Oleg Salenko: The Unknown Russian Striker Whose World Cup Record May Last Forever
28 June 1994. Stanford Stadium, California. The concluding game to Group B at the World Cup of the same year. Russia faced Cameroon in a game which could only be deemed as a battle for redemption. With Russia already exiting the competition before this final group match, and Cameroon praying for a certain result in the group's other game, the world's eyes were solely focused on the battle for first place in this group between Brazil & Sweden over 1800 miles away in the Pontiac Silverdome, Michigan.
Back on the West Coast, as over 74,000 fans crammed into this collegiate stadium to take their seats, nobody in their right mind could have predicted that a piece of World Cup history was about to unfold right in front of them. A relatively unknown Russian striker by the name of Oleg Salenko was about to etch his name into the World Cup history books, with a record that still stands to this day, and with what style he did it.
In this classic game, Salenko managed to hit the back of the net on 5 separate occasions, a feat which had never been achieved before on the biggest stage of them all. Many had come close with 4 goals in a single game, including footballing legends such as; -Emilio Butragueño for Spain vs Denmark in 1986, -Eusébio for Portugal vs North Korea in 1966, -Just Fontaine for France vs Germany in 1958, -Sándor Kocsis for Hungary, again vs the Germans in 1954, -Ademir for Brazil vs Sweden in 1950, and finally Ernst Willimowski for Poland in his sides phenomenal 6-5 defeat to Brazil in 1938.
Eusebio vs North Korea. 1966. Source: CNN
Yet it would Russia's Oleg Salenko, a player who had just narrowly avoided relegation from La Liga with now-defunct side Club Deportivo Logroñés, who would outdo all these greats and go one better, with his magical display against fan favourites Cameroon in 94.
Ultimately, it would be his performances for this Spanish side which would earn Salenko his only ever call-up to a Russian World Cup squad. However, we must understand how he got there in the first place.
Born in Leningrad USSR, Salenko made his debut for local side Zenit Leningrad aged just 17. His impressive goalscoring record for his first club earned him a place in the Soviet Union U-20 side for the 1989 Fifa World Youth Championships. Finishing as tournament top-goalscorer with 5 goals (a habit of his), Salenko secured a move to Ukrainian powerhouses Dynamo Kyiv. In fact, it would actually be the Ukrainian National side who would hand Salenko his first senior cap due in the countries first official game recognized by FIFA, a 3-1 friendly defeat to Hungary in 1992.
However, with the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, it would be his native Russia who would come calling just two years later in 1993, as his performances for La Liga newcomers Club Deportivo Logroñés were monitored closely by the Russian Football Union. Salenko would make his debut in the qualification stages for this very World Cup, as his side suffered a defeat to Greece in Athens.
Salenko Playing for Logroñés (Red). Source: futbolretro.es
With just 1 cap under his belt, many found it surprising when Salenko was thrust thoroughly into the deep end, being called up to lead the line for Pavel Sadyrin's 23-man World Cup squad. A single appearance to his name and Salenko was on the plane to the United States of America.
Russian boss Sadyrin had many decorated attacking players to choose from including Benfica talisman Sergei Yuran, and Racing Santander's Dmitri Radchenko, who ultimately led the line in Russia's opening game vs Brazil. With Salenko on the bench, nobody even batted an eyelid, probably even himself.
Salenko's introduction in the 55th minute couldn't change Russia's fortune, as they went on to lose to the eventual champions 2-0, with the goals coming from Romario and Raí, who converted a penalty just before Salenko got on the pitch to make his World Cup debut. Next up Sweden!
Russia vs Brazil. 1994. Source: Acervo Estadao
As the sides were announced prior to kick-off, it was revealed that Salenko would be starting the game, taking the place of Sergei Yuran who performed somewhat 'lacklustre' in the previous game. The decision initially proved a success. After midfielder Aleksandr Borodyuk was brought down for an early Russian penalty, Salenko cooly sent the keeper the wrong way getting his country off the mark at their first World Cup following the break-up of the Soviet Union. Salenko's distinctive goal chain and subtle fist pump celebration would be broadcast all over the world.
Unfortunately, Russia could not capitalize on their early lead, as eventual bronze medalists Sweden, showcased their free-scoring form which they would display throughout the entire tournament. A Tomas Brolin penalty just before the break and a Martin Dahlin brace secured a 3-1 victory for Sweden, and would ultimately send the Russians packing. 2 Games, 0 Points, the Russian fans were not impressed.
