Strangers on the field

by Pavan Mano

A month ago, France Football Weekly (FFW) celebrated Albert Camus’ centennial birthday with a lovely piece. In some sense, much like his famous work, Camus was an étranger to football — for most of his life, he had nothing to do with the game, even if he did spend a few years of his youth playing it. But even when he did take to the field, Camus remained stranger and foreigner, for he was the goalkeeper.

The nature of the goalkeeper’s job dictates that he is always going to be the outsider on the field. He is the one whose job is in conflict with the nature of the game. Where everyone else on the field is trying to score as many goals as possible, the goalkeeper is the anti-thesis, actively preventing goals from happening. Law 12 of FIFA’s Laws of the Game states that a free kick or a penalty is awarded — that is to say, an offence is committed — if a player “handles the ball deliberately.” And then the caveat, in parentheses: “(except the goalkeeper, within his own penalty area.)”

The exception is always made for the goalkeeper; the goalkeeper is always the exception.

Every goalkeeper has a story, and always something to prove: he is the once-talented winger now consigned to playing in goal because of some debilitating injury; he is the fat kid who gets picked last in school playgrounds and can’t play anywhere else but in goal; he is the one who can’t kick a ball to save his life, but wants to be part of the ‘cool’ gang; he is the guy who voluntarily allows others to continually take pot-shots at him just so he isn’t left out. But left out he is — the penalty box is a lonely space, especially when the rest of the team is on the attack, and everyone moves up towards the halfway line; the goalkeeper hesitates to venture beyond the boundaries of the 18-yard box. Even if he does, it is with much trepidation, ready to scurry back to the sanctuary of the goal he’s supposed to be protecting, at the first hint of a counter-attack. And every cross collected, shot parried, fingertip save, is an affirmation that he is indeed meant to be where he is, doing what he is best at — in goal, and guarding the goal. Not conceding becomes a personal battle, a matter of pride, a sort of comeuppance, to prove all those who underestimated him wrong.

The pressure on him as he attempts to do so is absolutely singular. His ten outfield team mates could combine to put on a display of footballing perfection; he could negate all of that if he drops his guard. The goalkeeper’s margin for error is almost zero; any mistake will, very likely, result in a goal against, unless the striker makes a complementary error. It only takes one lapse — a dropped cross, a moment of hesitation, a step to the right instead of the left, and the next instant the striker is wheeling away in celebration. And every time the ball hits the back of the net, the question, even if not voiced, lingers in the shadows: “Should the ‘keeper have done better?”

Goalkeepers are viewed, and judged, differently from everyone else. When the Spaniard with a chin-strap for facial hair, David de Gea, made a series of saves in Manchester United’s game against Stoke to prevent them from falling to a loss, United manager David Moyes reacted to it in the post-match press conference by saying “that’s what he’s in the team for.” In other words, de Gea was simply doing his job. Which opens the question: why then are strikers so highly feted for scoring goals, when technically that too is them simply doing their jobs?

Praying for the ground to open up and swallow him (Image Credit: designmind)

Or to flip it around: why aren’t strikers taken to task and held to the same exacting standards as aggressively as goalkeepers for not doing their jobs — the striker who fluffs his lines in front of goal will hardly find himself criticized as much as the goalkeeper who fumbles a shot into the goal. Part of it must have to do with the fact that the striker failing to convert an opportunity still manages to maintain the status quo — while it was an opportunity to improve the situation, his failure doesn’t change anything. The goalkeeper erring, on the other hand, directly influences the game, and negatively, at that.

The irony of it all though, is that even though goalkeepers are marginalized in so many ways, we need them more than anyone else in the game. We all celebrate goals with such ecstasy because it is admittedly a grand feat — beating the goalkeeper is certainly not easy at all. Little do we realize though, that when the striker scores, he has beaten more than just the keeper of the goal.

One only bothers celebrating the breach when one has had to beat the guard. For achievement only has value if the possibility of failure is overcome — something that itself presumes the existence of a potential failure — this is precisely what the goalkeeper represents: quite literally, he is standing between the striker and the goal; he is positioned between glory and grief; he is the dividing line between success and failure.

And this is why goalkeepers are invaluable.

When the striker scores, he has beaten more than just the keeper of the goal. He has, for a moment, beaten the guardian of the game.

2 Responses

  1. Dave Wood Dave Wood says:

    Keepers are the most underrated players in the game and headline-hogging strikers the most over-valued, as brilliantly observed by Soccernomics. Thanks for the article, Pavan.

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