The Soviets had exhilarated in the group stage
Belanov dazzled but joined a Pole and a Swiss in an unwanted club
20-year-old Scifo was unplayable
Only three times in FIFA World Cup ™ history has a player scored three or more goals in a match and still finished on the losing side. After Poland's Ernest Wilimowski in 1938 and Switzerland's Josef Huegi in 1954, Igor Belanov completed the trio of unlucky losers when Soviet Union went down to Belgium at Mexico 1986.
Belanov and his team-mates could rightly curse their fortune having won plaudits in the group stage for their entertaining brand of swift, attacking football under coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi. Installed at the USSR helm just weeks before the finals, Lobanovskyi had discarded the plans of his predecessor, Eduard Malofeev, and looked instead to the players of his own club, Dynamo Kiev, to spearhead the Soviet challenge - and with good reason too, given Dynamo had won the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup only the previous month.
This was a team featuring exceptional talents such as Igor Belanov, who would be voted the 1986 European Footballer of the Year; the gifted midfielder Alexandr Zavarov, who pipped Belanov to that year's Soviet Player of the Year prize; and the veteran forward Oleg Blokhin, a future coach of Ukraine at the World Cup. They underlined their quality - and uncustomary flair - with a stunning 6-0 win over Hungary in their opening game and then drew 1-1 with European champions France en route to topping their group and setting up their meeting with Belgium.
Guy Thys' Red Devils, by contrast, had progressed to the second round as one of the best third-placed teams, their only victory an unconvincing one against Iraq (2-1). Besides the promise of 20-year-old midfield prodigy Enzo Scifo, they appeared to have little to worry the Soviets, particularly after the loss of Erwin Vandenbergh and Rene Vandereycken to injuries. Not surprisingly, the view of most pundits was that their Bayern Munich-based goalkeeper, Jean-Marie Pfaff, was in for a busy afternoon in Leon.
Seven of Dynamo's Cup Winners' Cup-winning team were in the Soviet starting line-up and their understanding was clear to see in a confident start. With their crisp, short passing, they soon had Belgium on the back foot. Belanov and Zavarov, in particular, were linking up beautifully and it was no surprise when this pair conspired to produce the first goal. Zavarov slipped the ball forward to Belanov and he cut across the edge of the box on a diagonal run before turning and slanting the ball back towards the opposite corner. As the ball slammed in off the post, the scorer wheeled away in celebration of one of the goals of the tournament. Twenty-seven minutes played and the Soviets were ahead.
Up to that point Belgium's only glimmer of a chance had come from a Scifo free-kick that barely troubled legendary Soviet goalkeeper Rinat Dassayev. Their counterattacking game yielded nothing better as the interval approached and instead it took the sharp reactions of Pfaff, racing out of the box to deny Belanov a clear chance, to ensure no further damage was done. Lady Luck then lent a hand early in the second half when Belanov headed a Pavel Yakovenko cross against the post and Daniel Veyt turned Zavarov's follow-up shot off the line.
Against the run of play, Belgium found a 56th-minute equaliser. The Soviet defence was caught napping as Frank Vercauteren's cross found Scifo unmarked at the far post and the youngster had time to bring the ball down before steering it past Dassaiev. Belgium were back in the match yet Lobanovskyi's men soon rediscovered their stride. With 70 minutes on the clock, Jan Ceulemans surrendered possession in midfield and the Soviets were away. Zavarov slipped the ball through to Belanov and the No19 managed to squeeze it beneath the diving Pfaff and inside the far post.
If Ceulemans was at fault there, he made amends with Belgium's second equaliser seven minutes later. Whether or not the departure of the influential Zavarov, replaced by substitute Sergei Rodionov, lifted the Belgians, the real turning point came with their captain's strike. A long ball from the back found Ceulemans in acres of space and, with the Soviets' offside claims ignored, he controlled the ball on his chest before turning and shooting low into the far corner.
With extra time looming, the Belgians rode their luck when Ivan Yaremchuk's shot rebounded off the crossbar but they then threatened a dramatic winner themselves only for Dassaiev to punch away at full stretch and deny Scifo. Having led twice, the Soviets were now asked to do it a third time on a hot, stormy afternoon. They could not, and instead, 12 minutes into the additional half-hour, Belgium finally got their noses in front. From a short corner, Eric Gerets swung a cross to the far post and the unmarked Stephane De Mol headed powerfully home.
The underdogs could smell victory and in the 110 th minute, Nico Claesen extended their lead. Latching onto substitute Leo Clijsters headed flick, Claesen turned and dispatched a sweetly-struck volley past Dassaiev. The drama was not over yet, though, as 60 seconds later Belanov won and converted the penalty that completed his hat-trick. Belgian nerves were jangling again but a fourth goal proved beyond the Soviets, Pfaff tipping over Evtushenko's audacious chip in the dying seconds.
Through to the last eight for the first time, the Belgians celebrated wildly. Thys' team would spring another surprise against Spain before their great adventure ended with defeat by a Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina in the semi-finals. For their beaten opponents in Leon, however, this was the end of the road. Although they were subsequently beaten finalists at the 1988 UEFA European Championship, by the start of the next decade the Soviet Union was disintegrating. The world got its last glimpse of those old CCCP shirts at Italia 1990 yet they never shone as brightly as under the Mexican sun, when Belanov's hat-trick ensured one of the World Cup's most memorable exits.