It’s been an unfashionably impressive World Cup for goalkeepers. If we were to identify the best players of the tournament so far, the likes of Guillermo Ochoa, Tim Howard and Keylor Navas would probably make the long list. Perhaps the most intriguing element to the widespread admiration is that (one save from Navas aside) all three steadily impressed because of their performances in open play. Usually for a goalkeeper to make such a positive impact, they’re required to be a shootout hero (like Brazil’s Julio Cesar).
All three have brought something different. Ochoa is best remembered for his brilliant save that kept out Neymar’s low header in Mexico’s group game with Brazil, but he also showed incredible reflexes to deny Holland’s Stefan de Vrij in the round of 16 clash. So, he’s contributed isolated moments of jaw-dropping agility. Though he made one outstanding stop against Portugal, Howard’s relentlessness in keeping Belgium at bay perfectly encapsulated the USA’s determined and undoubtedly brave approach – they simply would not lay down. Costa Rica’s Navas made eight saves against Greece and stopped a penalty. Afterwards, his manager Joaquin Caparros spoke of counting on “maximum efficiency” to conquer higher-profile opponents. Navas was an extension of this – focused, reliable, ready.
But, it’s the calm before the storm. Goalkeepers remain misunderstood, mainly because they’re so difficult to evaluate. When a team secures a clean sheet, rarely will the goalkeeper be spotlighted and entertained with applause and congratulations. He’s considered just another cog in the defensive machine. But at the other end of the field, a striker scores a hat trick, maybe three very simple goals, and his individual effect on the result is easier to work out. More importantly, criticism of goalkeepers is damning, the praise faint. Often, analysts will refer to a shot being “comfortable” for the goalkeeper, that he “should save it”. Excuses are rarely offered when mistakes are made.
Compare and contrast to attackers. Unless a tap-in is squandered from a few yards, there’s usually careful and considered analysis of a shot that should’ve been scored from but wasn’t.
“He just had to rush that”.
“There was a slight bobble”.
“If that was an inch or two inside the post, it would’ve been a goal”.
Though both examples revolve around those clichéd minute details that can determine a result, goalkeepers are rarely afforded the benefit of the doubt.
Perhaps it’s to do with the spectacle. Mistakes are amplified because of the consequence and there’s a perverse pleasure in watching athletes err. As soon as a game kicks off, goalkeepers dangle on the precipice. Much has been written about the psychological aspect to the role. In Jonathan Wilson’s excellent investigation into the history of the goalkeeper, ‘The Outsider’, he discusses the perception of the position as “anti-soccer”, the net-minder as a “spoilsport”, trying all he can to stop the one thing people want. As an extension of that, goalkeepers have always been treated differently, as something strange, inexplicable, quirky. They wear a different shirt to the rest. The physical distance between them and teammates represents a metaphor for something else. There’s a cut-off, a disconnect and the on-field isolation makes them stand out, usually for the wrong reasons. If an out-field player misplays the ball, a teammate is close by to bail him out. The goalkeeper can’t rely on a similar comfort blanket.
There was a time when goalkeepers were looked upon as one-dimensional characters. Their role was clearly defined. But when the back pass was outlawed in 1992, they had to become footballers. When a ball was rolled back to them by a teammate, they couldn’t just pick it up like before. They had to play it along the ground. Ever since, there has been a steady development. He has grown to become an obvious member of the team. Many modern-day managers have identified the goalkeeper as an integral part of a wider strategy. At this World Cup, Manuel Neuer’s comfort on the ball and his ability to read situations quickly and efficiently means the Germans can play a high line of defence, pushing close to the halfway line. Neuer can step all the way to the edge of his penalty area and patrol, happily engaging in the play and having the wherewithal to “sweep” behind his centre-backs if necessary. Against Algeria, he made numerous interceptions and challenges as he rushed from his area to quell an attack.
But ultimately, headlines will be garnered only after a costly mistake is made. When the USA lost to Belgium, Chris Wondolowski had a wonderful chance to win it for the Americans in normal time. He was incorrectly ruled offside but missed anyway. Had he scored, few would’ve remembered Howard’s performance.
As Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama showed in the round of 16 game against France, goalkeepers are defined by their errors. Despite an eye-catching tournament in general, he dropped a cross right onto the forehead of Paul Pogba and, in an instant, the French were in front and the veteran prepared himself for widespread ridicule.
Things change but things stay the same. In 1950, Brazil lost the World Cup final to Uruguay at the iconic Maracana. Their number one, Moacyr Barbosa, was named goalkeeper of the tournament. But he was made a scapegoat because of his role in Uruguay’s fortunate winning goal. Just before his death in 2000, he commented, “In Brazil, the maximum sentence is 30 years but my imprisonment has been for fifty”.
Always dangling on the precipice.