Yashin was born in Moscow into a family of industrial workers. At twelve years of age the Second World War forced him to turn to factory work to aid in the war effort. He was sent to work in a military factory in Moscow, where he played for its football team. It was there that he was spotted and invited to join the Dynamo Moscow youth team. Yashin’s debut for Dynamo came in 1950 in a friendly match. It was not the debut he would have hoped for, as he conceded a soft goal scored straight from a clearance by the opposing keeper. That year he played in only two league games, and did not appear in a senior match again until 1953. But he remained determined, and stayed at Dinamo in the reserves waiting for another opportunity. Yashin also played goalie for the Dynamo ice hockey team during those early years of trying to break into the senior squad. He managed to win a USSR ice hockey cup in 1953 and was third in the USSR hockey championship as goalkeeper.
He spent his entire professional football career with Dynamo Moscow, from 1949 to 1971, winning the USSR football championship five times and the USSR Cup three times. Yashin’s club team-mate, rival and mentor was Alexei ‘Tiger’ Khomich, the keeper of the Soviet national team, who had become famous for his role in Dynamo Moscow’s British tour.
In 1954, Yashin was finally called up to the national team, and would go on to gather 78 caps. With the national team he won the 1956 Summer Olympics and the 1960 European Championship. He also played in three World Cups, in 1958 World Cup, 1962 and 1966. The 1958 World Cup, played in Sweden, put Yashin on the map for his performances, with Soviet Union advancing to the Quarter-finals. At group stage, in the match against the eventual Cup winners Brazil, which the Soviet team lost 2:0, Yashin’s performance prevented the score from becoming a blowout. He was selected into the All-Star Team that World Cup. In 1962 he once-again led the team to a Quarter-final finish, losing to host country Chile, despite suffering two concussions during the tournament. That tournament showed that Yashin was all too human, having made some uncharacteristic mistakes. In the game against Colombia, which the Soviet Union was leading 4:1, Yashin let-in a few soft goals, including an Olympic goal, scored directly from a corner kick. The game finished in a 4:4 tie, which led the French newspaper l'Equipe to predict the end of Yashin’s career. But he would bounce back to win the Ballon d'Or the following year, and to lead the Soviet team to its best showing at the 1966 Wold Cup, a Fourth Place finish. Always ready to give advice to his comrades, Yashin even made a fourth trip to the World Cup finals in 1970 as the third-choice back-up and an assistant. The Soviet team again reached the Quarter-finals. Yashin is credited with four clean sheets out of the 12 games he played in the World Cup finals.
One of his best performances was the 1963 FA Centenary match, when he appeared in the ‘Rest of the World XI’ against England at Wembley Stadium and made a number of breathtaking and almost unbelievable saves. Known all over the world as the “Black Spider” for his distinctive all-black outfit, and because it seemed like he had eight arms to save almost everything. But to his fans he was always the fearless “Black Panther”. He often played wearing a cloth cap of burnt-brick color. In 1971 in Moscow he played his last match for Dynamo Moscow. Lev Yashin’s FIFA testimonial match was held at the Lenin Stadium in Moscow with 100,000 fans attending, and a host of football stars, including Pelé, Eusébio and Franz Beckenbauer.
Lev Yashin is the only goalkeeper ever to win the European Footballer of the Year Award (1963). He is also believed to have stopped around 150 penalty kicks during his career; far more than any other goalkeeper in history. When asked what his secret was, he would reply that the trick was "to have a smoke to calm your nerves, then toss back a strong drink to tone your muscles."
For his outstanding service to the people and to his country, Yashin was awarded the Order of Lenin in 1967, the second highest award of the USSR. After retiring from playing Yashin spent almost 20 years in various administrative positions at Dynamo Moscow. A Bronze statue of Lev Yashin was erected at the Dinamo Stadium in Moscow.
Lev Yashin died in 1990 of complications caused by an amputation of one of his legs following a knee injury in 1986.
Still, his reputation as a brilliant keeper, a true sportsman, and an innovator of the game lives on. Yashin would always organize the defensive game of his team, often so fiercely that even his wife accused him of yelling too much on the pitch. He rarely captained his teams, as the accepted custom of appointing a goalkeeper captain was virtually unheard of in that era, but his leadership on the field was always evident. Yashin was one of the goalkeepers that began the practice of punching balls out in difficult situations instead of trying to catch them. Other novel practices he developed were the quick throw of the ball to begin a counterattack, coming out of the penalty area to anticipate danger, and the command and organization of the defenders—practices now quite common among goalkeepers. In 1994, FIFA established the Lev Yashin Award for the best goalkeeper at the World Cup finals. FIFA polls named Yashin as the sole goalkeeper in World Team of the 20th Century. World Soccer Magazine named him in their The 100 Greatest Players of the 20th Century. Many commentators still consider Yashin the best keeper in the history of football.
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