Salenko (White) Battles vs Sweden. 1994. Source: Planet World Cup
Russia really needed a big display in their final game to hopefully redeem themselves to their loyal fans watching from home, and also those who travelled thousands of km's to watch their beloved nation in the flesh. Step forward Oleg Salenko!
15th Minute. After a superb through ball to Russian striker Radchenko was even more cleverly read by Cameroonian defender André Kana-Biyik, the ball fell to the feet of Salenko just inside the penalty area. With quite a bit still left to do, Salenko expertly slotted the ball under the Cameroonian keeper Jacques Songo'os legs and into the net to give Russia the lead. 1-0!
Salenko vs Cameroon. 1994. Source: Paddy Power News
41st Minute. Just before the break, a gap in the Cameroonian defence opened up which allowed Ilya Tsymbalar to break through on goal. With Salenko in support, Tsymbalar unselfishly squared the ball to Salenko who finished home into an empty net. 2-0 Russia!
44th Minute. Just 3 minutes later, in what was virtually the last kick of the half. Salenko converted his 2nd penalty of the World Cup, duping the Cameroonian goalkeeper with his long run-up, before neatly slotting the ball into the bottom-right corner of the net. 1st half Hat-Trick! Russia would enter the break with a 3-0 lead.y
Things would not all go completely in Russia's favour, as a Roger Milla goal just after the interval, would make things a whole lot more interesting. Amazingly, with this goal came another piece of World Cup history. At 42 years old, Cameroonian legend Milla would not only be the oldest ever player to appear at the World Cup, but would now claim the rights to being the competitions oldest ever goalscorer, a record that still stands to this day, and frankly may never be beaten.
Breakers Milla (Left) & Salenko (Right). 1994. Source: FourFourTwo
Nonetheless, after a brief scare, the goals would keep on flowing for this red-hot Russian side. 72nd Minute. Salenko would grab his 4th after a brilliant passage of play down the Russian right flank, led to an exquisitely timed cut-back which Salenko buried home past the helpless Cameroonian keeper. Salenko was now on par with the footballing greats such as Eusebio and Fontaine mentioned previously. However, he had other ideas!
75th Minute. Just like his 2nd & 3rd goals, there was only 3 minutes difference between his 4th & 5th. This record-breaking 5th goal was most definitely the pick of the bunch, as Salenko latched on to a perfectly weighted through-ball from the Russian midfield before his deftness of touches lifted the ball over the onrushing goalie.
Salenko 5th Goal. Source: FIFA.com
And with that, over 75,000 unexpecting fans bore witness to what many deem to be an unbreakable record. Yet Salenko didn't go crazy with his celebrations, but instead simply ran to the corner flag resting his arm firmly on top of it like he himself couldn't phantom what had just happened.
Some players are lucky to score just 1 goal in sports most prestigious competition, however, to get 5, and in the same game was completely unheard of until a relatively unknown Russian came along to prove his worth.
Russia went on to win the game 6-1 with Dmitri Radchenko securing the route in the 81st minute. Although out of the tournament, Russia had redeemed themselves to the fans and secured their first-ever win at a World Cup since the break-up of the USSR. For a game of little relevance, Russia vs Cameroon in 1994 turned out to be one of the most historic games in the history of the Fifa World Cup.
Salenko's 6 group-stage goals allowed him to claim the honour of the competitions Golden Boot winner, which he shared with Bulgaria's Hristo Stoichkov. In doing this Salenko made another piece of World Cup history, becoming the only player ever to win the Golden Boot award on a team eliminated from the World Cup finals in the group stages. Who would have ever thought it?
Following his World Cup exploits, Salenko carved out a highly respectable career playing for the likes of Valencia, Rangers, İstanbulspor in Turkey, Córdoba and finally Pogon Szczecin in Poland, where numerous injuries brought his playing days to an abrupt end at just 31-years-of age.
Oleg Salenko Signing for Rangers. 1995. Source: Dream Team
Salenko would never play for his national side again following the World Cup, and one might beg the question, what would have came from this rising star had injuries not taken a toll on his career? However, no matter what the circumstances, the name Oleg Salenko will forever be etched into the World Cup history books. As Salenko expressed, ''Do Something Special and You're Remembered Forever''.