As Russia prepares to host the World Cup, the general consensus in the country is that this is the weakest squad in their history. But what was the strongest team? There was the side that reached the semi-finals at Euro 2008, but the best team is probably one that never really existed.

They were supposed to shine at the 1994 World Cup, Russia's first as an independent nation after the Soviet Union collapsed, but a brilliant group of players was split up as the top performers refused to take part in the tournament. Given there was no one truly significant reason, it was all a little bewildering. It remains the greatest let-down in Russian football, greater even than the failure to qualify for Euro 2000 when Aleksandr Filimonov dropped a simple cross from Andrei Shevchenko over the line in a crucial game against Ukraine.

Immediately after the qualifiers had been completed in November 1993, no fewer than 15 squad members demanded that the coach Pavel Sadyrin be replaced. The Russian Football Union naturally refused to do so and the long months before the World Cup were painful for all involved. Some of the refuseniks eventually returned, others did not. The damage ensured Russia meekly went home after the group stage.

In order fully to understand the saga, I spoke with three stars who signed the fateful document that became famous as "the letter of fourteen" – Sergei Kiryakov, Aleksandr Mostovoi and Andrei Kanchelskis. Those names alone are enough to grasp the magnitude of talent of that remarkable team.

During the 1993-94 season, the red-headed Kiryakov was one of the top foreigners in the Bundesliga with Karlsruhe. The winger tore defences apart with his quick feet and dribbling skills, scored 13 goals in all competitions and was instrumental as the team reached the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup, beating Valencia 7-0 in the process. Barcelona were reportedly interested in his services.

Mostovoi, the top Spartak Moscow talent of his generation, was struggling at Benfica at the time, but later went on to become one of the brightest stars in La Liga. The Tsar of Celta Vigo, he spent eight seasons at the Galician club between 1996 and 2004.

Kanchelskis, born in Ukraine but of Lithuanian origin, was very popular at Old Trafford as a key performer for the team that won the Premier League title in 1992-93 and defended it the following season. The winger joined Manchester United from Shakhtar Donetsk in 1991 and is still remembered as one of Alex Ferguson’s best signings.

The leader of the pack was the captain Igor Shalimov, arguably the biggest ever Russian star in Serie A, although for a very brief period. The elegant midfielder was voted the best foreigner in Italy in 1991-92 when he caught the imagination with newly promoted Foggia under the revolutionary coach Zdeněk Zeman. Inter bought him that summer and Shalimov performed magnificently at San Siro before losing his place in the starting lineup during the 1993-94 season. He was regarded as a major force ahead of the World Cup, but afterwards his career nosedived.

Igor Kolyvanov also shone at Zeman's Foggia and he stayed at the club for five seasons, until 1996, before moving on to a successful spell at Bologna. While less spectacular than Shalimov, the striker was much more consistent and his contribution is fondly remembered.

Kiryakov and Kolyvanov first made their name at Dynamo Moscow, who very nearly won the Soviet title in sensational fashion in 1986 with a young and flamboyant team. Another superb talent in that Dynamo squad was Igor Dobrovolsky, who failed to prove himself at Genoa, Marseille and Atlético Madrid, but was held in very high regard in Russia for his silky playmaking skills.

Mostovoi's closest friend at Celta was Valery Karpin, who was still at Spartak as these events unfolded, before moving to Spain in 1994. The energetic right-sided midfielder also had a superb season for Valencia in 1996-97 and was a key presence as Real Sociedad finished second in La Liga in 2002-03.

The Russian defence was built around the leadership of Viktor Onopko, who is probably most famous for marking Ruud Gullit out of the game when the CIS managed to earn a goalless draw against Holland at Euro 92.

All of them signed the letter, alongside the moody Logroñés striker Oleg Salenko, the stocky Benfica forward Sergei Yuran, the versatile Benfica defender Vasily Kulkov, the experienced Spartak Moscow defender Dmitry Khlestov, the hard as nails Spartak stopper Yuri Nikiforov and their less talented partner Andrei Ivanov.

