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But for the neutrals, it is still Lev Yashin who enjoys an assured first-team place in the realm of fantasy. Hero of the Soviet Union and known across the world as the Black Spider, Yashin is considered to be the finest goalkeeper from the Pele era – when the Russians won the European championships (1960) and the Olympic gold (1956) – and has justifiably been made the poster boy for the World Cup in Russia.
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Stepping out of the Dynamo metro, one has to look up and see the famous statue that Yashin’s club Dynamo Moscow has erected as a memorial to the most celebrated player in its history.
Widely photographed, the monument shows Yashin flying to his right to grip the ball and the goalpost is a triangle. It adds to the legend of a shrinking goal area when the man in black with a cap stood under it, the sentinel or the border guard.
In a recent BBC interview, his wife Valentina Timofeevna Yashina, all of 88, recalled an incident. Yashin had been selected in the World XI in 1963. He played the first half well and made several outstanding saves. It was 0-0 at the break and Yugoslavia’s Milutin Soskic replaced him in the second half. The match ended 2-1 in England’s favour, thanks to Jimmy Greaves’ 90th-minute winner.
Picking up her daughters from school, Valentina was on her way home in a taxi. The driver told her how the Soviet Union had come on top. She shot back, “What do you mean? It finished 2-1 in favour of England.” The driver replied, “Oh, that doesn’t mean a thing. Yashin played the first half – the score was 0-0 when he came off.”
“That’s what the reaction was like in Moscow. All the fans were celebrating him,” Valentina remembered. The man mattered more than the match. For the Russians, this was the heart of the matter.
But just a year earlier, the Soviet Union had been ousted by hosts Chile in the World Cup quarterfinals with Yashin performing below his best. The fans, fickle as they are, denigrated him, and called for his retirement. He took it very hard – the windows of his home were smashed and an insulting graffiti was painted on his car.
Someone whose childhood was snuffed out quickly because of the German invasion in 1941, his family compelled to relocate across the Urals, public disenchantment disillusioned him. But it did not keep him down for long.
Adversity had been his long-term companion. Depression took Yashin out of the game when he was just 18. He rebounded with great courage. He did the same once again, and in 1963 was awarded the Ballon d’Or. He remains the only goalkeeper to have won it since and the first Russian. Oleg Blokhin and Igor Belonov are the other winners from Russia.
For the Soviet Union, Yashin played in four World Cups, helped his country win two major titles, the Olympic gold and the European championship, and saved a record 150 penalties.
Yashin’s story did not have a happy ending. Still young, he died at 60 after a prolonged fight with cancer that struck after a leg amputation.
Now, Yashin rests peacefully in the Vagankovo cemetery where a stunning relief work, showing Yashin walking with a ball in hand, stands – for the fans to come and pay homage.