Soviet’s Last Success: The 1988 European Championship


The USSR side that defeated England in the group stages. Photo: Championat.

In the summer of 1988, Soviet football experienced its last great moment, when the Sbornaya reached the final of the European Championship. A few years later, the union would fall apart, but in 1988 the team was among the football elite.

The Soviet Union had failed to qualify for every European Championships as far back as 1972, but under the guidance of head coach Valery Lobanovsky, they came back on track. In the 1986 World Cup, after a great performance in the group stage, the team looked very confident, but a surprising loss in the round of 16 against Belgium saw them going home earlier than many expected.

Lobanovsky continued to build the team and many of the players that played in the World Cup of 1986 also played in the qualification to the European Championship 1988. Lobanovsky, who was way ahead of his time with his scientific modelling of the beautiful game hired doctors and scientists at Dinamo Kyiv way back in the early 1970s. This was far from the norm at the time. He even hired Valentin Petrovsky, who had helped the sprinter Valery Borzov to win two spring medals in the Olympics of 1972. It was under his order that the Soviet Union developed their first computers at this time and he understood directly what this could do to football. Sergey Baltacha, who was a part of both Lobanovsky’s Dinamo and later the 1988 semi-finalists, said this about him;

He was the best coach I’ve ever seen. He was a coach who brought a scientific background to football in the early 1970s and, when I joined Kiev in 1976, we had a background of doctors and scientists, the kind of thing that not even now many countries have.

The Spanish newspaper El Pais wrote that Dinamo played like ‘a team visiting from the future’ after the side’s victory in the 1986 Cup Winners’ Cup against Atlético Madrid.

Sbornaya started their qualifying campaign with a draw against Iceland in front of six thousand spectators in Reykjavík. They faced East Germany, France, Iceland and Norway in their qualifying group, in which they finished first with five wins and three draws in eight games. The games against East Germany became crucial since they were clearly the two best teams. But after the Soviet’s win in Kyiv and draw in Berlin it was no doubt who was the better side. They secured the qualification in the last game against Iceland at the Lokomotiv Stadium in Simferopol in Crimea.

The side progressed to the main tournament in a confident mood, even though they ended up in a tough group alongside England, Netherlands and Republic of Ireland. Lobanovsky ran numerous special tests on the players, including one by a computer where the players saw a line dissecting the screen as dots moved across at varying speeds. The players had to tap a key as soon as it crossed the line. Many people questioned his methods but he didn’t care. He believed in what he did.

In the first game against the Netherlands, at the Müngerdorfer Stadion in Cologne, they were clear underdogs considered the profiled team the Netherlands had. With players like Ronald Koeman and Ruud Gullit, they took charge of the game from the very start and created several dangerous chances but in goal, the USSR had Rinat Dasayev who was constantly alert and kept his side in the game. The Spartak Moscow star was arguably the best in the world at the time, which was obvious during the tournament.

The Soviet side grew as the game went on and in the 52nd minute, Vasyl Rats scored with a precise and clean finish in the bottom left corner. The Dutch side increased the pressure and they introduced Marco Van Basten in the 59th minute but it didn’t help. The Soviets won their opening game against the Netherlands.

For the game against Ireland in the second round, Lobanovsky made two changes: Tengiz Sulakvelidze started in place of Volodymyr Bessonov in the back and Sergey Aleinikov replaced Gennady Lytovchenko in central midfield. The game resembled the opening fixture, and the Irish side was well in the game, and in the 38th minute, they took the lead after a goal by Ronnie Whelan. Luckily, Oleg Protasov equalized in the second half, thus putting the USSR in a good position before the group final against England in the third and last round.

England was led by Sir Bobby Robson and had big hopes going into the tournament considered after only dropping one point during the qualification. However, they started the tournament horribly with two straight losses, and therefore it was no surprise that the Soviet Union demolished them. Sbornaya took the lead after only three minutes, and the Englishmen never stood a chance. The game ended 3-1, which secured Lobanovsky’s side the first place in the group.

In the semi-final, Italy awaited. Gli Azzurri had stars such as Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Roberto Donadoni, Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli in the squad, and were favourites before the game.

However, Lobanovsky’s troops had grown during the tournament, and they didn’t fear anyone. The Soviet Union finished the game with a 2-0 victory, and thus qualified for the first European championship final in 16 years. Here, they faced the Netherlands, whom they had already defeated in the group stage. However, Netherlands had risen like a phoenix after that early defeat and with the magnificent Marco Van Basten, they were defeating every opponent with some beautiful, fluid, total football.

Scientific football v Total football

The final developed into a game that was almost all about Marco Van Basten, although it was Ruud Gullit who gave the Dutch the lead in the first half. Later, Van Basten scored one of the most iconic goals in the European Championship’s history. A perfect volley from the right side of the penalty area, with a perfect bow over the goalkeeper and into the goal. Sbornaya won a penalty when the score was 2-0 but Igor Belanov missed it and that meant it was all over.

Marco van Basten scoring the second goal in the Final, arguably one of the greatest of all-time. Photo: Libero.

Even though the Soviet team didn’t win the tournament, they had impressed widely. They had beaten the Dutch side that eventually won the whole tournament and maybe if they hadn’t missed that penalty the story would have been different.

A couple of years later, Sergey Baltacha said this about the team that took silver in 1988;

It was the best chance for the Soviet Union to win another trophy. At that time we were a good team, most of our players were from Kyiv and we dominated Europe. We knew we would do well.

Baltacha came on in the final against the Netherlands and remembered the team that was so successful. A team built and raised through an era where Dinamo was one of the best teams in Europe and where the domestic league was stronger than it has ever been since;

At that time, the Russian championship was very strong, because it had six different republics. All 16 sides were very strong. It’s why the Russian national team was very good. Every game was like the Champions League. It was why European games were quite easy because every week you were playing at the top level anyway.

The Soviet Union broke up a couple of years later and after that, the success has vanished for the countries that once were a part of the Soviet Union. He laments;

After the Soviet break-up, there are only a few countries left at the top level: Russia and Ukraine. The rest, like Georgia, are not playing in the World Cup a lot. Big damage happened to USSR football after that.

That’s true, since that warm summer night in Munich, no Russian or Soviet national team has ever been close to achieving the same again. Russian football today isn’t close to what it used to be when Soviet had their successful periods.

Author: Oskar Uneland

Malmö FF supporter. 24 years old. Loves football, have followed Swedish, Russian and Argentine football for a long time.

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