Lev Yashin: The Black Spider's Impact on Supporters

6 months ago

Lev Yashin, the only goalkeeper in history to have won the Ballon d'Or, is an icon of the Soviet Union.

Resting against the armchair, Valentina Timofeevna Yashina couldn't hide her emotions as she spoke about her late husband. Behind her was a glass cabinet preserving Yashin's memorabilia. Above it was the Ballon d'Or he received in 1963, made of... chocolate. The outer paper layer had peeled off, but it still retained its golden color over the years.

At 88 years old, Valentina still conversed with BBC reporters with clarity. She continues to live in the apartment provided by the state to her and her husband since 1964. The walls give the feeling that Yashin is still watching over her, with photographs capturing moments with friends, family, and football legends such as Franz Beckenbauer, Pele, and Eusebio. Along the hallway, medals are proudly displayed. Their home now resembles a miniature museum, filled with posters, cups, and footballs adorned with signatures. This was Lev Yashin's living space for 26 years.

And in the midst of their living room, Yashin comes alive through Valentina's storytelling, even though the events occurred decades ago in a country that no longer exists. "It feels like there is a mist of smoke and dreams surrounding Lev Yashin, like a fairy tale," describes the BBC.

Redefining the goalkeeper position

On the sofa in the living room sits a stuffed lion (Lev means lion in Russian). Nearby is a pennant of Ipswich Town Football Club, which Valentina can't recall how it ended up there. There is a gold Olympic medal he won in 1956 at the Melbourne Olympics. This medal accompanied Yashin on train journeys across Russia to share his joy with the public.

But amidst the extensive collection, one thing is missing: a World Cup medal. Yashin's best achievement in the greatest sporting event on the planet was a fourth-place finish in the 1966 World Cup held in England. Despite revolutionizing the goalkeeper position and winning the prestigious individual accolade, the Ballon d'Or, Yashin's lackluster performance in the World Cup almost tarnished his legacy.

 From Hero to Scapegoat: Lev Yashin's Turbulent Journey

In the 1962 World Cup, the Soviet Union was eliminated in the quarter-finals after losing 1-2 to the host nation, Chile. In that match, 32-year-old Yashin failed to make good saves in both conceded goals. The sole Soviet reporter present at the game turned Yashin into a scapegoat in his match report. When the Soviet team returned to their homeland, the fans at the airport yelled, "Hang up your gloves" or "Go collect your pension." Some extremists even vandalized Yashin's home, leaving insulting messages on his car and sending threatening letters. Yashin referred to those days as the "darkest days of his career."

How could he swallow the bitterness when just two years prior, he was seen as a hero? In the Euro 1960 final, he denied nearly every opportunity for Yugoslavia. On the other end of the pitch, Yashin's teammates scored two goals, leading the Soviet Union to a 2-1 victory in extra time and becoming champions.

The media storm from the Chile failure didn't discourage Yashin. He continued to stand firm and shine in goal for the Soviet national team in subsequent major tournaments. When Yashin returned from Chile, Valentina noticed he was a completely changed man. She recalls, "On that day, he wanted to retire. People saw him as a criminal. They shouted and mocked him. Nobody directly witnessed the match in Chile to know what truly happened. The reporter who wrote the article had no knowledge of sports. He was a political correspondent for South America. The match report overlooked an important detail: Lev suffered a severe head injury but still pushed himself to continue playing. Reading the article, one would think my husband was... sleeping when the ball went into the net."

From Adversity to Legend: Lev Yashin's Remarkable Rise as the Black Spider

But Yashin, a fearless man, did not choose to give up. And this wasn't the first time he showed resilience in adversity.

During the early days of his career, while playing for a metalworks company team, Yashin suffered a stroke on the field. At only 18 years old, he had already accumulated six years of relentless work without rest due to the increased demand for metal production during World War II. In his memoir, Yashin wrote, "The stroke was the result of years of accumulated hardships. At that moment, I couldn't feel anything except emptiness."

Instead of seeking medical treatment for Yashin, the company chose the easier option: firing him. Worse than losing his job, Yashin also lost his passion for football. A colleague from the company suggested he enlist for military service. Yashin followed the advice, and he called his decision to join the army a "salvation." When he put on the military uniform, Yashin had no idea he was about to embark on another curve in his life's journey.

Combining military duty with football, Yashin rediscovered his joy of playing. The military discipline helped Yashin become more robust and disciplined. He trained twice or three times as much as before. By chance, Arkady Chernyshev, the youth team coach of Dynamo Moscow, discovered Yashin and asked him to join the team. That was in 1950. Yashin's first match for Dynamo was a disaster. He let in a goal from... the opposing goalkeeper's long clearance. In that year, Yashin only played two official matches and sat on the bench for the next three years. But he didn't give up. While persistently training and waiting for his chance, Yashin found joy in playing... ice hockey.

In this sport, he helped Dynamo win the Soviet Cup in March 1953. The ice hockey team of Dynamo at that time was only in the average group, but thanks to Yashin, they finished the national championship in third place. Playing two sports simultaneously, by October of that year, he won his first football championship. This led to a dispute between the ice hockey team and the Dynamo football team. In 1954, Yashin made a decision following the call of his heart: to choose football. And from then on, he saw the goal as a loyal lover, accompanying him for over twenty years. He participated in four World Cup tournaments, helping the Soviet Union national team win their first two major titles, keeping over 200 clean sheets and saving 150 penalty kicks (a record).

