Lev Yashin never wanted to be a goalkeeper. In fact he never even wanted to be a footballer. But the young man who first tried boxing and then went through a number of other sports before finally settling on football went on to become, in the eyes of many, the World’s greatest-ever goalkeeper.
Yashin remains such an icon that even now, 28 years after his death, he remains such an iconic figure in Russia, and indeed World football that his image adorned posters for the 2018 World Cup
When he finally switched to football it was as a winger that he first tried to make his mark. Playing for his factory’s team he was gradually pushed back through the side until goalkeeper was, basically, the only place left to go.
Yashin was born in 1929 and due to his height was called ‘Eiffel Tower’ by classmates when he first went to school, aged seven. The gangling youngster tried to dissuade other kids from using the name through fighting them but proved mostly unsuccessful due to a lack of coordination.
His father pushed him at sports. As Lev later explained; “I ran, did the high jump, shot putt, discus, took fencing lessons, had a go at boxing, diving, wrestling, skating, tried basketball, played ice-hockey, water polo, and football.
“I spent my winters on skis and skates and in the summer I was playing basketball and football.”
A young Lev
There was an extremely serious side to Yashin’s formative years. In 1941, at the age of 11, Lev and his family were forced to leave Moscow due to the threat posed by the invading Germans.
They relocated, along with the munitions factory Yashin’s father worked in to Ulyanovsk, 800km east of Moscow. This, he later said, was when his childhood ended. In 1943, just before his 14th birthday, Yashin started work at the same factory, making bullets.
Football, and other sports, became secondary. Then, finally, when it was deemed safe for factory and family to return to Moscow, football came back. “By the time the war was almost over,” he recalled, “I got into the factory youth football team.”
The conflict and the deprivations suffered during it clearly left a mark but Yashin managed to use it positively. “In war we received an experience that no course can ever teach,” he would later write in his autobiography. “[Later} When we were competing for championships and titles we weren’t thinking about the rewards victory might bring but were happy instead just to be able to play football”.
The Reluctant Goalkeeper
Yashin’s career as a ‘keeper seemed to stem not from a specific skill between the posts but more from a lack of it elsewhere. As he later said: “I wanted to be a forward – I was always dreaming about hitting goals – but gradually I got moved back and back until I became a goalkeeper.”
One match in particular stoked his ambition, and it was one that took place in London. Yashin recalled; “I’ll never forget the time in 1945 when I crouched over the radio listening to the commentary of the match between Dynamo and Chelsea.
“I almost became Tiger Khomich, the Dynamo goalkeeper. When he finally came out evens with Tommy Lawton, and Dynamo drew 3-3, I was leaping and screaming with joy.
But it still wasn’t plain sailing. In 1948 he suffered a nervous breakdown and lost his appetite for sport. ‘The fatigue accumulated over the years began to make itself felt and something in me suddenly broke”. He would later recall. Later that year he joined the Army, a move he would later call his ‘salvation’.
He began representing the Dynamo team at both football and ice hockey (as goalkeeper and goal tender) in the early 50s. The football debut, in 1951, was inauspicious. “Beskov [the coach] sent me on as a substitute,” he remembered later. “And I let my first goal through minutes later. It wasn’t a good beginning.”
For a time it was the ice game that took centre-stage, so much so that he won a national title with Dynamo in 1953. Soon after he was considered a candidate for the Soviet team at the upcoming Ice Hockey World Cup in Sweden but he then abruptly turned his back on the sport to focus of football.
Dynamo with Lev in trademark cap
One of the main reasons behind this change of sport was that the aforementioned Khomich and Valter Sanaya, the top two choices in the Dynamo goal, decided to retire at the same time leaving an opening. He grabbed with both hands.
In his first season as the team’s full-time ‘keeper Dynamo won the double and he was chosen for the national team, a position he would keep for over 10 years.
Yashin’s contribution to goalkeeping tactics is immeasurable. He is commonly regarded as the first ‘keeper to play balls out tactically rather than aimlessly, throwing it out or kicking to a specific teammate. He is generally considered to have been the first sweeper-keeper. And he was also an early proponent of punching the ball away when under aerial pressure.
None of these should take away from his shot-stopping ability. The super-sharp reflexes honed playing ice hockey were to prove a tremendous attribute and for a man of his size (6ft 2in) he was able to get down to low shots with remarkable speed.
‘I Tricked Yashin!‘
It was in 1956 that Yashin first made his mark on the international scene, winning a goal medal in the Melbourne Olympics. Two years later, at the World Cup in Sweden, he got the attention of an even wider audience winning Goalkeeper of the Tournament.
His exploits included a fantastic display in his nation’s 1-0 win over England in a group play-off match as the Soviets reached the quarter-finals before being eliminated by the hosts.
In the group match against England, the opponents grabbed a draw thanks to a late Tom Finney penalty. Describing the spot kick later, Finney recalled; ‘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 an intimidating figure dressed all in black.
“I decided to shoot with my weaker foot because I knew that he had seen me taking penalties. And I scored! I tricked Yashin!”
Pele and Yashin
Also during that tournament, whilst sitting in the team hotel Yashin grabbed a young boy and said to his wife Valentina; “see this kid? He will become the greatest player in the World.” The young boy was a 17-year-old Pele.
