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49 year old Valery Lobanovsky was well into his third period as Soviet manager by the start of the ’90 qualification. He had guided club side Dinamo Kiev to continental success in 1986, when they had won the Cup Winners’ Cup, crushing Atlético Madrid 3-0 in the final. He had not managed the national team during the qualification for the ’86 World Cup in Mexico, but he had taken charge just before the start of the tournament. They had won a lot of admirers during the group stage, where they had finished top ahead of a fancied French side. Due to some poor refereeing decisions and lapses in defensive concentration, they surprisingly bowed out in the round of 16 in a famous 4-3 extra time defeat against Belgium. Lobanovsky would, unfortunately, be unable to take charge for the USSR’s first qualifying match, as he was recovering from illness. Main assistant Yuri Morozov was his stand-in. Furthermore, Sergey Mosyagin and Nikita Simonyan were also part of this regime’s trainers’ collective. 

The Soviet Union had just lost the final of the European Championships to the Netherlands, but they had displayed to a global audience the kind of football that they were capable of. They were favourites by some margin to win their qualification group ahead of Italia ’90, and why not? They had not lost any player among the regular starting eleven, even if defender Sergey Baltacha had decided to call it a day at international level after the tournament in West Germany. He had already been surpassed by others anyway. Lobanovsky remained, the Kiev stars were still making up a large portion of the side, and they had a couple of interesting players coming up.

The Soviet Union were also one of five European nations to take part in the Olympic football tournament in Seoul, which would happen not long after their first World Cup qualifier. They would travel to Asia without their biggest stars, though players like Aleksey Mikhailichenko and the promising Igor Dobrovolsky would be going. This would turn out to be a great choice for the Soviet Union, as they would return from Seoul victorious. Appearances in two international finals within the space of a few months was a fine boost for Soviet Union football after the disappointment of Mexico.

Global politics could prove to be an issue for the Soviet Union, as there were signs under president Gorbachev that their totalitarian version of socialism was beginning to soften. This would in turn lead to less restrictions for players who sought to pursue careers abroad, and what effect would this cause on the national team? It remained yet to be seen.

Since the European Championships, three players were lined up for transfers to clubs in the West: wonderful goalkeeper Rinat Dasayev (Sevilla), libero Vagiz Khidiatullin (Toulouse) and attacking midfielder Aleksandr Zavarov (Juventus). (Dasayev saw the domestic 1988 season out with Spartak in Moscow, and he only made his Sevilla debut at the tail end of November, while Khidiatullin’s first Toulouse involvement came already in medio July. Zavarov made his debut for Juventus in medio September, in a cup game prior to the opening of the new league season.) More players were indeed likely to follow, something which could spell disaster for some of the leading domestic clubs, not least Dinamo Kiev, who in recent times had been the major supplier of players for the national team. No less than eleven of their players had featured in the ’88 finals squad.

The Soviet Union played only one friendly ahead of the qualification: a dour 0-0 draw in Finland. They had looked lifeless, and had perhaps displayed something of a European Championships hang over. They would play their first qualifier in Iceland, in the same ground where they had only managed a 1-1 draw in the previous qualification.

Preliminary results

Friendly: Finland 0-0 Soviet Union
Line-up (4-4-2): Chanov – Bessonov, Aleinikov, Kuznetsov, Demyanenko (c) – Rodionov (Zygmantovich 72), Mikhailichenko, Zavarov, Rats – Protasov (Gotsmanov 60), Belanov
The USSR could have been suffering from a European Championship hangover as they never managed to exert usual dominance against a side expected to be inferior to them. There was no Dasayev or Khidiatullin, but seven of the starters during their 2-0 final defeat against the Netherlands were nevertheless present. Demyanenko possibly with the greatest opportunity as he headed marginally wide from a good position.

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