THE players who featured for the Soviet Union in the final of 1988 believed it was their best chance to win a European Championship. Led by the legendary figure of Valery Lobanowski, the Soviets were eventually undone by the brilliant Dutch side they had beaten in the first group match of that year's competition.

Instead, the Netherlands won their first major trophy and salved the pain of two World Cup finals in the previous decade. Ruud Gullit scored first with a powerful header before Marco Van Basten struck one of the most memorable goals in European Championship history volleying past Rinat Dasayev from a seemingly impossible angle. The Soviets eventually lost 2-0 but for some it was a missed opportunity.

"It was the best chance for the Soviet Union to win a trophy. At that time, the Russian championship was very strong, because it had six different republics," recalled Sergei Baltacha, the defender who played in that final, in 2012. "All 16 sides were very strong. It's why the Russian national team was very good. Every game was like the Champions League.”

A few years later came the fall of Communism, the break-up of the Soviet Union and, subsequently, a weakening of the national team.

It took the entity that replaced the Soviet-era team 20 years to reach another knockout stage in any major tournament. Inspired by Andrey Arshavin, the Zenit St Petersburg schemer, who would join Arsenal following EURO 2008, Russia finally emerged from the shadows of that defeat in 1988.

Only the might of an unstoppable Spain, who beat Russia 3-0 in the semi-finals and the group stage, prevented a return to the final. Nevertheless driven on by Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Yuri Zhirkov, and aided by the guile of coach Guus Hiddink, Russia made a lasting impression on the tournament and earned a modicum of revenge for 1988 with a quarter-final victory over the Dutch.

It might have been a different story had Arshavin not gone to the tournament, however. The playmaker had been sent off in the final group qualifying match against Andorra and was not sure whether he would be named in the squad for the finals.

“It was difficult to process my feelings or thoughts about the tournament itself because I found myself in a situation where I was suspended after the last game,” he recalls. “So, it was in question whether I would be selected because it wasn’t clear what kind of punishment would be imposed on me. It turned out that I was only disqualified for two games, so I felt a huge sense of relief. One month before the start of the tournament, I was told that I was going, which made me pretty happy.”

Arshavin sat out the 4-1 defeat by Spain and a 1-0 win over Greece, and with Russia needing a win over Sweden to ensure progress to the last eight, Hiddink opted to start with his talisman.

“I felt that if I came out and we lost, the public would blame that failure on Arshavin, who was brought back for some reason and that it was a mistake to make the change. But, I was certain that based on how we played in the second match, we had enough to win against Sweden. My only concern was Zlatan Ibrahimović, but our defence did really well. We created a lot of chances during the game, scored twice and won 2-0.”


That set up the last-eight encounter against the Dutch which Russia won in extra-time thanks to goals by Arshavin, Pavlyuchenko and his Lokomotiv Moscow team-mate Dmitri Torbinksi.

The game was decided, however, on a quirk when the Slovakian referee Lubos Michel rescinded a second booking for Denis Kolodin in stoppage time after 90 minutes when a linesman told the official the ball had gone out of play before the Russian tangled with Wesley Sneijder. Arshavin thought the chance had gone, though.

“At the end of the game, [Denis] Kolodin was sent off, but then that was overturned, [Ruud] Van Nistelrooy equalised. That’s when I thought it was all over for us and we were going to lose the game again, but as we saw, our team and I somehow found something extra in additional time.

“Dima [Dmitri] Torbinski scored the game-changing goal. And, right at the death, when the Netherlands were thinking more about attack than defence, we made a quick move after the throw-in, I got the ball from [Dmitri] Sychev or someone else, I don’t remember exactly, and I slotted the ball between [Edwin] Van der Sar’s legs.”

Russia had finally exorcised the ghosts of 1988.