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Great European Lives: Lev Yashin

Russia's goalkeeper Lev Yashin makes a save from Italy's Sandro Mazzola, during their Group 4 1966 World Cup match at Roker Park, in Sunderland. - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Considered by many to be the finest goalkeeper to play the game, CHARLIE CONNELLY looks at the life of Lev Yashin.

Of all the positions on the football field the goalkeeper is mythologised the most. Goalkeepers are thinkers, standing alone, protecting the goal as the last line of defence, diving, catching, punching, pacing, watching, judging; a solitary role that encourages philosophy.

The special symbolism of the goalkeeper is nowhere more pronounced than in Russia where they have always been held in a special thrall. From Alexei ‘Tiger’ Khomich in the immediate post-war years to Igor Akinfeev, the CSKA Moscow stalwart who retired from the national team last year after 111 appearances, goalkeepers have always enjoyed a particular reverence among Russians for whom the loner, whether poet or shepherd on the steppe, is a keystone of their national consciousness.

The greatest of them all, possibly even the greatest goalkeeper in the history of the game, was Lev Ivanovich Yashin, whose name still invokes awe around the world. Tall and good-looking in his famous all-black kit (which was actually very dark blue), Yashin was the face of Soviet football during the 1950s and 1960s and the one Russian player even the most casual football fan could name.

The only goalkeeper ever to win the Ballon d’Or, the annual award presented to the best player in Europe, Yashin was a modest, charming presence off the field and a commanding one on it.

Gifted with exceptional agility and lightning reflexes – he saved more than 150 penalties – Yashin also revolutionised the art of goalkeeping. Where keepers had traditionally waited between the posts ready to catch or punch shots clear, Yashin was the first to genuinely dominate his penalty area, coming out of his goal to catch crosses and occasionally even sprinting out of his area to head long passes away from onrushing forwards. The great Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko lauded Yashin in verse with a poem that began, ‘Now here’s a revolution in football/ The goalkeeper comes rushing off his line’.

The poem illustrates how, as well as being a genuinely great goalkeeper, Lev Yashin was practically enmeshed in the Russian national consciousness. For all the crucial, clinching role the Soviet Union played in the defeat of Hitler, Russia’s Great Patriotic War was a particularly brutal experience.

The German invasion prompted vicious fighting and some particularly appalling atrocities, not to mention the deadly siege of Leningrad. And while the invaders were eventually repelled before they reached Moscow, the hardship and tragedy the nation endured is still tangible today.

When Lev Yashin emerged in the early 1950s as the greatest of all Russian goalkeepers the symbolism he carried was deeply resonant; this lone Russian defending his territory, repelling invaders, protecting the sanctity of the goal with skill, determination and deep reserves of bravery. If Mother Russia is the mythical personification of a national consciousness then in the post-war and post-Stalin years Yashin came as close as anyone to being its father.

He’d joined Dynamo Moscow at the end of the Second World War as much as an ice hockey player as a footballer, but the aging Khomich immediately identified Yashin as his successor. It was a long apprenticeship – Yashin was 24 by the time he made the first team – but he remained Dynamo’s talismanic man between the posts until a star-studded farewell testimonial in Moscow in 1971, where 103,000 people saw Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and other legends of the game turn out in his honour.

Yashin also played 73 times for the Soviet national side, his prowling presence in trademark dark kit with ‘CCCP’ picked out in white on the front gracing three World Cups and helping the USSR to victory in the inaugural European Championships in 1960, as well as winning Olympic gold at the 1956 games in Melbourne.

He was 12 years old when the Nazis invaded and in the autumn of 1941, with German tanks barely 50 miles from his home city of Moscow, Yashin was evacuated with his family to Ulyanovsk, on the Volga river 500 miles east of the capital. His father was put to work at the local munitions factory and Yashin soon joined him, spending his early teens on the production line.

‘During the war we received an experience that no course will ever be able to teach,’ he wrote later in his autobiography. ‘We were taught how to work not out of fear or for promises but to work ourselves to the bone for our consciences. Later when we were competing for championships and titles we weren’t thinking about the rewards of victory, we were just happy to be playing football.’

It was a sense of perspective that would prove invaluable in 1962 when the Soviets were knocked out of the World Cup at the quarter-final stage by the hosts Chile. While Yashin didn’t have the greatest
game of his career he certainly wasn’t to blame for the defeat. But the only match report carried in the Russian press laid the responsibility firmly at the feet of the 32-year-old goalkeeper.

In the run-up to the tournament the Soviet press had built up national expectations and Yashin became the focus of fans’ shattered hopes. His car was vandalised, the windows of his apartment were broken and when his name was announced before the first Dynamo games after the tournament he was roundly whistled by the crowd.

He responded by enjoying the best form of his life. In 1963, Dynamo won the fifth Soviet title of his career, the veteran goalkeeper conceding just six goals in 27 matches (Yashin was renowned for keeping clean sheets, to the extent that today, when a Russian goalkeeper reaches 100 career matches in which he hasn’t conceded a goal today he’s inducted into the ‘Lev Yashin Club’).

In the autumn he travelled to London as part of a Rest of the World team to play England at Wembley in the showpiece event of the Football Association’s centenary celebrations. Yashin played in goal for the first half and made a string of athletic saves to keep the game scoreless until half-time when Yugoslavia’s Milutin Soskic took over between the posts and England ran out 2-1 winners.

In November he capped a year that confounded his World Cup critics with his selection as the European footballer of the year.

For all his cool-headedness, modesty and talents life wasn’t always easy for Yashin. At the age of 18 when he seemed to be living the life of a normal Soviet youth, playing a lot of sport and working at a steel plant, it appears he had some kind of breakdown, absenting himself from work and giving up sport altogether.

Enrolling in the military at the suggestion of a friend, Yashin found his spirits restored and embarked on his long association with Dynamo, the army club. Then, in the months following the 1958 World Cup, the 29-year-old Yashin missed a string of matches because he was ‘run down and out of training’.

‘Was it depression? I don’t know,’ he wrote. ‘The fatigue accumulated over the years began to make itself felt and something in me suddenly broke. I felt nothing except emptiness.’

When he retired from playing Yashin dabbled in coaching and worked at the sports ministry, but his later years were dogged by ill-health. He had two heart attacks and, having smoked heavily his whole life, had a leg amputated in his fifties.

He died of stomach cancer at the age of 60 just a few months before the Soviet Union collapsed, almost as if losing the bulwark symbol of its defence was too much for the country itself to bear.

Lev Yashin presented a human Soviet face to the world when the nation was largely a mystery to those outside its borders. When the Russian squad arrived at Heathrow for the 1966 World Cup, for example, he breezed into the arrivals hall carrying a fishing rod in a bright red case.

‘No football for me,’ he smiled at reporters, ‘I’m here for the trout.’

Never a Party stooge nor ever regarded as subversive, Lev Yashin was a truly great footballer who knew there was more to life than football. The man who defended the Russian goal, gazing up the pitch, hands on hips, the protector of the nation as much as he was its personification, always regarded himself as simply a normal man doing his job.

‘I need to touch the ball before a game just as a carpenter touches his wooden board before starting his work,’ he said. ‘It’s a working-class thing.’

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