MOSCOW: Perhaps no one has better described the torment of being a goalkeeper than Eduardo Galeano.
“They also call him doorman, keeper, goalie, bouncer, or net-minder, but he could just as well be called martyr, pay-all, penitent, or punching bag,” he wrote in his seminal work Soccer in Sun and Shadow. “Never leaving the goal, his only company the two posts and the crossbar, he awaits his own execution by firing.”
A striker could go through four bad games and still salvage his tournament with a goal in the fifth. But for a goalkeeper, one mistake is all that is needed to tarnish his tournament and be condemned to YouTube blooper reels. Take Igor Akinfeev. His mistake against South Korea in 2014 ruined his debut World Cup, and it took four long years for him to restore his reputation.
For goalkeepers, this World Cup was divided into two halves. The first — group stages — saw two kings of the discipline being knocked down from their perches. The first was Spain’s David De Gea. Long acclaimed as one of the two best keepers in the world, his opener against Portugal saw him let Cristiano Ronaldo’s shot through. It was a mistake he never recovered from.
As De Gea walked off the field after failing to save a single Russian penalty in their Last-16 shootout, critics rained down unfavourable stats. He took 205 minutes to make his first save. Against Russia, De Gea again failed to make a single save over 120 minutes and penalties. His total tally was two saves. Suddenly, no one remembered the last four years, where he had consistently been one of the top-three keepers in the world.
Also leaving Russia with his head down was Manuel Neuer, the other “best keeper in the world”. The Bayern star started for Germany after a long injury lay-off, and it showed as he was unable to prevent the defending champs from exiting in the group stage. The enduring memory of Neuer will always be the sight of him stranded in the opposition half as South Korea’s Son Heungmin fired into an empty goal.
As far as torrid meets go, honourable mentions must go to Willy Caballero and Fernando Muslera. Caballero gifted Croatia their first in Argentina’s 3-0 loss. Muslera made an almost-similar mistake as Uruguay were eliminated by France in the quarters.
But once the knockouts started, the tables turned. The first act was Akinfeev’s redemption. He made two saves in the shootout as the home crowd chanted his name. On that very day, Kasper Schmeichel and Danijel Subasic put on enthralling displays as Croatia beat Denmark on penalties. Denmark’s Schmeichel saved an extra-time penalty. He followed that up by saving two spot-kicks. But Subasic upstaged him by saving three.
In the final Last-16 game, another unlikely hero emerged. Jordan Pickford is perhaps the lowest-profile England No 1. But few players will jet out of Russia with their reputations as enhanced as his. He took England to their first-ever World Cup shootout win against Colombia. Then he made vital saves against Sweden and Croatia. In the other semifinal, France’s Hugo Lloris and Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois had excellent games.
As FIFA’s technical study group on Thursday gathered to evaluate trends, a question put to them was about goalkeepers. Pascal Zuberbuhler, their goalkeeping expert and a former Swiss international, felt that the event had shown how the goalkeeper’s role had evolved. “The goalkeeper today has more to do than just save and fetch the ball. He has to make decisions and dictate the tempo. This whole tournament has been fantastic in that respect. They know and feel when they have to speed up the game.”