"We should have had a great tournament,” said Kiryakov. “After all, many of us won gold medals at the Under-21 European Championship in 1990. We thrashed Yugoslavia 7-2 on aggregate in the final, beating them 4-2 away and 3-1 at home. That Yugoslavia team was strong, with Predrag Mijatović, Alen Bokšić, Davor Šuker, Siniša Mihajlović and Robert Jarni, but we were much better than them. That's how good we were.”

Yugoslavia turned out to be very relevant to the 1994 World Cup qualification campaign as they were absent from Group 5. When the draw was made in December 1991, the united Yugoslavia still existed – it dissolved in 1992. The civil war eventually forced Uefa to expel the team from Euro 92, as Denmark famously stepped in and won the title . Yugoslavia were also excluded by Fifa from their qualifying group ahead of the World Cup, but this time nobody took their place.

Russia and Greece benefited enormously from the situation as the only real candidates for the two qualifying slots in Group 5. Iceland, Hungary and Luxembourg didn't pose any problems. By the time the two sides met in Athens on 17 November 1993, both had booked their places in the United States. Russia strolled through with five wins and two draws in seven matches and needed just a draw to secure top spot, which was of symbolic importance only. Basically, it was an irrelevant game – and yet it led to collapse.

Greece won 1-0, Nikos Machlas scoring the only goal after 69 minutes as Dobrovolsky's late equaliser was wrongly ruled out for offside. Russia didn't play well, but that should have been a footnote to the campaign. The RFU president Vyacheslav Koloskov, though, had other ideas. Angry with the performance, he decided to confront the players in the dressing room immediately after the final whistle. That was a huge mistake.

"Your attitude is unacceptable,” he shouted. “This has brought shame on our country. We have nothing to look forward to at the World Cup with this quality of play."

The players were stunned. "We had achieved our goal anyway,” Kiryakov said. “We qualified for the World Cup. The game against Greece didn't change anything. We thought that we deserved to be congratulated. We were insulted instead.”

The reaction was furious, because the players had a lot to say to Koloskov anyway. Stars who were treated professionally at their clubs found life back in Russia quite difficult. What seemed normal for those who grew up in the Soviet Union became unacceptable when they moved abroad.

"The organisation was extremely poor,” Kiryakov said. “For example, we had to buy tickets ourselves to fly to the national team games and then nobody met us at the airport. It was obvious that a change was needed."

"We were fed up with the way the federation treated us,” said Mostovoi. “We didn't get any respect at all. The feelings were hard and the discontent was waiting to boil over. That is what happened in Athens.”

To make matters worse, Koloskov chose that moment to announce that all players would have to wear Reebok boots at the World Cup. Those who had contracts with other companies felt that their needs and obligations had been disregarded. Shalimov responded furiously.

With players feeling under attack from Koloskov, they were disappointed that Sadyrin didn't try to defend them. "He just stood there and didn't say anything," Kiryakov said.

"We understood that the coach didn't support us against the federation,” said Mostovoi. “He wasn't on our side." That was enough to demolish their relationship with Sadyrin. They didn't trust him anymore, even though their relations had been smooth enough beforehand.

"Sadyrin was a good person and a decent coach," Kanchelskis said.

"He had good sense of humour and knew how to talk to players," Kiryakov agreed.

And yet, Mostovoi pointed out a very significant aspect that played a major role in Athens. "There had always been a rivalry between Spartak and CSKA in the national team and the coach was identified with CSKA," he said. For Spartak stars, Sadyrin seemed an outsider. He spent his entire playing career at Zenit Leningrad, where he had begun his coaching career in sensational fashion. In 1984, he led a squad of local Leningrad players to a historic first Soviet championship title . Three years later, though, he was forced to leave after a players' revolt that left a scar on his soul. Eventually he found his way back to the top at CSKA and won his second title with the Army club in 1991.

