The World Cup Alphabet – Y is for…








The USSR has over the years had teams spilling over with talent but sadly never made a huge impact in the World Cup with the exception of the odd semi final appearance. They had many great players perhaps having stunted careers because of the iron curtain but if you had to pick one player that was a true legend then you cannot go past the goalkeeper Lev Yashin.


Yashin had originally started playing in a factory team when only a teenager just after World War Two. He had been pulled out of school when 12 years hold to help with the war effort. Yashin had to choose between football and ice hockey (he had won a Soviet championship in the latter) and chose football with his beloved Spartak Moscow his team of choice.


Yashin was nicknamed ‘The Black Spider’ because of his all black outfit and long limbs that made him a tough unit to score against. Such was his reputation that some players even used to take penalties with their other foot to try and fool him because of his expert knowledge on his opponents. Yashin was an innovator as the sport came in to modern era. He was one of the first keepers to come off his line and punch or kick the ball away from danger rather than stay between the post which seems hard to visualise in today’s modern game. Despite not being captain (keepers were never captain in this era) he virtually led the USSR to their first and only European title in 1960. He was also part of the side that won a gold medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.


He was one of those rare players that played in four world cups with 1966 his standout tournament. 1966 was impressive for Yashin because he had such a horrible time in the 1962 tournament in Chile where he was concussed twice and was the only player to ever concede a goal straight from a corner at a World Cup. In 1966 he led the USSR all the way to the semi finals where they went down to West Germany with his ability to save any shot getting the team wins instead of draws with only three goals conceded in the whole tournament. His efforts gained him cult status around the world that stays to this day.



The Soviet Government was so impressed with Yashin and his efforts in England that they gave him the Order of Lenin, the highest possible honour there was at the time. He would play in one more World Cup in more of a mentor role in 1970 before retiring at 40. To show the respect Yashin had his final match and testimonial in 1971 in Moscow attracted 100,000 people with Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Eusebio all giving their time to play in the match. He was also European Footballer of the Year, the only keeper to ever win the award.


Yashin was also not short of a quote too. He once said that the thrill Yuri Gagarin must have had being the first man in space would only be second to the thrill of saving a penalty. Another time he said a quick drink and smoke before a game and at half time always calmed the nerves and relaxed the muscles. Many suburban footballing heroes have no doubt used the same method. He also claimed a goalkeeper wasn’t a true keeper if they weren’t haunted by every goal they’d conceded. All very Tolstoy.


Yashin tragically died in 1990 from cancer only aged 60. He had lost a leg a few years previous because of thrombophlebitis. His memory has lived on though with the big man still seen as probably the greatest keeper of all time and his efforts over a distinguished career proved this. FIFA also named the award for the best keeper for every tournament the Lev Yashin Award. He was a memorable and innovative icon of the game.





When Daniel Arzani hopefully makes it on to the pitch he’ll be the youngest player to play at this World Cup and youngest ever Socceroos to be at the big dance. Teenage players thrown in the mix have sometimes floated, sometimes sank and sometimes announced themselves.


In 1950 Brazil saw the talent and fire burning inside a boy only aged 17 years, 7 months and 23 days. This player didn’t disappoint taking the tournament by storm and announcing himself to the World winning Brazil their inaugural World Cup in Sweden. His name was Pele.




Former Cameroon and Marseille winger, Saloman Olembe was another wee teen to have appeared in a World Cup game. It was at France 98 and Cameroon played Austria in a game that ended 1-1. Olembe made his debut at the tender age of 17 years, 6 months, and 3 days and went on to make 64 appearances for his national side. He began his professional career in France with Nantes in 1997 and was selected as part of the Cameroonian squad for the World Cup in France the next year.


Nigeria had many youth prodigies but Feni Opabunmi was one they were really hanging their hats on. He made a lot of headlines in 2001 during the U-17 World Championships as he displayed some fantastic performances.With a lot of people taking notice of the player, Opabunmi was selected for Nigeria’s World Cup squad and made his debut at the age of 17 years, 3 months, and 9 days in 2002 against England. In what was a pivotal group game the 0-0 draw England through and Argentina out. It would be the only time he would ever play for Nigeria and disappear like many rated top talents at that age would.


Another player from Africa who would outshine most both at club and country level was Samuel Eto’o. The star striker, former Cameroon captain and multiple time African footballer of the year made his WC debut in 1998 in a 3-0 defeat to Italy at the young age of 17 years, 3 months, and 7 days. Eto’o began his career with Real Madrid in 1997 and was made part of the Cameroon squad in 1998 for the World Cup in France. He would also win the gold medal with Cameroon at the Sydney Olympics and have a prolific career playing at an amazing four World Cups over 16 years.


When Northern Ireland qualified for Spain 82 they not only shocked the world beating hosts Spain but also debuted the youngest ever player at a World Cup. Norman Whiteside was only 17 years, 1 month, and 10 days when debuted in a game between Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland that ended in a scoreless draw. The record stands to this day. He wasn’t a player of his generation like Eto’o or Pele but he didn’t disappear like Opabundmi either. He would play in 206 games for Man United scoring a pivotal goal in the 1985 FA Cup Final. He was ushered out the door by Alex Ferguson and his new regime to rid the club of the binge drinkers and retired due to injury before even turning 30.






About Dennis Gedling

RTR FM Presenter. Dilettante. Traffic Nerd. Behind the Almanac World Cup 100. Keen Cat, Cardie, Socceroo/Matilda, Glory Bhoy.

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