We have talismans for every country for each World Cup in soccer and then you have Pele, the most talismanic player of the soccer world. Nay! the most talismanic sportsperson in the world. Period.
But no player has ever meant more to their country’s history in soccer than Lev Yashin to USSR. And this is strange for a Russian federation that produced icons numerous times to other sports. Olga Korbut, Larissa Latynina, Alexei Nemov, Alexander Popov, Valeriy Borzoi, Sergei Bubka, and so many others.
I do not profess to know much about Russian soccer because they have not been around too long since the break up of the former USSR. Only that they qualified for the 1994 and 2002 World Cup, each time failing to get out of the first round. But the USSR produced some fine players like Oleg Blokhin and Igor Belanov.
But it is left to Lev Yashin, the goalkeeper known as the Black Panther to define soccer in the Soviet era. He was known for his imposing stature standing at 6′ 3”, black team outfit, superb athleticism, and stunning saves to earn FIFA’s title of the Best Goalkeeper of the century.
Lev Yashin is the only goalkeeper ever to win the European Footballer of the Year Award (1963). He is also believed to have blocked around 150 penalty kicks during his career; far more than any other goalkeeper in history. When asked for his secret, he would say the trick was “to have a smoke to calm your nerves, then toss back a strong drink to tone your muscles.” He played for Dynamo Moscow and in four World Cups for the USSR (1958, 1962, 1966, and 1970). Yashin is credited for four clean sheets out of 13 games played in WC finals. The USSR finished fourth in the 1966 World Cup, their best showing. For his career he had 480 clean sheets out of 812 matches played. He also won a USSR Ice hockey championship as a goalkeeper.
Lev Yashin’s FIFA testimonial match in 1971 was held at the Lenin Stadium in Moscow with 100,000 fans attending, and a host of stars and superstars, including Pelé, Eusebio and Franz Beckenbauer.
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