All his teams played attractive and effective football and Sadyrin was a popular choice to replace Anatoly Byshovets after the CIS team failed at Euro 92. And yet some players thought he was too soft and that made him an easy target when they decided to attack. When Shalimov and his teammates understood that the coach wouldn't take their side against Koloskov, they felt that a change was needed. "Sadyrin was good enough as a coach, but not as a leader,” Kiryakov said. “We were angry with Koloskov, first and foremost, but knew that we couldn't remove him. So we decided to remove the coach.”

When the team returned to the Hilton Hotel after the game, the players went to Shalimov's room and discussed the situation. "It was an open dialogue,” Kiryakov said. “Everyone said what he thought was right. Eventually, we wrote a letter that was signed that very night.” The remarkable document was submitted to Shamil Tarpischev, who served as sports advisor to Russia’s president Boris Yeltsin and was a close personal friend of Shalimov.

Here is the letter in its entirety:

We, the Russia national football team players, understanding the responsibility for the team's performance at the World Cup in the United States, think that mistakes made in the past by the Football Federation on numerous occasions must not be repeated. Organisational mishaps, financial manipulations and unacceptable technical equipment have had a negative influence on the team's performances more than once.

We know that Pavel Sadyrin is not a bad club coach, but the national team is different. We are most concerned with the training process and the national team preparations under Sadyrin, because in our opinion they are insufficient for the level of the most important Russian team. Qualifying for the 1994 World Cup was a result of the momentum gained by the team built by the previous coach Anatoly Byshovets ahead of Euro 92.

We think:

1. Anatoly Byshovets should rightfully work with the national team and prepare it for the 1994 World Cup.

2. The terms of financial bonuses for qualifying for the World Cup must be changed.

3. The technical equipment of the national team must be improved immediately.

The players not only wanted to get rid of Sadyrin, but also named his replacement. They wanted to choose the coach themselves and Byshovets was the man. The coach later admitted that the stars called him during the discussion, asked whether he would be interested in the position and received a positive response. While Byshovets's behaviour was clearly unethical, it’s easy to understand his motives. But why did the players want to promote him?

"Some of the players wanted to work under Byshovets,” said Kiryakov. “I wasn't one of them, but we had to ask ourselves who could replace Sadyrin. It had to be someone with a good reputation and authority. Byshovets was a star as a player, had won a lot of titles and was an experienced coach.”

"Byshovets was close to Shalimov who started the whole affair,” said Mostovoi. “He had good relations with us and his approach to things was European. We were told that it was possible to push his candidacy through. However, I said from the very beginning that we wouldn't succeed. Players can’t just choose their coach."

Byshovets was a tough person and a strict disciplinarian, unlike Sadyrin, and was known as a lover of order. Organisation was important to him, and he took care of everything himself, whereas Sadyrin considered the federation responsible for technical issues. Byshovets also knew how important money was to the players and managed to get them hefty bonuses for their performance at Euro 92. Those aspects were on the rebels' minds when emotions ran high in Greece.

Eleven players signed the letter in Athens. Karpin, who wasn't included in the squad and was most opposed to Sadyrin, and Ivanov added their signature in Moscow. Kanchelskis was suspended for the game against Greece, remained in Manchester and sent his signature by fax. "The guys called me, explained the situation and asked whether I was with them,” he said.” It wasn't easy to understand everything from a distance, but I agreed and gave them my word.”

Others refused to take part in the putsch. The current Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov, who was the starting goalkeeper in 1993, was one of them. Aleksandr Borodyuk, Dmitry Radchenko, Sergei Gorlukovich, Dmitry Popov, Dmitry Kharine and Dmitry Galyamin also thought that the letter was against their principles. Galyamin later admitted that he couldn't go against his former CSKA coach and Radchenko, who admired Sadyrin as a lifelong Zenit fan, felt similarly.

The letter didn't state that the players who signed it would refuse to go to the World Cup with Sadyrin, but Shalimov made that very clear in his interviews. War was declared, and the captain expected to win it, but he was wrong. The federation refused to allow players to pick the coach, even though Tarpischev – keen to appease Shalimov – hinted that such a scenario should be possible. The authorities tried to discredit the players in the press and present them as moody and greedy. At the same time, significant efforts were made to convince them to return. Sadyrin was ready to take them back and personally met with all the refuseniks, even though he felt betrayed.

