Russia had a horrific tournament in 1994 held in the USA where they started with losses against Brazil and Sweden. Almost out of the tournament, they thought of some redemption against Cameroon. The African nation that had a dream run in the 1990 edition, were not in their best form. They were also winless till that game. Thus, the match between Russia and Cameroon was one of the most insignificant matches in the World Cup.
But sometimes insignificance helps in bringing out the best. And perhaps that happened to Oleg Salenko, the Russian forward whose World Cup record in that match still remains intact. Salenko playing in the first eleven was a surprising choice by the Russia’s head coach, Pavel Sadyrin. The Russian team already had seasoned centre forwards like Dimitri Radchenko, Vladimir Beschastnykh and Igor Kolyvanov. But Salenko, only 25, managed to prove his manager right.
Russia thrashed Cameroon 6-1 in that match and out of the six goals, five came from the boots of Oleg Salenko. He played only three matches and scored 6 goals (another one against Sweden in the previous match) in the tournament to emerged as the joint Golden Boot winner with Bulgarian Hristo Stoichkov in 1994. Stoichkov, on the other hand, played a total of seven matches and achieved a fourth place finish. Salenko is the only player ever till date to win the Golden Boot award on a team eliminated from the World Cup finals at the group stage.
“It was great to share the Golden Boot with such a great player,” Salenko said later. “We’ve met several times since – he played for Barcelona and I played for Valencia – and we always had a joke about it. He used to say, ‘You should be grateful I didn’t score one more goal.’ And I’d say, ‘You should be grateful I didn’t score one more goal against Cameroon!’”
But Salenko’s entire career could not be reduced to a single match for Russia. In 1986, aged just 16, he made a stunning debut for local club Zenit Leningrad when he came in from the bench to score the winner in a 4-3 victory over Dynamo Moscow. He earned immediate fame after that and played for three years with grit in Zenit. His move to Dynamo Kyiv made headlines for being the first transfer in the Soviet Union where money officially changed hands between clubs.
Salenko next played for Logrones and Cordoba in Spain. But his top level performances at the USA World Cup granted him a move to the Spanish club Valencia CF and one year later to Rangers FC of Scotland. But his history-making performance against Cameroon was his last appearance for a Russia. Injury problems and fall-out with the new coach prevented Oleg from being considered for international duty again. But Oleg always showed his masterclass while playing for his country.
Oleg Salenko is the proud holder of another World Cup record. In the 1989 U-20 World Cup, held in Saudi Arabia, he was the winner of the Golden Boot and therefore remains the only footballer in the World to win two Golden Boots: one at the youth level and the other in the senior level.
Oleg Salenko retired from Football in 2001 after a short spell at Pogon Szczecin. In 2003, he was appointed as manager of the Ukraine national beach soccer team. His team played three games, the only win being over USA 6–5, and losing the other two to Brazil and Spain. After the tournament, he was dismissed. Salenko now almost leads a life much away from media attention as an assisting staff in Football Federation of Ukraine.