Oleg Salenko is not particularly fond of having his entire career reduced down to Russia v Cameroon in the group stages of the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™, a game in which he scored five goals and acquired instant global fame. Nevertheless, he remains philosophical about the unprecedented achievement, accepting that it is now part of his, the Russian national team’s and football’s history.
Salenko has every right to challenge anyone who suggests that the match in Palo Alto was the only standout moment of his career. In 1986, aged just 16, he made his debut for local club Zenit Leningrad by coming off the bench and scoring the winner in a 4-3 victory over Dynamo Moscow, instantly endearing himself to the fans. Three years later, his move to Dynamo Kyiv made headlines for being the first transfer in the Soviet Union where money officially changed hands between clubs.
The former striker is half Russian and half Ukrainian himself, so Kyiv was like a home from home for him. He has since returned to live there permanently after a decade of travelling around the continent and experiencing both highs and lows for clubs in Spain, Scotland, Turkey and Poland.
Salenko had given a foretaste of his goalscoring feats in the USA at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Saudi Arabia five years earlier, hitting five goals in four matches to win the first Golden Boot award of his career.
He also went into USA 1994 in good form after scoring 17 goals during a stellar season for Spanish side Logrones. Yet despite Russia’s on-field struggles at the time, competition for starting places was high, limiting Salenko to a substitute appearance in their first game against Brazil.
Surprisingly enough, Salenko’s history-making performance against Cameroon would also be his last appearance in a Russia shirt. The new head coach after the tournament opted to bring in new faces to the squad, while subsequent injuries also prevented Oleg from being considered for international duty again.
After two defeats in their opening two games against Brazil and Sweden (2-0 and 3-1), Russia’s situation ahead of the Cameroon fixture was precarious, though not hopeless. The format of the tournament meant there was a possibility that the third-placed team could qualify from the group. Salenko, having already impressed against Sweden, did all that was required of him to give his team a fighting chance.
In the 16th minute, the front man broke the deadlock in nerveless fashion, powering a shot through the legs of goalkeeper Jacques Songo’o’, who was deputising for legendary Indomitable Lions shotstopper Joseph-Antoine Bell that day. Then, in the 41st minute, Salenko doubled his tally for the afternoon when he slid the ball into an empty net from the edge of the area, with Cameroon caught unawares. A minute before half-time, the Russia No9 completed his hat-trick from the penalty spot after a foul on Ilya Tsymbalar.
The fixture has the unusual distinction of having produced a second World Cup record to go alongside Salenko’s haul: at the start of the second half, 42-year-old substitute Roger Milla managed to reduce the deficit by one, thus becoming the oldest goalscorer in the history of the tournament. On another day, his strike may have forced the Russians to defend their lead, but with goal difference likely to have been a factor in deciding which third-placed teams advanced to the Round of 16, their only option was to continue to attack.
Seventeen minutes into the second half, Salenko added his fourth when he slotted home Omari Tetradze’s cutback, putting himself on a par with footballing legends such as Leonidas, Sandor Kocsis, Just Fontaine, Eusebio and others. He only needed three more minutes to go one better than all of them, latching onto Dmitri Khlestov’s through-ball from deep and deftly chipping over Songo’o to make it 5-1. Up on the big screen, where Salenko did not bother to look, it flashed: 'World Cup record'. He even managed to throw in an assist for good measure as well, setting up his strike partner Dmitri Radchenko, with whom he started out in Leningrad, to score the sixth
Unfortunately for Russia, there were still some group-stage games left to play, in which the teams knew the results they needed to progress and secured them. The Sbornaya were heading home, but Salenko’s six goals at USA 1994 were enough to land him a share of the Golden Boot alongside legendary Bulgarian forward Hristo Stoichkov.
"We had intended to go further," Salenko explained in an interview with FIFA.com, "especially since it was possible to qualify from third place, but luck wasn’t on our side. We had two very strong teams in the group, Brazil and Sweden, who would go on to win and come third respectively.
"Cameroon had their problems before the tournament, but any disagreements in the camp disappeared before the match against us, where only a win would suit them. It was virtually the same team that caused such a sensation at the 1990 World Cup, only four years older. Roger Milla was 42 already!
"I was rooming with Dmitri Radchenko and we both ended up scoring against Cameroon. The night before the game I dreamed I was going to score a lot of goals; you sometimes get premonitions like this. However, I didn’t think I was going to score five! Psychology is very important in football, knowing how to prepare yourself to play. We had nothing to lose and needed to win by the biggest margin possible. That’s what we did.
"Undoubtedly, the first goal was particularly important. After that, you start to play for pleasure and a lot goes your way. Before the fifth, when I was bearing down on Songo’o’s goal, I already knew I’d dink it over him and score.
"I didn’t think about the record during the match. They said something over the speaker system, but you’re focused on the game and can’t hear in detail, plus it was also in English.
"After full time, it so happened that Radchenko and I had to go for a drugs test. The match was played at one in the afternoon and it was 40C: we were unbelievably dehydrated and waited an hour and a half to give a sample. Everyone was talking about the record in the media, but it didn’t filter through to us. I only fully realised that I held a World Cup record after I'd finished my career.
"Five years ago, someone made me an offer to sell the Golden Boot trophy to the United Arab Emirates, where they were planning on hosting a big tournament and opening a museum of sporting achievements. The tournament didn’t happen and the project came to nothing, but I was glad about that. When asked, I put it on display in the restaurant at the Olimpiyskiy Stadium in Kyiv, so people can come, look at it, take photos and generate interest. I’d like the trophy to get some attention during the 2018 World Cup in Russia, because it’s recognition for the whole of the Russian national team, not just me."