That Lev Yashin was a one-off is hardly a newsflash. Most fans of the beautiful game will know that the ‘Black Spider’ revolutionised the art of goalkeeping, pioneering many of the techniques that have since become commonplace in this most demanding of positions.
What those same supporters might not realise is that Yashin was also unique in another respect. In 1963, half-a-century ago this year, he became the first and, to date, only goalkeeper to be awarded the Ballon d’Or. Yashin was approaching the age of 34 at the time and was not without high-calibre competition for the prize, with Gianni Rivera, Jimmy Greaves, Denis Law and Eusebio all helping to make up the top five.
But esteem and appreciation for this great Soviet icon had been steadily growing, and the previous year’s FIFA World Cup™ had reminded everyone that Yashin had character to match his quality. Twice he had been concussed during the tournament and each time he had played on undeterred, helping his team to reach the quarter-finals.
Certainly, when the English FA’s centenary was marked in ‘63 by a match against a ‘Rest of the World XI’, there was only one candidate to keep goal. Once again, Yashin performed majestically, and it would be by a comfortable margin that he would beat Rivera to the coveted France Football prize.
It took another 12 year for another Soviet, Oleg Blokhin, to follow in his footsteps, but no goalkeeper has ever managed to repeat Yashin’s remarkable feat. As the 2013 FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala approaches, and with only Manuel Neuer flying the flag for keepers in the 23-man shortlist, we salute the man who, 50 years ago, carved out a special niche in football history.