Very few players in the history of football have made a bigger mark in the history books than Soviet goalkeeper Lev Yashin, who played 326 first team games for Dynamo Moscow between 1950 and 1970, and won the Olympics, Euros, five Soviet championships and three Soviet cup tournaments. Yashin was also awarded the Order of Lenin in 1967, which was the highest decoration bestowed by the Soviet Union. Last but not least did Yashin win the Balon d’Or, the honor given to Europe’s best football player. In 1963 and in 2000, FIFA graded him the best goalkeeper of the 20th century.
The story of Lev Yashin began on the 22nd of October 1929 in Moscow when he was born into a poor working family. Yashin did not have an easy childhood, and because of his family’s poverty they had to share a small apartment together with several other relatives. Because of the Second World War, or the Great Patriotic War as it was called in the Soviet Union, Yashin was forced to leave Moscow in 1941 and when he returned as a teenager in 1944 he got a job at a weapon factory. At the same time, the young Yashin began to play on the factory’s football team, which quickly took up most of his free time. It was on this factory team that Dynamo Moscow discovered the young goalkeeper and in 1949 he entered their youth department.
Even though Yashin was a promising goalkeeper, his life was not a walk in the park. At the age of 18, around one year before he moved to Dynamo, he had a nervous breakdown which forced him to quit his job at the weapon factory. Because of this he had to sign up for the army to avoid being reported for showing “lack of solidarity and unwillingness to work and contribute to the state”. Unfortunately for Yashin, his problems did not stay in his personal life, but also spilled over onto the football field, where he had a hard time impressing his new coaches at Dynamo. The problems on the pitch made him try the Soviet Union’s other popular sport ice hockey, where he rapidly evolved into one of the best goaltenders in the league. In 1953 he won the Soviet Cup with Dynamo’s ice hockey team and was graded as the league’s third best goalie. His performances made him a candidate for a place in the Soviet World Cup squad before the tournament in Sweden, but he decided to quit the sport instead and return to football.
Yashin had already got his debut for Dynamo in a friendly in 1950, but because he let the opponent goalkeeper score directly on a goal kick his coaches were not impressed. Yashin played two games in the 1950 season before he made the drastic move to Dynamo’s ice hockey team. The reason Yashin returned to football was that both his competitors in goal, Valter Sanaya and Alexei Khomich, left the club at the end of the 1953 season, which gave him one chance to become a regular starter for Dynamo. This time did he not fail, and already in his first season Dynamo won the double which granted him a spot on the Soviet Union’s national team, a spot he would not lose for more than a decade.
Even though Yashin’s many trophies speak for themselves, his greatest contribution to the game was the way he changed the goalkeeper position. Many experts agree that Yashin invented the modern goalkeeper we all praise and love today. While most goalkeepers back in Yashin;s days often kicked the ball aimlessly away after a save, Yashin saw an opportunity to play an active role in the build-up, and therefore he started to throw the ball to his teammates or to make accurate kicks that could start counterattacks. Another thing Yashin invented was for the goalkeeper to participate in the passing play outside the penalty area to help out his teammates as a sort of sweeper keeper. Beside all his tactical innovation, Yashin was also an excellent goalkeeper who recorded 270 clean sheets during his career. He was a brilliant shot stopper with great reflexes, but he also had the physical strength to dominate the penalty area (another Yashin invention was to intentionally box the ball away instead of always trying to catch it). In other words: he was the perfect goalkeeper.
Yashin won his first international trophy in 1956 when the Soviet Union won the football tournament at the Olympic Games in Melbourne. Four years later was he an important part of the Soviet team which won the first ever EURO, or the European Nations Cup as it was called back then. Besides these impressive triumphs, Yashin participated in four World Cups where the best result was a fourth place in the 1966 tournament, held in England.
During Yashin’s second World Cup in 1962, held in Chile, he delivered a shaky performance against Columbia in a game that ended 4-4. Yashin allowed his opponents to score directly on a corner kick, the only time this has ever happened at a World Cup. After the bad match by the Soviet players, and especially Yashin, the French newspaper L’Equpie concluded that the 33 year old goalkeeper was no longer the monster he used to be, and that he was over the hill. Only one year after this statement Yashin proved them wrong when he won the Balon d’Or award and thus the title as Europe’s best player, the first and only goalkeeper in history to receive the honor. The same year he won his last championship with Dynamo Moscow, who had to wait until 1976 before they won the league again.
Even though Yashin’s domestic achievements are impressive, it is his performances for the national team that made him legendary. Yashin was always dressed entirely in black which gave him iconic nicknames like “The Black Spider” and “The Black Panther” because of his clothes and abilities. During his career Yashin saved around 150 penalty kicks because of his strong reflexes and therefore it almost became an honour to score against him. Englishman Tom Finney scored against Yashin in the 1958 World Cup and afterwards he described the feeling like this:
“I went to take it and there was Yashin in goal. He was an incredible keeper and used to stop a lot of penalty kicks, while he was also an intimidating figure, dressed all in black. I decided to shoot with my weaker right foot because I knew that he had seen me taking penalties with my left. And I scored! I tricked Yashin!”
Finney’s statement proves how terrified the opposing strikers were of Yashin.
Lev Yashin stopped his career in 1970 at the age of 40 after one last cup title with Dynamo. Although he had lost his spot on the national team a while before, Yashin was included in the World Cup squad the same year. Yashin was both third keeper and assistant coach and even though he did not play, he played an important role as mentor for the younger players.
In 1971, more than 100.000 fans said goodbye to Yashin when he played his testimonial at Lenin Stadium in Moscow. Football legends like Pelé, Eusebio, Bobby Charlton, Gerd Müller and Franz Beckenbauer all played on the opposing team, which proves just how big a star Lev Yashin was.
After his retirement Yashin coached different youth teams for around ten years, until he was hit by a thrombus in the leg that forced it to be amputated in 1986. The thrombus was the result of Yashin being a smoker for a long time, and he even used it as a part of his warm up for the big games. He described his secret recipe for success this way:
”The trick is to smoke a cigarette to calm your nerves and then take a big swig of strong liquor to tone your muscles.”
Yashin died of stomach cancer only four years later in 1990 at the age of 60. Yashin was given a state funeral as a Russian Master of Sport. Between 1994 and 2006, the award for the World Cup’s best goalkeeper was called the Lev Yashin Award, and in 1997 Dynamo Moscow raised a statue in his honor. Lev Yashin was the first Soviet goalkeeper to ever achieve 100 clean sheets and to this day Russian goalkeepers still dream of reaching this landmark and thus joining the legendary “Lev Yashin Club”.
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Author: Toke Møller Theilade
Brøndby supporter, groundhopper and more importantly Editor-in-Chief at Russianfootballnews.com. As a hopeless romantic, I still believe Fyodor Smolov and Viktoria Lopyreva has a future together.