The president and the coach travelled to Lisbon at the beginning of 1994 to talk to the players who were attending a friendly match to raise money for Sporting’s Ukrainian midfielder Serhiy Scherbakov, who had been involved in a car crash that left him paralysed.

"Koloskov and Sadyrin asked to see me in Lisbon,” Kiryakov said. “At the time, I was ready to come back to the national team, but only if all the other players did so. That’s what I told them. I informed Sadyrin that he could count on me only if all the players returned.”

Kanchelskis also had a meeting with the duo. "Sadyrin and Koloskov came to visit me in Manchester," he recalls, while Mostovoi remembers meeting the authorities as well.

For some reason, Sadyrin preferred to talk to players one by one. He might have felt that that was the easiest way to persuade them, but he was wrong. Shalimov, Kolyvanov, Kanchelskis, Kiryakov and Dobrovolsky were very close friends and felt obliged to keep their word. They might have been able to change their minds collectively, even though Shalimov felt that his own pride was at stake, but taking the decision on their own was impossible for them. They didn't want to betray their teammates.

"They should have arranged one big meeting with all of us,” Kiryakov said. “It might have been possible to clear the air and start everything from the beginning, but they didn't do it. On the contrary, they asked to keep our meeting secret.”

Kanchelskis is more sceptical. "It's like in chess,” he said. “You can't take your move back.” In reality, though, there were players who didn't see it that way at all.

The first to break ranks among the 14 was Salenko. He announced his return in December, just over a month after signing the letter. A lone wolf, the striker wasn't popular with his teammates. He didn't feel obliged to keep his word and nobody expected him to.  The next one was Yuran, who had significant problems at Benfica and thought that the World Cup could help him professionally. The striker's friends, especially Kolyvanov and Shalimov, were deeply disappointed with his decision and saw it as a betrayal.

That didn't prevent the Spartak stars coming back as well when their club coach Oleg Romantsev  made it clear that such a move was essential. Spartak intended to sell their top players and needed them at the World Cup to encourage potential buyers. In addition, Romantsev was considering Sadyrin after the World Cup and needed to make a gesture of good will towards the federation. His players didn't have any option but to listen to him, and so Karpin, Onopko, Khlestov and Nikiforov all agreed to make peace with Sadyrin, who accepted them back, albeit reluctantly.

The last refusenik to change his mind was Mostovoi. The midfielder was very close to Shalimov and didn't want to disappoint his friend, but eventually decided that his own career was more important than solidarity. He needed to find a new club, and as the World Cup drew closer felt that remaining loyal to a pact that he had opposed in the first place would be unwise.

"I told Sadyrin that I might come back when we met in Lisbon in January,” he said. “My situation at Benfica was desperate, and I barely played. Guys like Shalimov, Kiryakov and Kanchelskis were doing very well at their clubs, but I was stuck. I knew that I was about to be left without a team. I needed to be in the spotlight and the World Cup was my chance. Why should I have suffered because of someone's stubbornness? I never regretted my decision to go to the United States.

"I called Igor and told him that I was going to the tournament. He said that I should decide myself, but obviously wasn't happy." Mostovoi’s relationship with Shalimov was uneasy for several years although they did eventually patch things up.

And thus, only six key players eventually remained loyal to each other and refused to go to the biggest tournament of their lives – Shalimov, Kiryakov, Kanchelskis, Kolyvanov, Kulkov and Dobrovolsky.

"If someone can't keep his word, it's his problem,” Kanchelskis said. “I was unable to betray my friends. I gave my word and that was it.” Kiryakov's words are almost identical - “I gave my word and was unable to break it. How would I look into my friends' eyes if I betrayed them? That was absolutely out of question.”

In retrospect, both understand that they made a very big mistake and their words are very similar again.

