Lev Yashin: human story of a legend
After saving two penalties in Russia’s match against Spain, Igor Akinfeev has become a Russian national hero. However, he is far from the greatest вратарь (goalkeeper) in football history. That honour goes to Lev Yashin, the Black Spider. His is a story of strength, courage and resilience.
Against the odds
Yashin was born to a modest Muscovite family in the autumn of 1922. He had to contribute to the WWII war effort by working in a factory from an early age. He started practicing football with the factory team. At 18, after experiencing years of constant fatigue and stress, Yashin suffered from depression. “At that time I felt nothing except emptiness”, he recalled in his biography.
In an attempt to deal with his mental health issues, Yashin joined the military. However, football, and not the service, would be his “salvation”. Soon after joining the army Yashin was scouted by Dynamo Moscow, a club with close ties to the military. Few could imagine the mythic figure this man would become.
Forging a legend
Several years would have to pass before Yashin would get his break as starter. In this time, he admirably
committed to his training and also played goal for Dynamo’s hockey team, winning the USSR championship in 1953. In the same year, he became the top goalkeeper for Dynamo’s senior football team. During his 2o years in the club, Yashin won the USSR football championship five times and the USSR Cup three times.
However, he is perhaps best remembered for his international career. His mayor milestones with the Soviet team were winning the gold medal in the 1956 Summer Olympics and the 1960 European Nation’s Cup. These victories and his stellar performance in the 1958 FIFA World Cup granted him the status of hero back home.
Yashin was famous for making seemingly impossible saves and being an outstanding penalty stopper. Football legend Eusebio, who was also Yashin’s friend, said that “[j]ust seeing him being in between the posts put many great, confident players off”.
Understandably so. Yashin was an imposing figure, standing at 1,89m and usually dressed in all-back. He often played with broken bones and even concussions. His stoicism, appearance and incredible skills gained him the nickname of Black Spider.
The way Yashin played the game revolutionised goaltending. He reinvented the position as an active role. He was the leader of the defence, constantly barking orders at his defenders. Yashin was also quick to run off his line if required and he was known for his aggressive, offensively-minded passes.
Yashin would often hug strikers who managed to score penalties against him in recognition of their skill.
Return to hardship
Yashin had finally found his vocation. However, life playing the beautiful game was not always beautiful. In the 1962 FIFA World Cup, Yashin conceded two soft goals in the quarter-finals. The USSR was knocked out of the tournament and the Soviet press made the Black Spider their scapegoat. Their report did not mention that Yashin had suffered concussions before coinciding the goals, but had decided to carry on playing.
This report made him a hated man back home. His car was vandalised, the windows of his home smashed, and threats were sent to him by post. “He wanted to quit” Valentina Timofeevna, Yashin’s widow, recalls. However, Yashin raised again through hard work and determination. His redemption would be just around the corner. Lev Yashin became the first and only goalkeeper in football’s history to win a Ballon D’Or, in 1963. His critics were silenced.
After finishing his career as a footballer, Yashin became an assistant coach for the Soviet national team and later on held several administrative positions in Dynamo and the Soviet Football Association. He was also awarded the Order of Lenin.
Throughout much of his retirement, Yashin suffered from ill health and, in 1990, he died of stomach cancer.
Beyond his skill, the Ballon D’Or and his sporting legacy in general, I believe that we should remember Lev Yashin for his resilience. His story shows us that even those seemingly psychologically unbreakable can suffer from mental health issues. Perhaps more importantly, it shows us that there is light at the end of that tunnel.
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