On the face of it, the 1994 meeting between Russia and Cameroon should have been as insignificant as a FIFA World Cup™ game can possibly be.
Both teams were, after all, winless and already heading out when they met in Stanford; indeed, not even a thumping 6-1 win could save the Russians. Yet it was in this ostensibly meaningless group-stage encounter that two significant World Cup scoring records were ripped up and rewritten.
The duo in this picture, Roger Milla and Oleg Salenko, were the men responsible and, to this day, their feats on that June afternoon remain unmatched and unbeaten. The latter was, in truth, the game’s real star, producing a dazzling and deadly display of finishing that saw him become the first player in World Cup history to score five times in a single match.
“I did not know what the record was or think about the possibility of beating it,” Salenko said at the time. “I only realised I had broken it when I heard it announced." Salenko was just 25 and yet, remarkably, this would not only be his last World Cup appearance, but his final outing for the national team. A fall-out with the coach and loss of form combined to make his Stanford spectacular the most unlikely swansong imaginable.
Nonetheless, his achievements that day made a lasting impression, and the former Valencia and Rangers striker had no hesitation when asked how often he is reminded of them. “Every day,” he told FourFourTwo. “That’s the great thing about the World Cup – the whole world is watching, and if you do something spectacular you'll be remembered forever. I do a lot of travelling throughout Europe and the US, and I still get people coming up to me.”
I am sure no player will equal my World Cup achievements.
Salenko’s five-goal haul also provided a more immediate and tangible reward, earning him a share in the adidas Golden Shoe with Hristo Stoitchkov as the tournament’s joint-top scorers. “It was great to share the Golden Boot with such a great player,” he said. “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!’
As with his Russian counterpart, this match proved to be Milla’s farewell to the World Cup and international football. Yet it was, of course, a minor miracle that the Cameroon legend was still to be found playing – and scoring – at the game’s greatest tournament at the grand old age of 42. He remains the competition’s oldest marksman, and believes that his record will stand for eternity.
"I am sure no player will equal my World Cup achievements," said Milla, who is also the World Cup’s oldest outfield player (Colombia keeper Faryd Mondragon, 43, claimed the overall record at Brazil 2014).
Asked how he managed to keep going for so long, and at such a high level, the two-time African Footballer of the Year attributed this longevity to his lifestyle. “I looked after myself physically," he said. "I never did anything to harm my fitness. I did not have a wild lifestyle but a very wholesome one. Half a glass of wine every so often would be as much alcohol as I would drink.”
One wonders if Milla, Salenko, or both, raised a glass that night to their respective achievements in Stanford. Either way, those fantastic feats remain firmly enshrined in World Cup folklore.