There have been many great goalkeepers in the history of the game. They range from the sober, colder types to the theatrical, colourful types and everything in between. But there is one man who is universally acclaimed through the decades to be the greatest of them all. In an age when Di Stéfano, Pelé, Charlton and Facchetti shone on the field, Soviet goalkeeper Lev Ivanovich Yashin stood out for his excellence between the sticks.
In the late 1950s and ’60s, one goalkeeper became the most accomplished and beloved of his era. At a time when the Soviet Union played with CCCP emblazoned across its uniform, he was the standout star in the net, wearing a trademark all-black uniform. This uniform would become legendary and, along with his impeccable skills, would earn him many nicknames: ‘Black Spider’, ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Black Octopus’ to name just a few.
While his talent on the field was clear for all to see, it was his demeanour off the field that also enhanced his legend. He was a friendly, open, jovial character, and all around gentleman, who was at ease in the company of journalists and fans alike.
His story begins at a time of turmoil for his country, bookended between two World Wars and a revolution. Lev Yashin was born on October 22, 1929, in Moscow and was only 12 when the Soviets entered the war. While men were sent off fighting, boys as young as him were forced to help with the war effort. He trained as an electrical mechanic and worked in a factory at Tushino, just north of Moscow.
It was at this factory that he made his early forays into athletics. He was talented even as a youngster and excelled in many sports, including basketball, ice hockey and, of course, football.
Following the end of the war, Yashin he began his compulsory military service; it was during his period that he was spotted as a potential talent by Dynamo Moscow youth coach Arkady Chernyshov, and subsequently joined their ranks in 1949. However, his path to the first team was arduous. The starting goalkeeper was another star in his own right, Alexei ‘Tiger’ Khomich, who had dazzled the West when Dynamo Moscow had toured Britain just after the war.
Such was Khomich’s excellence that Yashin actually contemplated giving up football and turning to ice hockey. Yashin was such a gifted athlete that he had already excelled in that sport for Dynamo.
Yashin stuck it out, however, and finally got his chance in 1953 after an injury to Khomich. The youngster’s performances didn’t go unnoticed and within a year he had his chance to play for the national team, one that had just re-entered the international arena.
In his international debut on 8 September 1954 the Soviet Union defeated Sweden 7-0. The global football audience first got a glimpse of him when he helped the USSR triumph in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. But it was during the 1958 World Cup that he became a phenomenon in his position.
It was there that everyone was able to witness the attributes that were to become the hallmark of Yashin. His long arms were one of his greatest assets as he could reach even the most brilliantly placed shots – it was indeed this gift that earned him the nickname of Black Spider. Despite his tall frame, he was surprisingly very coordinated and agile. Observers noticed his commanding presence in his box, whereby he would shout instructions to his defenders with regards to their positioning. Another advantage that journalists at the time noticed was his ability to read the game so well that he could anticipate the opposition forward’s movement, position and shot direction.
He was also astute when it came to crosses, and his first-time releases for quick counter-attacks were revolutionary at the time. He was an innovator in the position of ‘keeper-sweeper, was not glued to his line and was often out of his goal area and participating in build-ups.
Despite being all business on the field, he was jolly and friendly with fans off it. He would not shy away from the journalists and lived the model pro’s life.
Even though the Soviets were eliminated in the quarter-finals by their Swedish hosts, Yashin was selected as the best goalkeeper of the tournament. He would even be more impressive two years later when helping the Soviets to win their first trophy, the fledgeling European Nations’ Cup. In the final versus rivals Yugoslavia he was constantly tested by his opponents, but kept them at bay and led his nation to glory.
However, the following year the Soviet authorities were starting to have doubts over his ability. He was dropped for three matches in June and July of ’61 and was replaced by Lokomotiv Moscow’s Vladimir Maslachenko. By August, Yashin had regained his spot.
Despite regaining his place, by the time of the 1962 World Cup in Chile, he was 32-years-old and there were still some misgivings about him due to his age. During the finals, his confidence was severely shaken after committing two serious errors against Colombia – including being beaten directly from a corner – that led to a 4-4 tie.
This poor form carried over into the quarter-finals against host nation Chile. La Roja scored twice and Yashin seemed far from his confident self. It was later revealed that he had suffered a concussion in a collision with a Chilean player. This would go some way to explain his uncharacteristically poor display, but to the minds of many – the press, the Soviet FA and even the public – he was seen as past his best and made a scapegoat for their perceived failures.
