To help mark UEFA's Jubilee in 2004, each national association was asked to nominate its most outstanding player of the past 50 years. Russia chose Lev Yashin as their Golden Player.
Lev Yashin was 41 when he retired, having lit up stadiums all over the world. In a career which ran from 1950 to 1970, he played in 812 official matches keeping 207 clean sheets, and winning five league titles and three USSR Cups in the process.
Nicknamed the 'Black Spider' for the colour of his kit and uncanny ability to stick out an arm and frustrate forwards, he also represented the Soviet Union national team on 79 occasions, adding Olympic gold in 1956 and a UEFA European Championship winners' medal in 1960 to his collection of silverware. At the FIFA World Cup in England in 1966, the USSR reached the semi-finals and Yashin was hailed as the goalkeeper of the tournament.
Yashin was born in 1929 and his childhood reached an abrupt end with the onset of the second world war. Sent to work in a military factory in Moscow, he played for its football team and it was there that he was spotted and invited to join the FC Dinamo Moskva youth side.
Yashin's debut with Dinamo in 1950 was disappointing, as he conceded a soft goal in a friendly match straight from a clearance by the opposing goalkeeper. He played in only two league games that year, and did not appear in a senior match again until 1953. Indeed at that stage he was enjoying as much success as a netminder for Dinamo's ice hockey team, winning the USSR Cup.
It was on grass rather than ice that he would attain hero status, though his career had its ups and downs. The year 1962 was Yashin's nadir, as he was blamed above all others for the USSR's failure to qualify for the World Cup in Chile. Soviet propaganda and the people were against him, so he decided to quit football.
Fortunately, the then 33-year-old did return and the 1963 season proved to be one of his best. He conceded only six goals in 27 league appearances, an all-time record, while his display in a European Championship qualifying game against Italy in Rome was of the highest quality.
Yashin kept everything out, the culmination being a Sandro Mazzola penalty which he caught low down in the corner. "Yashin can play football better than me," said Mazzola after the game. That year he was voted the European Footballer of the Year – the only time in history that the prize has gone to a goalkeeper.
The last time he played was on 27 May 1971 at the Luzhniki Stadion in front of 100,000 spectators. He played for Dinamo against an all-star team which included great players like Giacinto Fachetti, Willi Schulz, Gerd Müller, György Mezey, Bobby Charlton, Wlódzimierz Lubański and Hristo Bonev. After the game Yashin began his speech in the stadium with the words: "Thank you, people!"
A statue in honour of Yashin, who died in 1990, stands outside that stadium today; there is another in his honour at the Dinamo Stadion and a third at Moscow's Vagankovo cemetery, where he was buried. Twice a recipient of the Order of Lenin, he collected Olympic and FIFA golden merit awards and his legend lives on; in 2004 he came eighth in UEFA's Golden Jubilee 50/50 poll of Europe's great players conducted by UEFA.com.
From 1994 to 2006, moreover, the Lev Yashin Trophy was awarded to the best goalkeeper at the World Cup, with Michel Preud'homme, Fabien Barthez, Oliver Kahn and Gianluigi Buffon the four recipients. Many legendary names considered Yashin their friend, including Eusébio, Sir Bobby Charlton, Franz Beckenbauer and Pelé, who described him as "a goalkeeper and a man with a big heart".
Eusébio, whose goal in a 2-1 win for Portugal helped deny Yashin's USSR third place at the 1966 World Cup, has the highest praise for his fondly remembered rival. "Yashin is still the greatest goalkeeper in the world for me. I am very happy that we were friends, even though we were opponents on the pitch."
Last updated: 2 February 2011
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