"We were young and emotional,” said Kiryakov. “Nowadays, it is clear that we should have behaved differently. I wasn't too worried about the World Cup at the time. I was just 24, absolutely certain that my chance would come at future tournaments. Who could have known that we wouldn't qualify in 1998? That’s when I understood what I missed in 1994.”

"Of course, it was wrong to miss a World Cup,” said Kanchelskis. “I was young and didn't really understand what I was doing. I was certain that I would go in 1998 instead. I am sorry now, but what difference does it make? We can't turn back time.”

Curiously, their clubs didn't seem to be bothered with their decision at all. "My teammates at Karlsruhe congratulated me when Russia qualified, but didn't really care that I chose not to go,” Kiryakov said. “The coach, Winnie Schäfer, asked about the decision. I explained everything to him and the club fully supported me."

Kanchelskis doesn’t remember anybody at United saying anything to him about his decision.

Missing a number of stars wasn't Russia’s only problem at the World Cup, though. It turned out that accepting the refuseniks back might have been a grave mistake too. The players who remained loyal to Sadyrin felt betrayed by him, because they expected to be rewarded for their stance. Instead, some of them found themselves out of the starting line-up while those who tried to get rid of the coach took their place.

"Everyone was in their own camp,” Mostovoi said. “Myself and other players who signed the letter of 14 and returned felt like we didn't belong there. The atmosphere was disastrous, the attitude was even worse. We were a bunch of tourists really. In every training session, a couple of guys were working while others did nothing. The squad was good enough to perform if were a team, but we were not. It was obvious from the start that we were going to fail.”

Sadyrin seemingly felt powerless to fix the situation and probably even lacked the requisite motivation. He was emotionally exhausted after seven months of fraught negotiation. The tournament that could have been the pinnacle of his illustrious career turned into a nightmare long before the first game started. That was a huge disappointment for a man who basically did nothing wrong. In retrospect, all the players involved agree that their anger towards the coach was disproportionate.

The opener against Brazil was a very tough fixture anyway, but it was quite bizarre to watch the very inexperienced defender Vladislav Ternavsky trying to mark Romário. The Barcelona superstar duly scored in the 2-0 win and the margin could have been much greater.

The second fixture in Group B was the most important – against Sweden in Detroit. Sadyrin made five changes to the starting lineup, giving Mostovoi his only game of the tournament, while pairing Borodyuk with Salenko in attack. The start was promising as Borodyuk was fouled in the area and Salenko converted the penalty, but the team completely fell apart after Gorlukovich was sent off just after the break. The Swedes won 3-1 as Martin Dahlin scored twice with flying headers.

Russia couldn't finish in the top two, but there was a chance of qualification as one of the best third-place teams if Cameroon could be beaten soundly. And Cameroon, if anything, were in an even worse state than Russia. Sadyrin fielded yet another much changed side and Salenko became the only player ever to score five goals in a single World Cup match (which was enough to finish as the tournament's top scorer alongside Hristo Stoichkov). Roger Milla, meanwhile, scored to become the oldest player and scorer in World Cup history at the age of 42.

The Russians won 6-1 and fans waited for other results to go their way, but the players only wanted to go home. They got their wish and nobody was too disappointed. The atmosphere was so poisonous that some of the players couldn't stand each other.

Sadyrin left the national team immediately after the fiasco, to be replaced by Romantsev. Under the Spartak legend, all the stars returned to the national team. Shalimov, Kiryakov, Kanchelskis, Kolyvanov and Dobrovolsky were part of the squad that took part at Euro 96, where the dressing room imploded again leading to a disappointing exit at the group stage. None of them, though, was lucky enough to play at the World Cup – they were all past their best when the 2002 tournament came around. Shalimov at least had been part of the Soviet squad in Italy in 1990.

As for Sadyrin, he worked with Zenit and CSKA again, but never had the same success again. He died from cancer in 2001, at the age of 59. The hatred of Zenit and CSKA fans towards Shalimov remains strong, because he is held to have played some part in Sadyrin’s untimely death. Almost a quarter of a century might have passed, but the wound is still sore.