There are relatively few players whose sheer brilliance have helped revolutionise the game of football, but former Russia No1 Lev Yashin is unquestionably one of them. Pre-Yashin, goalkeepers routinely spent the 90 minutes waiting patiently between the sticks to be called into action, with the former Soviet Union stalwart one of the first custodians to stamp his authority on the entire defensive third.
For Yashin, mere shot-stopping was not enough: he was constantly barking orders at his defenders, coming off his line to intercept crosses and charging out to meet onrushing attackers, thus commanding his penalty area with real aplomb. The Moscow native attributed his success, in part, to his hatred of conceding goals.
"What kind of a goalkeeper is the one who is not tormented by the goal he has allowed?" he said. "He must be tormented! And if he is calm, that means the end. No matter what he had in the past, he has no future.
Yashin was not just a great keeper, but also one of the biggest characters the sport has ever seen. Bursting on to the world football scene at the 1958 FIFA World Cup Sweden™, the first to be broadcast internationally thanks to the Soviet satellite Sputnik II, Yashin’s popularity grew rapidly thanks to his imposing displays and abundant charisma. Dressed head to toe in black and able to smother even the fiercest of efforts, his nickname of the 'Black Spider' only enhanced his iconic status.
The ascent of a icon
Born in Moscow on 22 October 1929, Lev Ivanovich Yashin was still a young boy come the outbreak of the Second World War. Even so, by the age of 12 he had been drafted in to work in the munitions industry, though this at least gave him the chance to shine for the factory’s football team. His agility soon caught the eye of Dinamo Moscow, who brought the youngster into their junior side in 1949. This would be the start of Yashin’s love affair with Dinamo, his one and only club with whom he would play over 300 first-team games, claiming four Soviet titles and two USSR Cup successes, before retiring in 1971.
But it was in the black goalkeeper’s jersey of the former Soviet Union that Yashin gained worldwide fame, over the course of 75 caps earned between 1954 and 1970. And it was no coincidence that his time guarding his nation's goal coincided with their golden footballing era, a period which included victory at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Melbourne 1956, the 1960 European Championship in France and impressive outings at three World Cups.
Having reached the quarter-finals at both Sweden 1958 and Chile 1962, Soviet Union went one better by finishing fourth at England 1966 – their best finals’ performance to date. Though he travelled with the squad to Mexico 1970, Yashin was no longer first choice and failed to make an appearance, leaving his World Cup statistics at 13 games and four clean sheets.
So great was the esteem Yashin was held in at the time, scoring a goal past him became a genuine badge of honour. “We were 2-1 down when the ref awarded us a penalty," recalled ex-England winger Tom Finney on his showdown with the great man in the first round of Sweden 1958. "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!” added Finney, understandably elated at outwitting a man estimated to have saved an astonishing 150 spot-kicks during his career.
Such was the thrill of a penalty save to Yashin that he commented: “The joy of seeing Yuri Gagarin flying in space is only superseded by the joy of a good penalty save.”
Peculiar pre-game prep
One of the former Soviet Union’s most famous figures during the Cold War period, Yashin’s performances and personality sparked enormous curiosity across the globe. Yet, if we are to believe the player himself, his recipe for big-game success was unorthodox to say the least. “The trick is to smoke a cigarette to calm your nerves and then take a big swig of strong liquor to tone your muscles.”
Whether that was indeed his secret or not, Yashin was able to heighten recognition of the goalkeeper’s art even during a period when lethal goalscorers such as Eusebio and Alfredo Di Stefano were at the peak of their powers. Underlining his impact was victory in the 1963 Ballon d’Or, awarded to the European player of the year, with the ‘Black Spider’ still the only keeper to have claimed the prestigious individual prize.
That was by no means the only honour bestowed on him during his life, with Yashin, who passed away in 1990, also receiving the former Soviet Union’s highest distinction, the Order of Lenin, in 1968. His farewell game in 1971 was played out in front of 100,000 fans and featured the likes of Pele, Eusebio and Franz Beckenbauer, while over time his name has grown ever more synonymous with excellence between the sticks.
So much so that the award for the finest custodian at each World Cup between 1994 and 2006 carried his name. Yet further proof, if it were needed, that since Yashin the position of goalkeeper has never been the same.