Full name: Lev Ivanovich Yashin
Date of birth: 22/10/1929
A goalkeeper who spent his entire career in Russia at the height of the Cold War – sound like the credentials of one of the game’s legends? Didn’t think so, yet Lev Yashin is exactly that. His physical attributes singled him out, standing 6’2” tall and athletically built in an age before ProZone or modern training techniques.
Coupled with his remarkable reflexes and agility, he was quite the package. Voted the greatest goalkeeper in the history of football by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS), the Soviet defined what a goalkeeper should be and his influence continues to be felt today.
Early life and career as a Dynamo
Born in Moscow on October 22nd 1929 when Stalin ruled the roost and the country was experiencing unparalleled economic upheavals, young Lev was unsurprisingly born to a family of industrial workers. During these tumultuous and arduous times, Lev himself ended up in the factory and operated as a metal worker in Moscow throughout World War II.
However, his first love was always football. Having been involved with the youth side since 1944, Yashin was called up to Dynamo Moscow’s senior side in 1949, thanks to an invite from incumbent coach, A.I. Chernyshov.
However, despite his undoubted talent, Dynamo’s pedigree of brilliant goalkeepers meant he had to wait for his chance, with club legend Aleksei ‘The Tiger’ Khomich (who would become his mentor) between the sticks.
He eventually made his first appearance with the club one year later on July 6th 1950 and never looked back, although whether this was due to a genuine, unfaltering love for the club or the fact that Dynamo Moscow was affiliated to the Interior Ministry, is something we will never know.
Over the course of twenty-two seasons for Dynamo between 1949 and 1970, Yashin provided the impetus for the club’s success, as they won the USSR Championship in 1954, 1955, 1957, 1959 and 1963.
This came alongside a series of second place finishes, often to arch-rivals Spartak, and victories in the USSR Cup in 1953, 1967 and 1970. Incredibly, Yashin was also involved in Russia’s other national sport, ice hockey, and represented HC Dynamo Moscow with some success, winning the USSR Ice Hockey Cup in 1953.
Above all, Yashin came to worldwide prominence for his exploits with the national team. Receiving his first call-up in 1954, the same season in which he won his first USSR Championship, Lev made the number 1 jersey his own just as he had at Moscow.
He also enjoyed near-immediate success, as the Soviets took their side to the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne and picked up the gold medal. This was followed by an even more impressive victory at the 1960 European Nations’ Cup (better known today as the European Championship), courtesy of a 2-1 victory after extra time in the final against Yugoslavia.
Yashin would also participate in the subsequent 1964 competition in Spain, where the Soviet team succumbed in the final to the host nation (a politically loaded contest between Communism and Franco’s authoritarian regime).
During his time with the national side, Lev was also involved in three world cups (1958, 1962 and 1966), with the Soviets reaching the semi-final in his last appearance.
While his time with the Soviets was littered with success, perhaps his greatest moment came in 1963 when he appeared as part of the Rest of the World XI against England in the FA’s centenary match. The ‘Black Panther’, as he was now known, due to his distinctive black outfit, made a string of sensational saves, fully justifying his more fearsome ‘Black Spider’ moniker to his opponents. He would appear for the Rest of the World XI again in 1968 against Brazil.
It was also this year that Yashin received the ultimate individual accolade, becoming the 1963 European Footballer of the Year. To this day, he remains the only goalkeeper to take the award. The plaudits didn’t end there either, as he picked up the Order of Lenin in 1967, the second highest honour in the Soviet Union.
Yashin concluded his career with the national side in 1967, having won 78 caps. He continued to play for Moscow, though, eventually retiring in 1971 with 326 appearances to his name. In honour of his incredible service to the game, FIFA reward him with a testimonial match in 1971 at Lenin Stadium in Moscow, between Dynamo and a European XI, in front of roughly 100,000 fans and fellow greats like Pele and Beckenbauer. When he eventually called time on his career proper, he had kept an astonishing 270 clean sheets, saving approximately 150 penalties in the process.
After his playing career, Lev continued to stay involved in the game, coaching a few junior sides in Finland. His legend was still a part of the Soviet consciousness, though, with Dynamo erecting a statue to the man and the state eventually making him a Hero of Socialist Labour with the Hammer and Sickle medal in 1989. This, combined with the Order of Lenin, meant that Yashin held the highest honour in the state.
Yashin died in 1990 as a result of problems with a previous leg amputation. Nevertheless, his name lives on. FIFA have since established the Lev Yashin Award for the best goalkeeper in the World Cup and the Russian Football Union named him their Golden Player of the last 50 years in 2003, a fitting tribute to one who contributed so much to Russian sport and football in general.
- European Footballer of the Year – Winner (1963)
- European Championship Winner – 1960
- Olympic Gold Medallist – 1956
- Hero of Socialist Labour (w/ Hammer and Sickle) – 1989
- Order of Lenin – 1967
- Best Goalkeeper of the USSR – Winner (1960, 1963, 1966)
- Olympic Order – 1986
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