Safe hands on the Henri Delauney trophy
In 1960, the finals of the first European Nations Cup took place in France. Only four teams went through to the finals after two qualifying rounds. The Soviet Union team had beaten Hungary in the first qualifier and General Franco forbade the Spanish team from travelling to Moscow for the second round clash giving them a walkover and a place in the last four.
In the finals Yashin played a huge role, keeping a clean sheet in the semi-final win over Czechoslovakia and then keeping his side in the game when Yugoslavia threatened to overrun them in the final. Viktor Ponedelnik eventually scored an injury time winner to allow the Soviets to claim that initial title. The only downside to his team’s victory was that he lost what had become his trademark hat to a fan in the post-match celebrations. He never replaced it.
Yashin’s performances earned him a nomination for the coveted Ballon d’Or and he finished 5th in the final voting before moving up to 4th in 1961. Later that year he was dropped by the national team. He earned his place back after three matches but many thought that, at 32 his skills were in decline.
The 1962 World Cup seemed to prove that Yashin’s star was indeed waning. After a shaky performance in a 4-4 draw with Colombia, which included conceding a goal direct from a comer, his display in the quarter-final against Chile was also uncharacteristically poor with both Chile goals attributed to him, although it was later reported that he had suffered a concussion in a collision with an opponent.
During and after the tournament Yashin was heavily criticised in the Soviet press and by fans who met the team at the airport with signs saying ‘Yashin retire’. But he retained the faith of national team manager Konstantin Beskov and bounced back to his best form in 1963.
Chosen for the Rest of the World squad against England as part of the FA’s centenary celebrations he was picked by team manager Fernando Riera – The Chile manager – to start the game and wowed the Wembley crowd with a string of stunning saves, including one from Jimmy Greaves that, according to a contemporary report ‘brought a collective gasp from those in attendance’.
Next he almost single-handedly earned his country a draw in a Nations Cup qualifier in Italy where saving a penalty from Sandro Mazzola was only part of his exploits.
That Rest of the World game at Wembley was a rarity in that Yashin wore a yellow shirt. Prior to and after this he had always worn the same ‘black’ shirt which earned him the nicknames that went with him through his life (‘The Black Panther’ or ‘The Black Spider’). In fact, many years later his wife Valentina revealed that the jersey he wore was in fact ‘A very dark blue’.
The Ballon D’Or
Yashin capped off a stunning comeback year by finally being awarded the Ballon d’Or after the previous near-misses, and is still the only goalkeeper to have won the award in its 60-year history.
For a player whose career was thought to be in its dying stages in 1963 it is quite amazing that Yashin was still a key member, and indeed skipper, of the Soviet Union team at the 1966 World Cup in England. Carrying a slight injury at the start of the tournament, he was rested for a couple of matches but was outstanding in the quarter-final win over Hungary before Russia succumbed to West Germany in the semis and then lost out to Portugal in the 3rd/4th playoff match.
Yashin tends to an injured Seeler
In the semi-final at Goodison Park, Yashin ran out of his area while play carried on to help opposing centre-forward Uwe Seeler who had been injured. This act of sportsmanship was emblematic of the way he always played the game and it earned him cheers from fans at the ground.
Yashin played his final game for his country in 1967, at the age of 37 but continued playing for Dynamo Moscow, his one and only club, and with whom he had won five national titles and three cups, almost until his 40th birthday. Such was his affinity for Dynamo that he wore the club shirt when playing for the national team.
A Tribute Match – And Retirement
Lev with Bobby Charlton at his farewell match
On May 27 1971 a Moscow XI played a World XI in Yashin’s farewell match. Bobby Charlton captained the World team and the likes of Gerd Muller and Giacinto Facchetti lined up to pay tribute to the great man.
Playing in his farewell match
After retiring, Yashin was presented with the ‘Order of Lenin’ but mostly lived a quiet life, still resident in the same Moscow flat where he had spent most of his life, and enjoying more gentle pastimes like fishing. He did, however sometimes have disputes with the authorities over their refusal to allow visas for his wife Valentina to attend some of the many football events he was invited to around the world.
The great man had suffered with stomach problems from very early in his career and these gradually worsened as he aged. A blood clot in his leg necessitated an amputation in 1986. He also suffered two heart attacks and two strokes and in March 1990 he passed away from stomach cancer.
With Eusebio in 1966
Eusebio, who had scored a penalty against him in that 1966 World Cup playoff match, called Yashin ‘the peerless goalkeeper of the century’ a view shared, it seems by almost everyone who played against him during his long, distinguished career. He was named in FIFA’s ‘Team of the Century’ in 1998 and has received numerous other accolades since his passing.
A mural in Moscow
Yashin revolutionised goalkeeping. His positional play, willingness to venture far from his goal line and great distribution were all revolutionary at the time but have since become a staple of any good keeper’s resume.
Franz Beckenbauer enjoys dinner at the Yashins
Off the pitch, the Muscovite was just as much a pioneer, forming lasting friendships with many footballers (Franz Beckenbauer visits his grave when in the Russian capital), and earning the adoration of fans all around the world with his stunning skills, warm personality and ready smile.
Hanging out with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood
During an age when the Soviet Union was viewed by the western world as a dark and somewhat sinister place, Lev Ivanovich Yashin could be said to have been the shining light.
The Lev Yashin Statue at Dynamo Park in Moscow