On 29 October 1929, the first global star of Russian football was born to a working family in Moscow. At the age of 21 the young Lev Yashin was thrust into the Dinamo Moscow first team for a friendly, his fledgling career beginning in acrimonious circumstances as a long punt from his opposite number sailed into his net. It took the best part of three years for Yashin to become a regular fixture in the Dinamo side ahead of the legendary Alexei Khomich, and in his early days he even took up goaltending for the ice hockey team, claiming a Soviet championship with Dinamo in 1953 as the first of many awards and trophies in a glittering career.
By 1956 Yashin was an Olympic champion, the USSR’s greatest footballing achievement until their triumph in the European Championships four years later. As a country it can be argued that the Soviets underachieved in their heyday, but Yashin was often the catalyst for their better performances. With his distinctive black outfit and feline reflexes, he developed a following as the Black Panther, becoming the only goalkeeper ever to win the prestigious European Footballer of the Year award (1963) as well as leading a Dinamo side which claimed five Soviet titles in his 20 years at the club.
His role in that success and cult status among the fans saw a bronze statue of Yashin erected at Dinamo Stadium, but his achievements did not go unnoticed in a Soviet Union always ready to adopt a hero. In 1967, whilst still first choice goalkeeper for Dinamo, Yashin was awarded the Order of Lenin, his country’s highest honour, and declared a Hero of Socialist Labour just two days before his death in 1990. However, it is in the footballing world that his memory is strongest – as well as being an ambassador for Dinamo after his retirement, he is credited personally with a number of developments to the goalkeeping position, including facets of the modern game often taken for granted such as organisation of the defense and the quick throw. Consequently, Yashin’s name is often put forward as a candidate for the greatest ever goalkeeper, and FIFA’s World Cup award for the best goalkeeper is named in his honour.
However, since the height of Yashin’s powers, the USSR and then Russia have struggled to adequately replace a man regarded as one of the all-time greats. Whilst most Russians would accept that Yashin’s talent is irreplaceable, finding a world class goalkeeper to lead the team from the back has been a priority ever since his departure from the game. Stanislav Cherchesov, currently the man in charge at Terek Grozny, Ruslan Nigmatullin and Sergei Ovchinnikov are just three of the men given the chance to claim the coveted jersey for themselves, but on each occasion a lack of consistency or simple mistakes have seen them relinquish the shirt and retreat from the spotlight – Ovchinnikov accrued 35 caps over more than a decade, Nigmatullin failed to replicate his successes with Lokomotiv at other clubs, whilst Cherchesov was arguably the closest Russia had to a regular before losing his starting berth.
Of course the most vivid example, and one which still brings pain to the heart of many a Russian, is that of Alexander Filimonov. Purchased by the all-conquering Spartak Moscow side of the 1990s, Filimonov took Nigmatullin’s place in goal for the domestic champions and eventually usurped him in the national side. Some impressively consistent performances convinced a significant portion of the population that they finally had a goalkeeper that they could trust. In the qualifying groups for Euro 2000, a string of good form took Russia to the brink of qualification, needing a win in the last round of games to progress to the tournament. With the opposition being Ukraine at the Luzhniki, the match simply could not have been any bigger for Russia.
All seemed to be going according to plan – sustained pressure from the hosts finally paid off in the 75th minute when Valery Karpin’s viciously struck free kick burst through the Ukrainian wall and into the back of the net. Needing to hold on for just 15 minutes, qualification looked secure.
With less than two minutes remaining, the visitors won a free kick 30 yards from goal on the left touchline. Andrei Shevchenko rushed over to take the set piece, and after the usual penalty area pushing delivered a cross which appeared harmless.
However, it proved otherwise. Filimonov misjudged the flight of the ball and found himself caught underneath it, scrambling to make the save. Some quick footwork looked to have rectified the situation, but still he needed to deal with the danger. Leaping into the air, viewers across the Russian-speaking world expected the goalkeeper to palm the ball over the crossbar or to take a clean catch – what they did not expect was Filimonov to panic, all but throwing the ball into his own net and sending his country crashing out of the competition. His confidence shattered, he never played competitively for Russia again.
Today, the national gloves have been worn by CSKA’s Igor Akinfeev for some time. Once the great young hope of Russian goalkeeping, Akinfeev has never quite lived up to his predicted astronomical potential, but with 50 caps and over 200 appearances for CSKA he is still comfortably the best goalkeeper in Russia. Zenit’s Vyacheslav Malafeev performs in flashes but is poorly rated by certain TV pundits, whilst Vladimir Gabulov found himself a pawn in a bizarre game earlier this season, transferring between Dinamo and Anzhi only to be loaned to CSKA as cover for the injured Akinfeev. There does not appear to be a bright young star racing through the ranks of any of the current Premier League sides, and in Akinfeev’s absence there is a real worry over who should start at Euro 2012. For a position all too easily vilified, Russia awaits a hero.