional, played a ceremonious “game” that lasted a few seconds. Upon kickoff, the Chileans dribbled unopposed downfield and shot into an empty net. Paul Gardner wrote in “The Simplest Game:” “[Chile’s] poor form in the subsequent tournament led to rumors that it had taken them three tries to score the goal.”

5. Dazzling in Mexico with Ukraine connection
Valeriy Lobanovskyi did double duty as coach Dynamo Kyiv, which he led to the 1986 European Cup Winners Cup title, and 1986 USSR World Cup coach. Half of the USSR's 22-man squad came from Lobanovskyi’s Kyiv team. Lobanovski was ahead of his time, relying on advanced sports science and a high-pressing style that required total team cohesion and effort. The core of players were comfortable playing together, and with the Black Spider’s protege in goal, Rinat Dasayev, considered by some as Russia’s second best goalkeeper ever, was one of the few non-Ukrainians in the starting 11.

Everything was going to plan until they faced Belgium in the second round. Igor Belanov, the Ukrainian striker who would become 1986 Ballon D’or winner, put the Soviets ahead twice but Belgium responded each time. The Soviets pushed in overtime, Belanov completed his hat trick, but Belgium prevailed for a 4-3 win. Nevertheless, the USSR drew praise as one of the tournament's most thrilling teams.

(Ukraine became a FIFA nation in 1992, and reached the 2006 World Cup quarterfinals.)

6. More Heartbreak in West Germany
The Dynamo Kiev contingency from 1986 continued to impress at the 1988 Euros, hosted by West Germany. After beating a powerful Netherlands team which boasted the likes of Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit, the USSR beat England and Italy en route to the final. But once again, it wasn’t meant to be. A header from Gullit and a wonder strike from Van Basten gave the Dutch a 2-0 win in the final.

7. Oleg Salenko shines in the USA
The USSR qualified for the 1992 European Championship before Soviet Union’s disbanding, and was allowed to compete as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), whose first game was a 1-0 win in a January 1992 friendly over the USA in Miami. After a first-round exit at Euro 1992 in Sweden, CIS transitioned into Russia, and qualified for the 1994 World Cup in the USA. It lost to Brazil and Sweden in group play, but Russian-Ukrianian Oleg Salenko scored five goals in a 6-1 win over Cameroon and became the only World Cup Golden Boot winner on a team that failed to reach the second round.

8. Andrey Arshavin and Co. make noise at Euro 2008
No one expected much from Russia at the 2008 European Championships hosted by Austria and Switzerland. But after beating England for the qualifying spot, Dutch coach Guus Hiddink – who at this World Cup is serving as a Fox Sports pundit – led Russia to group wins over defending champion Greece, Sweden and a stunning 3-1 quarterfinal win over the Netherlands, before falling to eventual champ Spain. Andrey Arshavin scored twice and set up two more even though he was suspended for the first two games. Garnering attention from top European teams, he eventually signed to Arsenal.

9. Most underrated team at its own tournament?
No one expected Russia to do much at this year’s World Cup, having entered as the lowest rated team according to FIFA World Rankings. Even after beating lowly Saudi Arabia and Egypt, a thrashing at the hands of Uruguay set up what many thought would be a swan song for the impressive, but still mediocre, Russians. But they defied all expectations when they beat Spain on penalties after a 1-1 tie, pushing them to their first quarterfinals appearance since 1966.

10. Akinfeev channels the Black Spider
Drawing on his predecessor, Russia’s current goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev saved two spot kicks in Russia’s shootout against Spain in their round of 16 bout. The CSKA Moscow keeper, who now has 110 caps, holds the record for the most club and country shutouts of any Russian or Soviet Union goalkeeper.

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