This has been a good World Cup for goalkeepers, which means it has been a good World Cup for me. It also, by default, means that it has been a great World Cup, generally.
It was set alight by Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa in their goalless draw with Brazil and has continued to burn away; on Monday, both Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama and Algeria’s Rais M’Bolhi were magnificent.
So much so that it has become one of the sub-themes of the tournament, even acquiring the vague feel of an anti-capitalist protest – the sweaty, heroic goalkeeper from the footballing Third World standing up to the pristine, all-conquering billion-dollar bots from football’s elite.
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Goalkeepers are the most interesting players on the pitch. It is not necessarily because they have, like cricket’s wicketkeepers, been traditionally stereotyped as the game’s quirks or eccentrics. There may well be something to that, though it is equally worth bearing that goalkeeping is not a genetic trait, but a profession.
Mostly it is because goalkeeping is at a basic and obvious cross purpose to what the team does. In an ideal game, a team does not want its goalkeeper to be tested, let alone breached. That is what the team wants.
The goalkeeper wants it, too, because, as part of a collective, he shares the broad goal. But inside, individually, he is itching to be involved. He wants to make the kind of save, for example, that Ochoa made to keep out Neymar’s header, or that Enyeama made to deny Karim Benzema. But for that to happen he needs his teammates and specifically his defenders to have failed in their basic duty.
Not only does he have to deal with being at odds with the team’s aims, he has to ensure that he then does not mess up, that he does pull off a save. Imagine how that must feel in a team environment, to outwardly want to do nothing, but be dying inside to fly across goal to tip away a shot, or get big and tall in a one-on-one? Then to be confident enough to know you will save the day?
Which is why one of the great sights in any match is the goalkeeper berating his defence and simultaneously celebrating their incompetence which allowed him to intervene. It is a uniquely awkward human moment, a rare confluence of anger with joy.
That is the edge on which the profession exists, so thin and fraught – colleagues fail so I can succeed – it is frightening and exhausting. So if goalkeepers have appeared historically as men apart, well that is understandable.
It is also a cruel calling. Against France, Enyeama was outstanding but for the one slip from a corner that led to the deadlock-breaking goal. Similar was the fate of Ochoa against the Netherlands. One error of judgment leads to an equaliser and a whole tournament’s worth of excellence is wiped out, even if temporarily.
That leads to another pickle. What would be worse? That it was their own errors that led to the goals, or if they had excelled throughout and could genuinely do nothing about the goal that was conceded? It is the kind of predicament that could only happen to goalkeepers.
Sometimes as much as a great save, or a mistake, just being beaten sticks in the memory, which is also cruel.
There are, for instance, a number of outstanding saves Peter Schmeichel made that can be instantly recalled. But it is also impossible to forget the image of him – in realisation that Davor Suker’s chip at Euro 96 has defeated him – gently falling back as he watches the ball loop over him, like a knockout in slow motion.
It was difficult to feel too bad for Enyeama and his breed on Monday. Later that evening, as Germany outlasted Algeria, there was reason for genuine excitement. Manuel Neuer is an awesome and scary super-breed of sportsman and one of the world’s best goalkeepers.
But here he basically decided to become an 11th outfielder, a sweeper to the deliberately high-line German defence.
It worked beautifully and radically. He perfectly timed all of his many rushes outside the area, and did not misjudge a touch or a sliding tackle.
He even played one outrageous pass that almost set Andre Schurrle free on goal; in effect he became a numerical advantage.
It was outrageous and yet somehow right, because no one has a better vantage point to read a game than the goalkeeper.
At its headiest, it felt like a goalkeeping future being mapped out, the next logical stage of their evolution. At least in Neuer’s expert implementation, it felt utterly logical.
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