Greatest Scorer? How About Greatest Savior!
Scoring goals on the soccer pitch might be sexy but blocking incoming ball-missiles takes raw machismo and nobody did it better than the Soviet Union’s Lev Yashin.
If Pele was soccer’s greatest goal scorer, then Lev Yashin was the sport’s greatest goal savior. An imposing athletic figure who guarded the net for over 20 years, Yashin didn’t just deny shots, he revolutionized the goal keeper’s position and the game itself.
While South American and West Europeans look up to their strikers and midfielders, the Russians celebrate the goalie, inspired by their Cold War soccer hero. The goal keeper is seen as the ultimate protector and last line of defense, a metaphor to the country’s war-ravaged border history.
Nicknamed the “Black Spider” after the color of his uniform and his uncanny, multi-limbed ability to halt goals, the sports icon saved over 150 penalty kicks and turned in 270 clean sheets, ahead of any other professional goalie.
The Soviet stopper was so compulsive about defending the net that he remarked: “What kind of a goalkeeper is the one who is not tormented by the goal he has allowed…he must be tormented!”
Yashin had leap, speed and bravery, and he finessed it all with elegance and acrobatics. His sense of anticipation and positional play between the posts was unmatched.
He was the first goalie to punch out cross shots rather than try to catch them. He was also one of the pioneers of releasing the ball quickly to initiate a counter-attack, instead of just kicking down-field.
Most notably, Yashin displayed on-field leadership at a time when keepers stood around passively until called into action. The Russian stalwart modernized the position by assuming a proactive role, imposing authority on the defensive line and widening the team’s tactical potential.
Born in 1929 to a family of industrial workers, the future soccer star worked as a youth in a bullet factory during WWII. He was spotted playing for a factory team and eventually made his way to Dynamo Moscow in 1950, staying with the club for the rest of his career.
Yashin’s ascent coincided with the game’s golden era and the USSR’s supreme reign in international sports. Facing the legends of the day, he commanded respect from the likes of Brazil’s Pele, Portugal’s Eusebio and Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas.
Placing the ball past the Black Spider was even regarded as a badge of honor. English forward Tom Finney recalls how he used his weaker foot in a penalty at the 1958 Cup knowing that the Russian had studied his shots before.
“You can imagine how I felt, but I scored! I had outfoxed the great Yashin!”
The net genius was part of the Soviet soccer team that took gold at the 1956 Olympics, first place at the inaugural 1960 UEFA European Championship, and second place at the 1964 Championship.
At the World Cup Yashin made three appearances, reaching the quarterfinals in 1958 and 1962, and the semifinals in 1966. It was Russia’s best ever show at the Cup and the goal keeping master was credited with completing 4 clean sheets out of the 12 games he played.
Among his many accolades and worldwide recognitions, Yashin remains the only goalie to earn the prestigious Ballon d’Or prize, which he received in 1963. From 1994-2006, FIFA also presented the ‘Yashin Award’ to the best goalie in a World Cup tournament; it was later renamed the ‘Golden Glove’.
In a cruel twist of fate, Yashin’s leg was amputated in 1986 after it developed a blood clot. The incomparable goalie whose life was inextricably linked to Soviet history died four years later from stomach cancer at the age of 60.
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