When the Soviet Union became the first nation to lift the Henri Delaunay Cup in 1960, eight of the starting XI in the Paris showpiece hailed from its largest republic, Russia. They reached three subsequent finals, but after the Iron Curtain came down the newly independent states struggled to make a big impression – reaching the last four in 2008 rekindled Russia's love affair with the UEFA European Championship.
"I didn't want to leave," recalled Igor Semshov. "
Normally it's enough to be away for a week to ten days and then go home, but we wished the tournament had gone on and on. [Guus] Hiddink created a great atmosphere in the camp and I often look back on those moments when we lived together for a month, talked to each other and played together.
"We lost the opening match against Spain [4-1] but Hiddink's words of wisdom helped us carry on. He pointed out our mistakes and we learned from them; the important thing was there was no blaming. It was an easy transition from Guus to [current coach] Dick Advocaat because they have the same approach to life and the way that they treat the players."
The replacement of one experienced Dutch coach with another came after Russia's failure to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, a wound Semshov hopes will finally heal this summer. "I think our qualification puts that in the past but it was very painful for me," said the FC Dinamo Moskva midfielder. "Watching the World Cup, we could tell we would not have been one of the worst teams and might even have been among the best."
It has been a case of evolution rather than revolution since Advocaat's appointment. Vyacheslav Malafeev and Igor Akinfeev are still scrapping for the No1 spot, the PFC CSKA Moskva triumvirate of Sergei Ignashevich and the Berezutski twins holding court in defence, and Andrey Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko offering potency in attack.
That long-standing nucleus will lead the charge in June, with the Czech Republic, Greece and Poland their immediate tests in Group A. "They are not top teams, but every group has its difficulties," said Semshov. "In ours, the teams have similar styles of play.
I think that psychologically, everyone wanted to play in that group but it won't be easy because there are no weak teams in the European Championship."
Indeed, even the outsiders boast strong histories. Semshov watched from the bench at UEFA EURO 2004 in Portugal as Russia were the only team to beat eventual champions Greece, rank outsiders before the tournament. When the two nations reconvene in Warsaw on 16 June, it will be for the third EURO in succession – Russia, with Semshov in the starting XI, won 1-0 four years ago.
"Greece are going through a generation change, so it's difficult to say what their goal is," he added. "There are players who featured in Portugal and there are some new ones coming to the fore. But the team has had ideas, movement and innovation since Otto Rehhagel left. They qualified for the last World Cup and the EURO, so they're rather strong and confident.
"The Czech Republic are going through a similar change but each team will have its leaders and the rankings mean nothing. In a game, something might not work out or we could play above our potential. Many people don't know what to expect from Russia either; that's to our advantage."
Playing against co-hosts Poland, meanwhile, will offer an insight into what Russia can expect when the World Cup comes to its shores in 2018. Though the immediate aim is to escape Group A, Semshov admits that emulating Lev Yashin and the class of 1960 would well and truly reignite Russia's romance with the competition.
"Anyone who plays football can only dream about this, whether a young boy or adult," said Semshov. "Not everyone can defend their country's pride at such a big tournament. We know what to expect."
©UEFA.com 1998-2013. All rights reserved.