World Cup Meteors: Salenko’s Day of Football Insanity

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In Italy, we call “meteora” (meteor) a football player who lives a short period of glory before fading away, back into anonymity. The World Cup is full of such stories, of players who in some way managed to find their edge right during those 30 days, once in four years, when the whole world revolves around a foot ball. They shone on the most important stage, and then quickly turned back into regular journeymen, or even worse disappeared from the calcio che conta (“football that matters”). Like a broken spell. Like a dream from which they suddenly woke up.

Antonio Guarini takes us through a journey among the Top 10 “one-hit-wonders” in the recent history of the World Cup. Some of them helped Italy climb to the top of the world, some others recall painful memories for the Azzurri. But all share the same fascinating meteora status, all found the magic formula to sparkle and shine just when it mattered most.

They may not have been Ballon d’Or winning champions, but we are sure that these names will ring a bell or two to all football lovers.


5) Oleg Salenko, a Day of Football Insanity

Scoring five goals in a single match surely is a heck of an exploit. Doing it in a world championship game makes it even more noteworthy. Indeed, this is something that has happened only once, as of today. The author of that astonishing glut was Oleg Salenko, Russia’s top striker during the 1994 World Cup in the U.S.A. It happened on June 28, in Stanford, California.

The Russians, already eliminated, had to face Cameroon in their last Group Stage match. The Africans, on the other hand, still had a feeble chance of qualification. Back in the days, 24 teams participated to the World Cup, and some of the third-placed teams could still make it to the Round of 16. Arrigo Sacchi’s Azzurri were one of them, and had to hope for Cameroon not to win by more than one goal difference in order to secure their spot.

Italy ended up having not much to worry about, as Les Lions Indomptables were brutally hammered by Russia, and Salenko was the absolute star. Born in Saint Petersburg, he was playing – with not much success – in Spain, for Logrones. But on that day, the Russian forward scored five goals, that added to the one he had already tallied against Sweden, turned him into the top scorer of World Cup 1994, ahead of players like Roberto Baggio and Romario.

After that fantastic exploit, Salenko signed a deal with Valencia, but had little luck there. In January 1995, he moved to Glasgow Rangers, but even his experience in Scotland was a short one. He was in Turkey from 1996 to 1998, where a terrible knee injury kept him out of the pitch for almost two seasons. In 2001, he called it quit.

That Russia-Cameroon game made Oleg Salenko famous all over the world, making him the holder of a record that not even Pele, Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo ever achieved. Some players put their whole career at stake in a single match. But Oleg from Saint Petersburg did something different – he lived the whole of it in one game. He did it during a World Cup, the eyes of all the football world on him.

And maybe he was just happy with that.
Two records were actually set on that June 28, 1994. Not only Oleg Salenko became the first player to score 5 goals in a single World Cup match; His opponent Roger Milla from Cameroon became, at 42, the oldest goalscorer in the World Cup history.

Translated by Matteo Carnevale


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