Lev Yashin: the Black Spider

Silverware often guarantees a player’s place in football legend, but a lack of thereof does not necessarily tarnish a claim to the same status. A romantic player who shows elegance, beauty, and uniqueness is often the reason why sporting zealots around the world fall in love with our beautiful game. Players of this ilk should be celebrated, adored, and have their stories chronicled. Lev Yashin is one such individual.

It is almost as if his tale is mythology. Known as the ‘Black Spider’, his time at the very top of football was a long time ago, and stories about his all-black kit, which was actually dark blue, flat cap and training methods sound like the work of fiction, but he was a unique, one-of-a-kind sportsman that endured a trial of hardship to get to the very top, and stay there.

The next time you are at a football match, have a glance over towards the press box. There, you will see any number of journalists tapping away at their keyboards, updating their live blogs and social media commentaries, but the idea of a famous sportsperson’s every move being scrutinised across various platforms is a relatively new phenomenon.

It seems impossible, then, that one journalist’s word could change everybody’s opinion of somebody – especially if the subject in question is world famous, highly regarded and extremely talented. But, it was the fate that the Soviet Union’s star player and goalkeeper, Yashin, suffered after a reporter specialising in South American politics criticised his display in a 1962 World Cup quarter-final defeat against the tournament’s hosts, Chile.

The said journalist, who provided the only report in Russian from the game in Viña del Mar, said the goalkeeper was at fault for both of Chile’s goals, painting him as the scapegoat. Then 32, when Yashin returned to his homeland the angry mob of protesters waiting at the airport held banners and posters demanding that he quit football and the windows of his home were smashed.

He was the hero in 1960, after winning a gold medal at the Olympic Games in 1956, performing superbly in the European Championships final against Yugoslavia as his side claimed victory with a 2-1 win after extra-time. Two years later, he reached his nadir: his, supposedly, worst performance and a tirade of abuse, based on the words of one unqualified journalist.

But, having built his career on success and hard work, he found the courage and fight to carry on – it was not for the first time, either. When he was a child, the Nazis breached the Soviet Union’s borders and the state’s second city, Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), was surrounded, with supplies already running low. Moscow was deemed under threat, and the city’s inhabitants were evacuated.

It was the deadliest siege in history, and over 750,000 civilians were killed. Leather belts were melted down to make soup, and desperate people were forced to cannibalism, as Yashin, aged 11 at the time, and his family were forced to move to Ulyanovsk, 800 kilometres away from the capital. There, the evacuees were forced to drag machinery and supplies through snow as the munitions factory in Moscow, where his father worked, was relocated until the Nazis were driven out in 1944.

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Yashin began working at the factory, but had to quit due to ill health and a series of nervous breakdowns as he approached his adult years. Aged 18, a friend suggested volunteering for military service, which he later described in his autobiography as his “salvation”. Whilst combining his duties with football, he rediscovered his love for the sport and shone brightly playing for the factory’s team. He was spotted by Arkady Chernyshev, a Dynamo Moscow youth coach, and was trusted as a regular member of the club’s first team four years later, in 1953.

He was also a talented ice hockey goalkeeper, and won the Soviet Cup in March 1953. The following October, he played his part in winning the football version, too. After deciding to stick to football in 1954, he took part in four World Cups and saved a record 150 penalties for club and country, which saw him become an icon around the world – the now infamous reporter, who slammed his performance against Chile in 1962, did their absolute best to bring his status crashing back down.

The greatest sportspeople and teams approach a nadir differently to others: they see it as a kickstart to improve, a chance to prove doubters wrong – they do not quit. Often, they reach a never-seen-before level, by practising day in, day out, to perfect their performance. In the months that followed the 1962 World Cup, that is exactly what he did, culminating in a dominant display whilst playing for a Rest of the World XI against England at Wembley to celebrate the Football Association’s 100th birthday in 1963.

His wife, Valentina, worked as a radio journalist covering the game as it was shown on a big screen in Moscow – at least he, you would imagine, was on the receiving end of some praise by the Russian press this time around!

The Rest of the World’s manager was Fernando Riera, who was in charge of the Chile team that overcame the Soviets in 1962. Clearly, he saw something from Yashin’s display that day that the said journalist did not. He played the first half at Wembley, coming off at the break with the score at 0-0, before being replaced by Yugoslavia’s Milutin Šoškić. The widespread opinion was that he was back to his absolute best, after he pulled off a series of amazing saves; Jimmy Greaves’ late winner secured a 2-1 win for the hosts, with Yashin watching on.

That season, Yashin enjoyed one of his best campaigns: he conceded just seven goals in 27 appearances as his fifth Soviet Top League with Dynamo was secured and, once again, he was widely celebrated. In December 1963, he was presented with the Ballon d’Or – no goalkeeper has been since. France Football, the magazine which presents the award, described how he “revolutionised the role of the goalkeeper” by “always being ready to act as an extra defender and starting dangerous counter-attacks with his positioning and quick throws”.

From that day on, his place in football history was assured – a personal accolade of such gravitas was the perfect embellishment to his career, which ended in 1971. After tragic health problems, perhaps because of his wartime upbringing and long-standing smoking addiction, he passed away in 1990 but his legacy lives on, and always will.

At this year’s World Cup, he, wearing his famous flat cap – which was stolen by a pitch invader following the 1960 European Championships final win – adorned the tournament’s poster. But, what about the journalist who slammed him over half a century ago? You would be hard pressed to even find their name.

By Ryan Plant

Part of our Number Ones series

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