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Why many rank Lev Yashin as the greatest goalkeeper of all time

Oli Trussler Jones April 13, 2020
Photo by Schirner / ullstein bild via Getty Images

 One of the fiercest debates among football fans is who’s the greatest to have played a specific position. Some argue Franz Beckenbauer was the best centre-back ever, others Paolo Maldini. In truth, there’s no right answer but many fans of a certain age think Lev Yashin is the greatest goalkeeper of all time – but what made him so special?

Lev Ivanovich Yashin was born on 22 October 1929 in Moscow. When only 12 he was sent to work in the factories as part of the Soviet war effort during the Second World War. A mental breakdown forced Yashin out of his first job and he returned to work in a military factory, aged 18, where he began playing for the works team and was spotted by scouts from Dynamo Moscow. He was invited to play for the youth team and, as they say, the rest is history.

Yashin is widely considered as not only the best goalkeeper of all time but also the most influential. He is widely thought of as the first goalkeeper to impose his authority on the defence in front of him, a trait now commonplace in football, shouting at his defenders for the entire 90 minutes.

Photo credit should read STAFF/AFP via Getty Images

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He frequently came off his line to collect crosses or meet attackers head-on at a time when goalkeepers tended to stand on their line waiting to be called into action. Known as the ‘Black Spider’ for his choice of all-black kit, his reflexes have rarely been matched since.

Yashin was confident on and off the pitch, once stating there had “only ever been two world-class keepers” and he was “one of them”. The way he played displayed this confidence – he dived like a cat at an opponent’s feet during an era where goalkeepers received little protection from referees.

The other world-class keeper Yashin referred to was Bert Trautmann, a former German paratrooper who was imprisoned by the Soviet and British armies but went on to play for Manchester City. However, to this day Yashin remains the only goalkeeper to have won the Ballon D’or, in 1963.

Yashin spent his entire 20-year career at Dynamo Moscow, winning the ultra-competitive ‘Soviet Top League’ on five occasions and the Soviet Cup three times. He is also considered by many to be the best World Cup goalkeeper ever. Four years after his death in 1990, Fifa introduced the Lev Yashin award for the best goalkeeper at a World Cup Finals. Since 2019, the Yashin Trophy has also been awarded to the best goalkeeper in world football. As yet, Liverpool’s Alisson remains the only keeper to receive the trophy.

Yashin appeared in the world cups from 1958 to 1970, the same four world cups as Pele. Perhaps his finest achievement was being part of the Soviet Union side that won the 1960 European Championships in France before being runners-up in 1964. He also won a gold medal at the 1956 Olympics.

What’s not so well known is Yashin enjoyed a relatively successful career as a goalie for Dynamo Moscow’s ice hockey team, which won the 1953 Soviet Cup before he gave up the game a year later to concentrate on his football career.

One of Yashin’s finest games was the FA centenary match in 1963, where he played for a Rest Of The World XI against England at Wembley to mark 100 years of the FA, a game in which he made a string of excellent saves.

Yashin died of stomach cancer in 1990 at the age of 60 but his legacy lives on. EA Sports recognised Yashin with an ‘Icon Card’ in Fifa 18, while the standards of goalkeeping today ensures Yashin’s talents and contribution to the game will never be forgotten.

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