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Although he was the scapegoat for the World Cup in Chile, he still retained the confidence of his new national team manager, Konstantin Beskov.
Despite his lack of form, one event would change his fortunes and place him back on top. On October 23, 1963, a match was arranged at Wembley between England and a World XI to celebrate the centenary of the English FA. Chilean manager Fernando Riera selected Yashin as one of his goalkeepers.
The previously written off Yashin played one of his most memorable matches in a highly visible setting and pulled off an array of world-class saves, one in particular from Jimmy Greaves drawing gasps from the crowd. This impressive display signalled his return to form, with Yashin later stating that he believed it prolonged his career.
A few weeks later, on November 10, he was instrumental in earning the USSR a draw in Italy in a European Championship qualifier and capped off another memorable display by saving a penalty from Sandro Mazzola. At the end of the year, his remarkable comeback had made enough of an impression that he was awarded France Football’s Ballon d’Or award. He remains the only goalkeeper to have ever won it.
He officially received this trophy prior to the European Championship quarter-final against Sweden on May 27, 1964, a game the USSR won 3-1 in front of more than 100,000 fans in Moscow. At the time he considered this to be his greatest achievement.
He was still the starting goalkeeper when the Soviet Union entered the 1966 World Cup, his third appearance at the finals. In the First Round he was rested for two matches as he was carrying a slight injury, but he was back during the knock-out stages and once again proved that he was the best goalkeeper in the world.
After helping the Soviets defeat the much-fancied Hungary in the quarter-finals, he, like the rest of his teammates, succumbed to a strong West German side led by veteran Uwe Seeler and a young Franz Beckenbauer. Despite the loss to the Germans, Yashin had been excellent. His World Cup career was over in the third place playoff days later, where he was unable to stop a penalty from Eusébio condemning the USSR to defeat.
After the World Cup, and now in his late-30s, he slowly wound down his career. His last international appearance was on July 16, 1967, in a European Championship qualifier against Greece – a 4-0 victory – and he retired with his one and only club Dynamo Moscow in 1970 after more than two decades of service.
His farewell match took place on May 27, 1971, in Moscow between a Moscow XI featuring himself and a World XI captained by Bobby Charlton and including Facchetti, Lubanski and Gerd Müller among others. It was testament to his brilliance and respect around the world that so many stars crossed the Iron Curtain to bid him farewell.
He ended his playing career with five league titles at Dynamo Moscow and three cups. He earned the respected title of Master of Sport, as well as the Order of Lenin. After retirement he joined the Soviet Ministry of Sport and also served Dynamo Moscow in various positions at administrative level.
He was once asked in an interview to name his most memorable match. His response was “any victory, even in a friendly”, although he felt the match at Wembley with the World XI in 1963 due to its ramifications for the rest of his career was a standout. He also fondly remembered the Stanley Matthews Testimonial in 1965 where a glittering array of world stars came together in one epic showdown. One of his most favourite memories was carrying Matthews on his shoulders with Ferenc Puskás at the end of the match, declaring Matthews as one of the greatest players he ever saw.
Unfortunately, the final years of his life were characterised by disagreements at Dynamo. He fell out with club chairman Piotr Bogdanov, whose political clout presented Yashin with difficulties away from the game. Allegedly, Yashin was not permitted to leave the country on numerous occasions since the authorities would routinely refuse to grant a visa to his wife. This was a reason why he failed to attend Dino Zoff’s farewell match in 1983, among other potential travels.
In 1986, a blood clot in his leg necessitated its amputation and a few years later, on March 20, 1990, he passed away from stomach cancer aged 60, with his wife Valentina by his side, along with his two daughters, Irina and Elena.
On March 21, 1990, USSR’s Dnipro were hosting Benfica in the European Cup at the Meteor Stadium. It was during the match that news of Yashin’s death was announced. Eusébio, who was part of Benfica’s delegation, was seen weeping for his legendary contemporary and friend. Portugal’s greatest player declared him “the peerless goalkeeper of the century.”
Despite his declining health, as well as his difficulties with Dynamo officials, he was a smiling gentleman to the end, respected by the public and his peers, and remains perhaps the greatest goalkeeper in the history of football.
By Shahan Petrossian. Follow @sp1873