Illustration by Federico Manasse
How do you measure greatness? Statistics, trophies and personal accolades are often touted as the benchmarks, but for Lev Yashin, the best indication is through the reputation he garnered. Playing in the least fashionable position in an era long before regular wall-to-wall coverage hidden by the closed borders of the Soviet Union made this job nigh on impossible, but he remains the most revered Russian footballer.
The only goalkeeper to be awarded the Ballon d’Or, Yashin was a man whose name travelled before him. Sir Tom Finney was reportedly so concerned with the man facing him in goal against the Soviet Union in the 1958 World Cup, that he decided to take his penalty with his weaker right foot just to try and confuse his opponent. Although the Englishman was successful, many were not; Yashin is claimed to have saved well over 100 penalties in his career.
By then he had already won major international honours at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, but it was the tournament in Sweden – the first to be broadcast internationally – that really launched him onto the global conscience. His image was part of the legend too; standing at nearly six foot three inches, and kitted out completely in black, he was an intimidating sight for opposing forwards.
He didn’t always possess such confidence, though, and nearly missed out on a football career altogether. When he joined Dinamo Moscow’s setup as a teenager, he initially couldn’t make it into the first team after suffering the indignity of conceding direct from a goal kick, and instead decided to play in goal for the sport society’s ice hockey team, with whom he won the Soviet Cup in 1953. Before he had joined the club, he had suffered severe anxiety issues that forced him to quit his job. Injuries to key rivals gifted him a second chance, however, and he took it with renewed strength.
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His role on the pitch was supposed to be rigidly confined to the goalmouth area, with goalkeepers of the day simply stopping the opposition from scoring, but part of Yashin’s greatness stemmed from his approach to playing. He began to involve himself in starting attacks by working on his distribution, and would act as an extra outfield player in possession, long before Manuel Neuer made the modern sweeper-keeper popular.
A European Championship win in 1960 added to his international silverware, and the Black Spider – as he was known, an account of his agility of presence and kit colour – would go on to win three Soviet Cups, five Soviet Top League titles and finish runner-up six more times for his only club, Dinamo. It is said he kept over 250 clean sheets in his entire career; to put that in context, Igor Akinfeev has recently broken the record for clean sheets in Russian football with 170. He has even been added to the latest edition of FIFA’s computer game as an iconic player, complete with his traditional flat cap.
His outstanding ability on the pitch was remarkable enough, but his strength of character to overcome adversity marked him out even more. He famously calmed his nerves before games with a cigarette and a swig of whiskey, but over time his confidence was built on his character. At the 1962 World Cup in Chile, he was largely written off as a finished player at 33 years of age after he conceded directly from a corner against Colombia. A year later, and he was named the best player on the planet.
As it turns out, it doesn’t matter how you measure Lev Yashin’s greatness – whichever way one looks at him, he is an undisputed legend of the game.