Lev Yashin: The Soviet Truant Who Became the Most Influential Goalkeeper in History


Lev Yashin is number 41 in 90min's Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time series.

Forced to work in a factory aged 12 to help the Soviet Union in World War II, walking away from the effort for his intensely patriotic country because of his mental health aged 18 - Lev Yashin's life had the hallmarks of a gritty Sundance film before we've even touched on his revolutionary footballing career.

You'd be forgiven for not believing this is the same man that would be known for the rest of his days and beyond as a showman, a Hollywood footballer with a Hollywood personality. A 'truant' in his own words, Yashin stopped working and started volunteering for the military, combining this with faint hopes of making it as a footballer. Fortunately, he was spotted by a scout from Dynamo Moscow and swiftly signed up, ending his reluctant alternative career.

Even then, the 'Black Spider' that we know wasn't famed for his antics in this sport at first - he was a talented ice hockey stopper, and lifted his first piece in silverware in skates before studs, before hanging up his blades for good and focusing on football.

Putting his eggs in this basket propelled him to stardom, into contention for accolades and awards, into endless pub discussions and onto lists such as these. 

He spent his whole career with Dynamo, yielding five league titles and becoming the first noted sweeper-keeper famed for his leadership, his intelligence to start passing moves and counter attacks, his speed off his line, his mere bravery to roam his own penalty area - he owned that s***, he owned it all day long, then he sold it and bought it back again to send a message.

The legend of Yashin was growing, his stock was sky-rocketing - he had won the European Goalkeeper of the Year award three times by the end of the 1950s, despite Dynamo's lack of real reputation on the continent. When he and the USSR triumphed at the inaugural European Championship in 1960, there was nothing left for him to prove.

If 1960 was year zero, then 1963 was simply the year of Yashin. Selected for a World XI to take on England for the Football Association's 100th anniversary, his wife recalled ​a story to the BBC about how a taxi driver only considered the half Yashin played as canon. A couple of months later, he became the first (and still only) goalkeeper to win the Ballon d'Or. Here's a small list of the people he beat to the award: Gianni Rivera, Jimmy Greaves, Denis Law, Eusebio, Bobby Charlton, Luis Suarez. All beaten by a goalkeeper.

In 1967, he was awarded the Order of Lenin, the highest honour of the Soviet Union, and still three years before his eventual retirement, his influence and aura as strong as ever. He travelled with the national side to the 1970 World Cup officially as their third-choice goalkeeper, but informally as the commanding figure of the dressing room.

An estimated 100,000 people turned out for his FIFA Testimonial (do you know how f'ing good you have to be to get one of those?), and featured the likes of Pele and Franz Beckenbauer (do you know how f'ing good you have to be to get those guys to show?), as the curtain fell on Yashin's playing days. 

He later insisted that the key to his success was a smoke to calm his nerves, and a drink to tone his muscles - who are we to argue with that? Yashin even has his own 'quotes' section on Wikipedia, though most entries are from himself. If he weren't the most influential goalkeeper of all time then he would get a scolding, but when you've made as much of an impact as he has then you can pretty much do you what you want.

After a battle with stomach cancer, he passed away aged 60 in 1990, but Yashin's legacy is one of the very best across all sport, across the history of Russia and Soviet Union. The biggest? Big Lev. The baddest? Big Lev. The loudest? Big Lev. The coolest? Big Lev. The best? Big Lev.

90min's 'Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time' can be found here

Number 50:  Luka Modric

Number 49:  John Charles

Number 48:  Hugo Sanchez

Number 47:  Jairzinho

Number 46:  Omar Sivori

Number 45:  Paolo Rossi

Number 44:  Paul Breitner

Number 43:  George Weah

Number 42:  Kaka