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Born: Tuesday 22 October 1929, Moscow, USSR (now Russia)
Died: Tuesday 20 March 1990, Moscow, USSR (aged 60)
Whenever the subject of the greatest goalkeeper in the history of football is raised, few names occur as regularly as Lev Yashin. Spending his entire club career with Dinamo Moscow, he represented the Soviet Union in three World Cups, two European Championships and one Olympic Games. Controlling his penalty area like few goalkeepers had ever done before, Yashin's trademark all-black kit made him one of the games truly iconic figures.
Born on 22 October 1929, Yashin grew up in relative poverty, living in a small flat in Moscow with many members of his extended family. At the age of 12, following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, he was sent to work in a munitions factory where he began playing football for the works youth team. Yashin later served in the army, but his football ability caught the eye of Dinamo Moscow who brought the agile young goalkeeper into their youth team in 1949.
Despite his potential, Yashin initially struggled to break through at the highest level. He made his first team debut for Dinamo in 1950, but played just two league games and had to wait more than two years to get another chance. Frustrated at being a back-up player, he drifted away from football and played with some distinction as a goalkeeper for Dinamo's ice hockey team. He was tipped for international honours, but later that year got another chance in the football team and this time established himself as first choice.
From that point on, Yashin never looked back. He was ever present in Dinamo's goal as they won the league title in 1954 and marked his international debut with a clean sheet in a 7-0 thrashing of Sweden in September of that year. He became a dominant on-field presence, often taking on almost a sweeper role and commanding the entire defensive third of the pitch. Famed for his lightning reflexes and acrobatic style, Yashin was also one of the first goalkeepers to throw the ball out to team-mates rather than kicking.
Yashin was again ever-present in Dinamo's goal as they won another Soviet title in 1955, with only a 2-1 cup final defeat to city rivals CSKA denying them a double. Dinamo lost their title in 1956, but shortly after that season Yashin made his first appearance in a major tournament at the Olympic Games in Melbourne. Wins over Germany, Indonesia and Bulgaria took the Soviets through to face Yugoslavia in the final. In that match he produced perhaps his finest performance of the tournament, keeping a clean sheet in a 1-0 win to seal the gold medal.
After winning a third league title with Dinamo in 1957, Yashin missed much of the following season but was still able to travel to Sweden for his first World Cup. After starting with a 2-2 draw against England, his first World Cup clean sheet came in a 2-0 win over Austria. Defeat to Brazil left the Soviets in a play-off with England for a quarter-final place, where again Yashin was on top form in a 1-0 win. Unfortuantely, the quarter-final proved a step too far as hosts Sweden won 2-0.
1959 brought another championship after a closely fought battle with Lokomotiv Moscow, Dinamo clinching the title when the sides drew 1-1 in their final game. The following year the Soviet Union reached the inaugural European Championship finals, aided by a walkover when Spain refused to play them in the quarter-finals. At the peak of his form, Yashin kept a clean sheet in the 3-0 semi-final win over Czechoslovakia and produced a string of fine saves as the Soviets came from 1-0 down to beat Yugoslavia after extra-time in the final to take the title.
At his second World Cup in Chile in 1962, Yashin experienced perhaps the most difficult tournament of his international career.Twice he suffered concussions and was well below his best, conceding the only goal ever scored direct from a corner in the World Cup finals as the Soviets let slip a 4-1 lead against Colombia in their second group game. Although they recovered to beat Uruguay and reach the quarter-finals, they again fell at the hands of the hosts as Chile recorded a 2-1 win, with some blaming Yashin for both goals.
Sections of the European media suggested his top level career may be over, but Yashin responded with perhaps his finest individual season in 1963. He helped Dinamo to another league title, the fifth of his career, and put in a fantastic performance for a FIFA XI against England in the FA's centenary match. At the end of the year, he was voted the winner of the Ballon d'Or for European Player of the Year, the only goalkeeper ever to win the award.
In May 1964, victory over Sweden took the Soviet Union through to the European Championship finals in Spain, where they would defend their title. Yashin kept another major tournament clean sheet in the 3-0 semi-final win over surprise qualifiers Denmark. Hopes of another success were however ended by the host nation, who having this time agreed to face the Soviets, secured a 2-1 victory in the final.
At domestic level Dinamo surprisingly began to struggle, finishing as low as eighth in 1966, while the 36-year old Yashin was beginning to face competition at international level. At the World Cup in England he appeared in just one of the Soviet Union's three group games, a 1-0 win over Italy. With the Soviets having topped their group, he returned for the quarter-final against Hungary where his crucial late save sealed a 2-1 win and took the team into their first ever semi-final. Ultimately, defeats to West Germany and Portugal left them in fourth place - still the best ever achieved by either the Soviet Union or Russia.
Yashin made what would prove his final international appearance in a European Championship qualifier against Greece in September 1967, ending as he had begun 13 years earlier with a clean sheet, this time in a 4-0 win. In all he conceded less than a goal a game in his 74 caps, a very low ratio for the time. Despite having not played an international in nearly three years, he travelled with the squad to the 1970 World Cup in Mexico as a back-up but did not play.
Yashin continued to enjoy domestic success for several more years, winning the Soviet Cup with Dinamo in both 1967 and 1970. On the latter occasion, only defeat to CSKA in a replayed play-off denied Dinamo the double. After that loss, Yashin retired at the age of 41. He was given a testimonial in Moscow in 1971, a match which drew a crowd of more than 100,000 and featured many of the game's biggest stars. Yashin did not leave Dinamo, serving the club in a variety of administrative roles for almost another 20 years.
A heavy smoker for many years, his health began to fail in the mid-1980s. In 1986 he had one of his legs amputated following a knee injury, before later suffering from stomach cancer. He died in 1990, aged just 60, from complications following an operation. His impact on the game and particularly the position of goalkeeper has never been forgotten, with the World Cup's best goalkeeper award being named after him between 1994 and 2006. At the end of the 20th century, many polls named him as the finest goalkeeper of the previous 100 years.
References (accessed 9 October 2012 except *):
* http://uk.uefa.com/uefaeuro/season=1960/history-maker/index.html (accessed 7 November 2012)
- Published on Tuesday, 09 October 2012 14:27