Every World Cup has a side that always leaps from the blocks with a big win that signals their intent only to be gone from the tournament long before the final. In 1986 this team was the Soviet Union. With the exception of the first European championship in 1960 the Soviets had always been an underachiever over the years they had the pick of players of not only mother Russia but all other satellite states that make their own mark on the world game. They had got together a very decent side for the ’86 tournament in Mexico with half the squad pooled from the always strong Dynamo Kiev side including the coach Lobanovsky and the midfield duo of Zavarov and Belanov who had a kinetic ability to read each other and could hit a ball hard to say the least.
The Soviets had drawn a line in the sand in the first game by hammering the much fancied Hungary 6-0 before drawing with one of the tournament favourites in France and then wiping Canada off the map to top their group. Their opponents in the second round in a straight knockout would be Belgium who had gone through as one of the better third place teams with their only win in the first round being against Iraq who everyone seemed to belt. Belgium were so happy just to get that far that they actually hadn’t booked a hotel for the following night after the upcoming game although they had one of the best keepers in Europe in Bayern Munich’s Jean-Marie Pfaff. The opponents were lopsided in their own beliefs it had to be said.
With two of Belgium’s better players injured and the player tipped to breakout at this tournament, Enzo Scifo, not in top form it was expected to be an easy win for the Soviets in the killer afternoon heat in Leon. It definitely started off that way with the Soviet midfields short passing and ability to swap wings running rings around their opponents. On 27 minutes the inevitable occurred when the Soviets opened up the scoring with Belanov controlling the ball at the edge of the penalty area and then unleashing a rocket in to the back of the net in what was one of the great goals of the tournament.
The Soviets continued to turn the screws on the Belgium side who were sitting back, chasing shadows and hoping they would get them on the break. Belgium somehow survived until half time with their illustrious opponents hitting the crossbar twice and the ability of their star keeper Pfaff but still it stayed 1-0.
Bit of a gee up from the coach? Time to switch things around? No, Belgium continued to play deep and soak up the pressure as the Soviets seemed to have an extra couple of players out on the pitch. Belanov hit the crossbar (again) and Belgium somehow cleared a ball off the line that seemed to be a goal after a loose ball was snapped up by Zavarov. All going to script it seemed. Then the script went out the window when 10 minutes in to the second half Belgium equalised. Belgium had a rare bit of possession and used it well with a cross from the left to the far post with Scifo controlling and shooting the ball past the keeper with Scifo’s marker having a momentary lapse of concentration. Job on.
It seemed to just be a bit of cage rattling by the Belgians with the equaliser with the Soviets picking up where they left off like the goal didn’t matter. Belgium now had some self confidence though and attacked back by passing the dominate communist midfield by using the wings and trying to get the ball to their towering captain Ceulemans. It was the captain that lost the ball in one of these quickfire moves that had it 2-1 to the USSR when Belanov had his second slipping the ball under Pfaff with 19 minutes to go. The Soviet Union thought they had it. Their midfield had covered many miles in the oppressive heat and Lobanovsky took a risk subbing off Zavarov and another attacker to bring on more defensive minded players to see the game out and save the legs of better players for the quarter finals.
This almost seemed like a lack of respect to the Belgians and they found another level with the Soviets going defensive. With 13 minutes left it was 2-2 and Belgium had remarkably come back from behind again when a hopeful pass found Ceulemans who found himself with defenders nowhere near him as he turned to face the goal and simply buried his shot from the edge of the penalty area. The Soviets claimed he was offside but they had again switched off for just one moment and it had cost them. Now Belgium seemed like the team to go on with it. Their tactics of sitting back and soaking up the running of the Soviets had paid off with energy in reserve while their opponents had tried to have the game sewn up early but found themselves facing extra time with players having lead in their boots and no options on the bench. The gamble had blown up in their face.
In extra time Belgium pulled the trigger and brought on their fresh legs but despite being blitzed by the heat and altitude the Soviets tried to still keep up their high tempo game which was quickly unraveling. 12 minutes in to 30 minutes of extra time Belgium hit the front and again it was down to the knackered Soviets ball watching. This time it was from a short corner that was crossed by the star veteran Gerets to his young fellow central defender Demol who headed home and celebrated like he’d just came on the pitch such was his energy. 3-2. The Belgians now toyed with their dispirited opponents who were now the ones chasing a seemingly lost cause. It seemed to be when it was 4-2 with 10 minutes to go when after some aerial pingpong the loose ball fell to Claesen who shot home and send the crowd and players in to a frenzy. What heat?
The Soviets looked gone but Belanov didn’t give up. He urged his teammates on and laid siege on the Belgium goal with the leaders now happy to (again) sit back. Cross after cross was dealt with but one got past the Belgium defence and in their attempts to clear the ball as it zipped in from the right Belanov was pushed in the back. Penalty. Belanov took the ball to the spot and scored and it was 4-3 with 8 minutes left. Belanov had an amazing hat-trick but didn’t give up as that was not enough. He won the ball and passed it to a teammate in an excellent position who didn’t return the ball when Belanov was going to be through on goal. The teammate decided to try and have a shot himself and hit the crossbar. So cruel for the Soviets.
Finally an exhausting and exhilarating game was over and Belgium had won one of the most amazing games seen on such a stage 4-3 to send the much fancied Soviets out. It was an American 80s action move writer’s dream with the arrogant evil socialists sent packing in heartbreaking circumstances to make them pay for their arrogance. The Soviets grumbled of offsides and other conspiracies but they would be back in 2 years time with the same side for the European Championships in West Germany where they made the final (going down to a brilliant Dutch side).
Belgium would, apart from book some hotel rooms, be expected to fall over in the quarter finals after such an exhausting game but then amazingly eliminated the superior Spanish side on penalties after another 120 minute marathon to shock the world and make the semi finals. It was in the semi finals that they finally fell when they pushed Argentina all the way before being put to the sword by two pieces of Maradona brilliance in a 2-0 loss. This side also featured the father of Kim Clijsters, the late Lei, as one of its standout players. Scifo would also go on to play in four World Cups and become one his countries great players being second only to the great Marc Wilmots. Pfaff would also go on to star in a very popular reality show about his home life with his three daughters. What a team!
There would be a similar clash in 2002 when they faced off in the group stage of the tournament. The now capitalist loving Russians had seemingly looked home and in to the next round but a late equaliser to Belgium sent them through with a 2-2 result to eliminate Russia. It was a Belgium party trick it seemed.
With their side going to Brazil in June being seen as having the potential to be their greatest and most hyped ever it’s easy to forget that they were most of the time seen by bored commentators as the home of great beer or Plastic Bertrand. The 1986 Belgium side though was one of those sides that woke up when it mattered and made a run that almost got them to the final. Their win over the USSR was one of for the ages and a wonderful moment in the World Cup.