Yashin not only became an outstanding goalkeeper but also a symbol of international stature. He was famous not only for his talent but also for his nobility and humility. Yashin's exceptional stature (he was 1.89 meters tall) made him a giant in the goal. He often wore a dark black outfit, which earned him the nicknames "Black Spider" or "Black Panther" due to his unmatched reflexes. When the "Black Panther" pounced on the ball, the opponents couldn't help but feel like "prey".

Sir Tom Finney of the England national team recalled his encounter with Yashin at the 1958 World Cup: "That day, I had to take a penalty kick. Because I was so afraid of him guessing my shot, I had to kick with my non-dominant foot. I was so nervous I thought I was going to die. When I turned my back to the goal to run up, I saw my teammates looking elsewhere. They were so scared they couldn't even watch."

The Goalkeeper's Triumph: Yashin's Redemption and Legacy

Yashin's reputation continued to grow until the Soviet Union's 1-2 defeat to Chile at the 1962 World Cup, as mentioned above. But Yashin was determined to restore his glory. On October 23, 1963, he traveled to London to participate in a commemorative match for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Football Association (FA) of England. He guarded the goal for the "World Stars" team against the host team, England. The coach of the "World Stars" team was Fernando Riera, the coach of the Chilean team that eliminated the Soviet Union the year before. Riera's first action after being chosen as the coach for this match was to... call Yashin to invite him. Yashin played only the first half, making incredible saves, and the score was 0-0 after 45 minutes. Milutin Soskic of Yugoslavia replaced Yashin in the second half, and the match ended with a 2-1 victory for the England national team, with Jimmy Greaves scoring the winning goal in the 90th minute.

Valentina left the radio station and rushed to the airport to pick Yashin up. When she arrived, the plane had just landed. Yashin appeared in his black outfit with the "World Stars" badge. He took off his gloves and hugged Valentina. "Duty called. I'm sorry I couldn't say goodbye," Yashin said. "I understand," Valentina replied. "But don't think you can leave just like that. You still owe me a dance!"

In other countries, the most beloved players are usually positioned higher on the field. A lethal striker, a skillful number 10, or a solid center-back. Only in the former Soviet Union, did fans worship a goalkeeper, as he was the one who leaned on the borderline. The largest country on the planet that Yashin proudly represented was also a complex place: beautiful, full of pride, but carrying many scars. However, it was precisely the harrowing experiences of the patriotic war that made the role of the goalkeeper here even more special. Because when looking towards the home team's goal, the Soviet people involuntarily saw their own image: resolute and indomitable.

If you have the opportunity to visit the Tretyakov Art Gallery in Moscow, you will see a painting by the artist Aleksandr Deineka, painted in 1934. In that painting, a goalkeeper is stretching to touch the ball. Another painting by Sergei Grigoriev, painted in 1949, portrays a teenager with a bandaged knee, with stacks of clothes piled up to form... the goal, staring straight ahead. The name of the painting is "Goalkeeper."

In 1936, the great Soviet cinema presented the film "Goalkeeper," tells the story of a football hero. The main character not only successfully blocked a penalty kick but also scored a goal against the international team wearing all-black uniforms, symbolizing the fascist enemy. The film was made in the musical genre, with the closing song containing the lines: "Hey, goalkeeper, prepare for the battle. You are the gatekeeper. And behind you is the front line."

Yashin overcame a humble childhood and hardships to become the giant of the 20th century. And he shone brightest at a time when the former Soviet Union achieved great accomplishments. But contrary to the youthful epic, Yashin's life after retirement was a tragedy. He fell seriously ill, had to have his leg amputated, and witnessed the Soviet Union on the verge of collapse.

In his final years, Yashin had to move around in a wheelchair and then had his leg amputated. In the photo, he is sharing his experiences with his successor, Dmitri Kharin.
At the age of 41, Yashin retired. Valentina told him, "Playing until the age of 41 is already too long." She recalled, "There was a moment when he jumped to punch the ball and couldn't get up afterward. Prior to that, he had suffered three concussions and had to be hospitalized for three days each time. So, at that time, I was very worried."

The result was that Yashin was able to get up again. He returned to the goal, threw the ball up, and continued playing. When he returned home, Valentina asked Yashin why he lay down for so long before getting up. And he replied, "The smell of the grass is so sweet, my dear, it made me not want to get up anymore."

During the time the BBC reporter stayed at Valentina's house, the landline phone rang three times. A documentary film crew wanted to ask her opinion on the title: "Yashin: A Legend" or "Yashin: A Hero," which one sounded better. Decades after Yashin's death, Valentina still had to constantly meet journalists and filmmakers. They exploited everything they could about her husband, their love, and Yashin's life after retirement.

Valentina said that initially, she was hesitant to get married because of many proposals. But in the end, after meeting Yashin in a store in Moscow, she immediately liked him. They lived faithfully together for more than half of their lives