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World Cup Legend

Lev Yashin: Russian Revolutionary

April 29, 2010
By Mark Lomas
(Archive)

"The joy of seeing Yuri Gagarin flying in space is only superseded by the joy of a good penalty save." Lev Yashin

Soviet Union goalkeeper Lev Yashin was a true football revolutionary, who transformed the way people viewed his position and became a shining example to future generations of stoppers. Oozing charisma and talent in abundance, Yashin earned iconic status for pioneering a new approach to playing between the posts and is regularly attributed the title of "greatest goalkeeper to have played the game".

Lev Yashin
GettyImagesThe "Black Spider" made 75 appearances for the Soviet Union

Part of the USSR squad for four World Cups, Yashin made an indelible impression on the competition and the global audience, who from1958 were finally privy to events at the finals thanks to Soviet satellite Sputnik II beaming pictures to TV screens worldwide.

Like any goalkeeper, Yashin loved to make saves - foiling an estimated 150 penalty attempts during an illustrious 22-year career. But what set the 6ft 3in Yashin apart from his peers was his ability and enthusiasm for organising the defence in front of him. In an era where goalkeepers were never considered for the role of captain, Yashin would have made a fine skipper; his insistence on barking orders to the backline in front of him were a regular feature of games involving the Soviet Union and club side Dinamo Moscow.

Yashin played for Dinamo for the entirety of his career, having been brought into their junior side after being spotted playing for the team of the local munitions factory where he had worked from the age of 12. But Yashin's success was far from instantaneous and he struggled to break into the first team, choosing instead to play in goal for ice hockey team HC Dynamo Moscow, where, in 1953, he won the Soviet Cup.

But football was to prove his real calling and in the 1953 season he began to cement his status as a permanent fixture between the posts. A year later he made his debut for the Soviet Union and in 1958 he appeared on the global stage for the first time, in what was also his country's World Cup debut. Kitted out in all-black, Yashin was christened the "Black Spider", a nickname that recognised both the colour of his attire and his ability to save from impossible situations - making it seem at times like he had eight limbs.

Before the 1958 finals, Yashin had already built up a formidable reputation as a fearless player, happy to come off his line and close down oncoming forwards at a time when goalkeepers were expected to stand quietly between the sticks waiting for an attack to come.

His aptitude for preventing opponents for scoring was borne out of a genuine contempt for conceding goals, with the stopper once saying: "What kind of a goalkeeper is the one who is not tormented by the goal he has allowed?" 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."

Lev Yashin
GettyImagesYashin in action against West Germany in the 1966 semi-final

At their first attempt, the Soviet Union made it the World Cup quarter finals, drawing with England, beating Austria and losing to Brazil in the group stages. Though the score against the eventual champions was 2-0, Yashin was in imperious form, as a young Pele failed to find a goal and the score was kept at a respectable level. The goalkeeper kept his second clean sheet of the tournament as Soviet Union beat England 1-0 in a play-off to decide who advanced from the group, but an exit followed at the hands of Sweden in the last eight.

Soviet Union returned to compete at the 1962 finals in Chile, but it was to be quarter-final agony again as Yashin proved his infallibility. After keeping a clean sheet in the opening game against Yugoslavia, Yashin had a torrid time in the next against Colombia, conceding straight from Marcos Coll's corner - the only time a direct corner has been scored in World cup history.

Things went from bad to worse for the man considered at that time to be the best goalkeeper in the world as the blame for the 2-1 quarter-final defeat to Chile was placed squarely on Yashin after he let in two soft goals. Such was the goalkeeper's reputation at the time, Chilean goalscorer Eladio Rojas, whose strike turned out to be the winner, hugged Yashin in disbelief that he had beaten the legendary figure.

Yashin's erratic performances at the 1962 finals led French newspaper L'Equipe to proclaim that the 33-year-old goalkeeper was a fading force. But less than 12 months later, he was named European Footballer of the Year, and he remains the only goalkeeper to have ever won the prestigious Balon d'Or. When asked about the secret of his success, Yashin said: "The trick is to smoke a cigarette to calm your nerves and then take a big swig of strong liquor to tone your muscles."

He may have proved that his World Class credentials were still intact, but Yashin was determined to properly atone for the mistakes in Chile, and he had the opportunity to do just that at the 1966 finals. The Soviet Union of the 1960s was the country's golden generation, with Yashin playing his part in the triumph at the inaugural European Championship in 1960 and runners-up spot at the 1964 tournament.

And at the 1966 World Cup, he was back to his best as the USSR reached their first, and thus far only, semi-final. He produced an impossible save against Hungary in the quarter-finals to ensure his side held on to a place in the last four, but was helpless as the Soviet Union lost to both West Germany and then Portugal in the third-place play-off.

Lev Yashin and Eusebio
PA PhotosLegends: USSR goalkeeper Lev Yashin and Portugal striker Eusebio meet at the 1966 finals

Yashin had salvaged his World Cup legacy, but the match against Portugal was to be his last at the finals. Though he was included in the 1970 squad - two years after receiving the Soviet Union's highest distinction, the Order of Lenin - it was Anzor Kavazashvili who would be the USSR's first choice stopper. With 75 caps to his name, retirement followed soon after, and 100,000 fans watched his farewell game, which featured the likes of Pele, Eusebio and Franz Beckenbauer.

After suffering complications from an earlier leg amputation, Yashin died in 1990, but his memory was preserved forever when FIFA established the Yashin Award ahead of the 1994 World Cup as an honour to be bestowed upon the goalkeeper considered the top performer at the finals.

Undoubtedly one of the greatest players in history, Yashin pioneered a new approach to goalkeeping and his legacy lives on through every stopper playing football today; commanding the area, communicating with the defence, punching away clearances and early distribution are commonplace now because of the Soviet Union legend. Yashin was, and remains, in the words of the great Eusebio, "the peerless goalkeeper of the century".