On December 17, 1963, the French sport edition “France Football” awarded its Golden Ball trophy to Lev Yashin, the legendary Soviet goalkeeper, the only goalkeeper in the entire history of world soccer to receive this award.
Dubbed by his fans as the Black Panther for his amazingly long and catlike precise leaps and black outfit, Yashin played a total of 812 games, with 207 of them leaving the gate clean. Valery Maslov, Yashin’s teammate, recalled, that Yashin “during practices, could catch a very difficult ball, then get back on his feet in a split second and hit the second ball, in the meantime flying into the opposite corner of the gates… I have never seen that trick done by anyone else! As a goalkeeper, he was close to ideal.”
Yashin was the first one to introduce a lot of new features to the game, which later became classics of soccer. So influential and respected was he that he even made coaches change their game plans. After the bronze medal game between the Soviet Union and Portugal in the 1966 World Cup, Eusebio, the legendary Portuguese soccer player, noted that “Yashin is a remarkable goalkeeper, the best in our century.”
However, Yahin’s first soccer experience brought him a lot of disappointment, as in the spring of 1949, at a routine game, Yashin missed a ball kicked by the goalkeeper of the opponent team. Since the game was not of importance, Yashin’s teammates, instead of reproaching the young goalkeeper, made fun of him, which, for Yashin, was an even bigger humiliation. A number of other relatively unsuccessful games almost made Lev Yashin turn to ice hockey, at which he appeared to be more skillful at the time.
Real fame and glory hit Yashin after victory at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, and was followed by coming first at the European Soccer Tournament four years later.
After such intoxicating success, the entire country was expecting even larger achievements from the Soviet team at the next World Championship in Chile in 1962. However, although the Soviet team placed the highest inside the group, topping the stronger opponents from Yugoslavia and Uruguay, they lost 1:2 to the Chilean team in the quarter-finals.
Such a major failure was thought by many to be entirely Yashin’s fault. Yashin was literally showered with harsh, devastating criticisms, as the sport’s authorities started making hints about his imminent retirement, while even his most devoted fans hissed and booed their idol when he walked out on the field. He was constantly threatened, the walls of the apartment building where he lived were all scribbled with abusive messages and bullies destroyed his car.
However, foreign media and fans, on the contrary, praised Yashin’s performance highly, as they saw the Soviet loss as a one-time misfortune, generally considering Yashin a hero and the Soviet Union’s most successful soccer player. So great was the foreign admiration of Yashin, he was even chosen to play in the game devoted to the centenary of the British game, teamed up with others of the world’s greatest soccer players.
Back then such jubilee games were a novelty and attracted a lot of attention. Such recognition abroad, along with the Golden Ball award, significantly shifted the attitude toward Yashin in the Soviet Union. Yashin regained his popularity among fans at home, the moment he won his laurels on the international scale. The authorities immediately forgot about his critical age and very eagerly reserved him a ticket to the next World Tournament.
Yashin was named the best goalkeeper of the century, and in 1994, the Yashin Prize was established to honor outstanding young goalkeepers who have shown their worth at World Championships.