They call Europe ‘The Old Continent’. It undoubtedly is in football terms. England invented the sport as we know it, and its foremost tournament, the FIFA World Cup™, was midwifed by Frenchmen Jules Rimet and Henri Delaunay.
Competitions such as the English FA Cup and the Netherlands Football League, and clubs such as Nottingham Forest, Le Havre and Rangers, were established before European pioneers such as Alexander Hutton, Thomas Donohue, David Scott, Oscar Cox, Charles Miller and Henry Mortimer Durand had begun popularising it in other parts of the world.
Yet, curiously, this avant-gardism did not extend to international football. By 1957’s completion, UEFA had no international competition in existence, despite the aforementioned Delaunay having suggested one three decades earlier. By contrast, the AFC Asian Cup and the CAF Africa Cup of Nations were up and running, while ‘The Angels With Dirty Faces’ had propelled Argentina to their 11th conquest of the Copa America – a competition incepted in 1916 and already 25 editions old.
Belatedly, qualifying for the first instalment of the UEFA European Championship began in 1958, when Olympic champions Soviet Union beat Hungary 3-1. They were two of 17 teams competing for four tickets to France 1960, with the likes of Florian Albert, Joszef Bozsik, Mario Coluna, Alfredo Di Stefano, Francisco Gento, Gyula Grosics, Gerhard Hanappi, Valentin Ivanov, Bora Kostic, Ladislao Kubala, Josef Masapust, Harald Nielsen, Fernenc Puskas, Luis Suarez and Lev Yashin participating.
After a preliminary round and a first round, eight teams remained. Ultimately, Yugoslavia overcame a narrow first-leg loss by thumping Portugal 5-1 in Belgrade to claim a place at the finals, while Czechoslovakia and France cruised to aggregate victories over Romania and Austria respectively. Soviet Union, for their part, were given a bye after final preliminary adversaries Spain refused to travel to Moscow.
There were some outstanding players in Europe at that time, but Yashin was the best of them all.
The four qualifiers all had their credentials. France had beaten West Germany 6-3 in the bronze-medal match at the 1958 FIFA World Cup™, had averaged almost four goals per game during that tournament, and had home advantage. Soviet Union and Yugoslavia had contested the 1956 Olympic final. Czechoslovakia’s ‘golden generation’ would seize silver at both the World Cup and the Olympics.
In a pulsating first semi-final in Paris, Yugoslavia scored thrice in the last 15 minutes to turn a two-goal deficit into a 5-4 victory over France. Later that Wednesday, a Valentin Ivanov brace – and a penalty miss by Czechoslovakia No7 Josef Vojta, admittedly intimidated by the unprecedented spot-kick-saving reputation of Yashin – helped Soviet Union win 3-0 in Marseille and reach the final.
Three days later, 65 years ago this Friday, that final unfolded at the Parc des Princes. It did not take long for the crunching challenges to begin flowing, and only the reflexes of goalkeepers Yashin and Blagoje Vidinic preserved the deadlock until just before half-time. That was when Drazen Jerkovic crossed from the right and Milan Galic’s stooping header put Yugoslavia ahead.
That lead would have been swiftly doubled had it not been for Yashin, who made a superb save from a thunderous Kostic free-kick before repelling Galic’s close-range strike. The 30-year-old Muscovite’s opposite number could not follow suit minutes later, with Vidinic spilling a Valentin Bubukin shot into the path of Slava Metreveli, who slotted home a 49th-minute equaliser for Gavril Kachalin’s troops.
The Yugoslavia No1 did redeem himself when, diving and at full stretch, he punched the ball away to deny Ivanov a tap-in. However, it was Yashin who continued to steal the show, making a series of breathtaking saves which, coupled with Jerkovic failing to connect with a cross when the goal was at his mercy, ensured the contest went to extra-time.
With 113 minutes gone, Mikheil Meskhi tricked his marker down the left and delivered a pinpoint cross on to the head of Ponedelnik, who beat Vidinic from six yards to crown Soviet Union the maiden European champions. "There are matches and goals which are really special, sort of the climax of a player's sporting life," Ponedelnik later recalled. “That was mine.”
Not even Ponedelnik’s career capstone was enough to upstage Yahsin, though. “The saves he made in that game were exceptional,” said Soviet captain Igor Netto afterwards. “There were some outstanding players in Europe at that time, but Yashin was the best of them all.”
The web of ‘The Black Spider’ had entrapped Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. It had ensured that Soviet Union would forever be the first name on the Henri Delaunay Trophy.