Though the game of football has seen many great goalkeepers over the years, but one name still stands head and shoulders above everyone else. Lev Ivanovich Yashin is one of the most beloved football figures in the Soviet Union (Russia) and the wider football world. Thanks to his trademark all-black kit, Yashin was known by many different nicknames, such as the Black Spider, Black Octopus, and more famously the Black Panther.
Yashin's early life was far from a walk in the park. When he was just 12 years old, the then Soviet Union entered World War II, and Yashin was forced to support the war effort by working in a factory. Despite being a talented ice hockey and football player, the constant work wore Yashin down and at 18 years old, he suffered a nervous breakdown and lost his appetite for sport.
At that point, however, one of Yashin's friends at the factory suggested joining the military service. For Yashin, this was a chance at salvation and by combining military duties and football, he found his motivation, recommitted to training and was soon noticed by Arkady Chernyshov, a Dynamo Moscow youth coach.
Despite joining Dynamo in 1950, Yashin had to wait for his opportunity between the posts. The club's starting goalkeeper at the time was Alexei "Tiger" Khomich, a legendary keeper in his own right. In fact, Yashin was so dismayed by Khomich's excellence that he contemplated leaving football for ice hockey. However in 1953, Khomich suffered an injury and Yashin took over the number 1 shirt.
It took him less than a year to get his opportunity to play for the national team; in his debut, the Soviet Union routed Sweden 7-0. During the following four years, Yashin won three league titles with Dynamo (1954, 1955, 1957) and led his national team to the gold medal at the 1956 Olympics.
Still, it was the 1958 World Cup that truly put Yashin on the football map. His commanding presence in the box, mentality and the ability to read the game were unparalleled at the time. Journalists wasted no time in proclaiming Yashin to be the best goalkeeper in the world. Yashin's best game at the World Cup came against Brazil in the group stage. Led by Garrincha and featuring a 17-year-old Pelé, Brazil had no real competition in the tournament and although the Soviet team lost the match 2-0, Yashin prevented a rout with a stellar performance. Though the Soviet Union were eliminated in the quarter-finals by Sweden, Yashin was voted as the best goalkeeper of the tournament.
No other goalkeeper in the world was as complete a package as Yashin. In addition to his natural athleticism and superb reflexes, he was known for his positioning, stature, and bravery. He was the very first goalkeeper to start focusing on being a vocal presence in the team, constantly shouting orders at defenders and imposing his authority.
In 1960 Yashin reached the pinnacle of his career when he won European Nations' Cup (now the European Championships) at the Parc des Princes, beating the former Yugoslavia 2-1 after extra time. It was the inaugural edition of the UEFA European Championship and to date the only major title the Soviet Union/Russia has won on the football pitch, cementing his place in the county’s greatest ever team.
After the European Nations' Cup win, Yashin experienced a downturn in form. This was particularly noticeable in the 1962 World Cup, where he made several uncharacteristic mistakes against Colombia, which led to the match ending in a 4-4 draw. The Soviet Union was again eliminated in the quarter-finals, losing 2-1 to Chile.
Despite being painted by the press as a scapegoat for the World Cup exit, Yashin bounced back. In 1963, he led Dynamo to another title and became the first, and to date, the only goalkeeper to win the Ballon d’Or. It was in this year that Yashin produced one of his most memorable performances. In an FA Centenary match, England v Rest of the World, he constantly pulled off saves that looked impossible and seemed unimaginable. The match, held at Wembley, showed the mass English public the sheer quality of the man from Moscow.
In the first round of the 1966 World Cup, Yashin missed two matches due to a slight injury. Still, he recovered in time to lead his country to its best-ever 4th place finish. Following this achievement, the 37-year-old Yashin was preparing to wind down his career but he was convinced to continue playing.
He played on eventually retiring from Dynamo in 1970, after more than two decades of service. In 22 years at Dynamo Moscow he won the Russian league five times, was runner up six times and won the USSR Cup three times. “I don’t know if one man one has ever meant so much to one club,” said Igor Chislenko of his team-mate.
FIFA didn't let his performances go unnoticed, they recognised his brilliance and now the World Cup Best Goalkeeper award is now known as the Lev Yashin award. In 1998 he was also voted the World Goalkeeper of the Century and was included in the Century World XI team.
His testimonial match in 1971 was held in front of over 120,000 fans at the Lenin Stadium in Moscow with Dynamo playing a Rest of the World team featuring Pele, Beckenbauer and Eusebio. Pele said of Yashin: “Someone once said that a team with Pele started a game with a 1-0 lead. A team with Yashin started winning 2-0.”
In 812 career games, he kept a phenomenal 480 clean sheets and saved over 150 penalties. In 1967, he was awarded the Order of Lenin - the highest civilian award in the Soviet Union, he was just 37 when he received this accolade.