The ‘Black Octopus’ saves his side again: Lev Yashin in action, USSR v Argentina, Buenos Aires 1961 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).
The ‘Black Octopus’ saves his side again: Lev Yashin in action, USSR v Argentina, Buenos Aires 1961 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Simply the best?

An award that paints a story of Europe and the World

Zdravko Stojkovic
Zdravko Stojkoski NI Museum of North Macedonia Skopje. FMH developer

For years, Ballon d’Or has been the most prestigious individual award in world football. It rewards the best male footballer of the last season. In it’s simplicity resides its appeal. A recognition for effort for the whole of Europe. Born in a time of a divided Europe, the history of the “Ballon d’Or”, in terms of organisation as well as the winners, paints a picture of European history and society as well.

A concept in motion

The award was conceived by the Frenchman Gabriel Hanot, sports journalist at the magazine L’Equipe. Hanot, also, stood behind the idea for the creation of the European Cup, the predecessor of the UEFA Champions League. Ballon d’Or was introduced for the first time in 1956, initially as the award for the best European footballer and based on the voting of football journalists. Тhe award experienced its first major change in 1995 when it was expanded to include players from non-European origin, but only if they play for European club. Previously, for almost 40 years, the players from other parts of the world were excluded from the competition. So, some of the best football players in the century like Brazilian Pele and Argentinean Diego Maradona never had the opportunity to win the award. Liberian and AC Milan player, George Weah, became the first non European footballer who received that honor, on the same year when the rule was changed. Since 2007, the award experienced many other transformations including granting voting rights to the coaches and captains of the national teams; merger with FIFA’s “World Player of the Year” award in 2010, in what will become the “FIFA Ballon d’Or”; and reverting from the merger six years later.

Winners in profile

The “Ballon d’Or“ award for the best European footballer of the year created by the magazine “France football“ was first given on 18th December 1956. The honor to receive the inaugural trophy belongs to the Englishmen from F.C. Blackpool, named Stanley Matthews. He had a long and very successful football career stretching for more than 30 years. He was 41 years old when won the “Ballon d’Or“ and he ended his football career at the age of 50.

Matthews, also, had an inspiring coaching career. Even during his active playing, for decades, he dedicated his summers to coaching poor children in South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and other countries. This habit continued after his retirement, travelling around the world and coaching enthusiastic amateurs. In 1975, in the apartheid controlled South Africa, in Soweto, Matthews established an all-black schoolboys team, known as the “Stan’s Men“. Ignoring the harsh laws of the regime, he organized a trip of his team to Brazil, thus becoming the first ever black team that went on a football tour outside South Africa.

Masopust: First from the East

On 19th December 1962, the Czechoslovak football star Josef Masopust became the first player “behind the Iron Curtain“ to receive the “Ballon d’Or“ as the best European footballer of the year. It was an exceptional reward for Czechoslovakia as well as for the football in the states from the Eastern bloc because all previous winners came from the Western part of the “Iron Curtain”. Masopust deserved the award mostly because of his outstanding performance shown in the World Cup in Chile that same year where the Czechoslovak national team reached the final.

Masopust grew up in a miner’s family as one of six children. He spent his early years under the Nazi occupation, in circumstances when football was forbidden and he could only play in his home village. Most of his football career he played for Dukla Prague. Dukla was the Army Club at the time which means it enjoyed privileges by the communist authorities including taking best players from other teams in the country. During his stay in the club, Masopust, also, reached the Army rank of Major. At the end of the playing career, he spent 2 years in Belgium, in Crossing Molenbeek where he was a player and coach at the same time. As a coach, he spent a couple of years in Indonesia, being part of the coaching staff of their national Olympic football team.

Masopust is remembered not only as a skilful and intelligent footballer, but also as a great sportsman. In the 1962 World Cup group match against Brazil, he instructed his teammates not to foul the best Brazilian footballer, Pele, who played the game injured. Years later, he explained that it was easy to tackle an injured man, but it’s not a fair gesture, especially at the time when the substitutions were not allowed. During his successful career, Masopust was part of many humanitarian matches playing either for the selection of Europe or for the “Rest of the World“. In 1965, he was invited to play for the European XI team at the farewell match of the 50-year-old Stanly Matthews. Thus, Masopust cemented his place as one of the greatest of his time.

Importance of success in time of conflicts

The 1950s and 1960s were the years when political tensions and ideological rivalries dominated Europe. These conditions had reflected on many aspects of the social life and the relations between the European nations from the both sides of the ideological fortress. The construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 represented the culmination of these divisions and “the Cold War“. Football as a popular sport and cultural practice was no exception from the above. Sporting competitions like the European Cup for clubs and the European Nations Cup, both organized by the pan-European football association, UEFA, represented some form of bridge builders providing rare opportunities for  communication and exchange between the people across the “Iron Curtain”. Simultaneously, these competitions were seen as another important field in the ideological battle. Football and sports were particularly important for the so-called communist states. Every success, individual or collective, was regarded not only as a national triumph but, sometimes more importantly, as a victory of their ideology. The communist regimes had invested huge resources in boosting the successes of their sporting competitors. At the beginning of the 1960s, it seemed that they succeeded to prove their football prevalence.

When on 17th December 1963, Lev Yashin became the first Soviet footballer to win the “Ballon d’Or“, there was no better proof (at least for the Soviets and Easterners) that their (football) model had been superior to the Western one. The Soviet Union was already a European Champion at the time from the first European Cup of Nations held in 1960, the Championship that witnessed three of four national teams coming from the “communist“ states (USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia) along with the hosts, France. At the same time, Yugoslavia was the Olympic Champion from Rome, 1960, and the Czechoslovaks were the second in the world in 1962 World Cup, only behind Brazil.

Black Spider

Lev Yashin was undoubtedly one of the best Russian footballers and by many is considered the best goalkeeper ever. He has been described as a model of goalkeeper who revolutionized the goalkeeping position with his athleticism, stature, goal positioning, bravery and acrobatic saves.

Yashin was born in Moscow to a family of industrial workers. Being himself a worker in a military factory in his youth, Yashin, later, engaged with football and spent his entire career (1950 – 1970) in Dynamo Moscow. In the early 1950s he also played goalie for the Dynamo ice hockey team managing to win a USSR ice hockey cup. With the Soviet national football team, Yashin won an Olympic gold medal (1956), European Championship title (1960) and took part in four World Cups. One of his best performances is noted in 1963 on the match between England and the Rest of the World team, played as part of the celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the England Football Association (FA). From that match onward he was widely known as the “Black Spider”, because of the all black uniform that he wore and his “eight arms” that provided him to save almost every ball. Later that year, Yashin earned the “Ballon d’Or” trophy as the first and to date the only goalkeeper with this prestige award. Yashin’s testimonial match was held at Moscow’s Lenin Stadium in front of 100 000 fans involving football stars like Pele, Eusebio, Franz Beckenbauer etc. Since 1994, the trophy for the best goalkeeper at the World Cup bears the name “Lev Yashin award”.

Find out more

Behind every winner of the “Ballon d’Or” award there is a story. You can explore stories from more recent times in the dedicated portal of The Guardian. A historical overview of more and other winners can be consulted on Sportsmob.

The most prestigious football prize is awarded annually. What does looking at its history tell us?

Let’s review

The ‘Black Octopus’ saves his side again: Lev Yashin in action, USSR v Argentina, Buenos Aires 1961 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).
Reader Rating1 Votes
Football game

Don’t miss our videos

Follow us

Football Makes History