Betwixt the Sticks

Guillermo Ochoa

This has been the most entertaining World Cup, on course for the record average goals per game in its history. For once the advertised stars Neymar, Messi, Robben and even Cristiano Ronaldo to a point have turned up and new stars like Rodriguez and Sanchez have entered our galaxy. So in a time with so much attacking wizardry, why have we found ourselves praising so many of these men betwixt the sticks?

Perhaps coming in to the tournament, it may have been possible to predict the evolution from the dour possession pragmatism of South Africa to the expressive pressing entertainment of Brazil, proceeded as it was by the shift within club football over the last two years. One prediction I would doubt anyone had made is the success of goalkeepers in Brazil – but undoubtedly some of the greater players have been those gloved madmen.

Goalkeepers are often derided as such, necessary creatures but thoroughly untrusted by their peers. A man who dives headfirst at a pool of kicking boots cannot be defined as sane. They are underappreciated and not allowed the same freedom to make mistakes that their teammates are. So how have they come to be so valued in this tournament?
The position of Goalkeeper is the weakest point in many of the big teams with the exception of Lloris and Neuer.

Julio Cesar has made seven club appearances this season for Toronto FC after deputising Rob Green at QPR in the Championship and there is no viable alternative. The same goes for Argentina, where Sergio Romero has managed three appearances for Monaco.

NeuerIker Casillas is a slightly different story, a once great keeper who has very publicly fallen apart. Suddenly Jose Mourinho’s petulant outburst against Madrid’s favourite son was the work of a genius. Casillas has played only two La Liga games this season and it is evident to see why.

He was not unlucky against Holland and Chile – he was poor, his decision making, his handling, his command of his defence were all a shadow of their former beauty.

The Dutch themselves do not look entirely convincing in this position either, with three keepers of similar standard in Jasper Cillessen, Tim Krul and Michael Vorm there is no outstanding, confident candidate to commanding the ever changing defensive shape. Krul’s last minute involvement in the Quarter Final has not swayed my judgement. I think using one of the three delegated goalkeepers as a dedicated penalty stopper whose only research is on his opponent’s spot kicks is a very wise move, it will certainly not be the last time we will see that substitution, especially after its success.

The Goalkeepers who have set the tournament alight, and I don’t think its preposterous to claim so, have been mostly from the countries that have surprised us. Guillermo Ochoa single-handedly saved Mexico on many occasions, an octopus slapping away the first, second and third attempts without staining his headband with a bead of sweat. His contract finished with Ajaccio this summer and I am sure he will not be short of new offers after his display.

Another Latin American goalkeeper whose team owe much of their success to is Keylor Navas, the Costa Rican currently plying his trade in La Liga with Levante. Navas kept three clean sheets in his five matches, which considering four of those games were against previous winners is outstanding.

For decades Latin American countries have had a reputation for volatile, eccentric goalkeepers like Rogerio Ceni, Rene Higuita and Jose Chilavert but this World Cup they have excelled. Even more surprising has been the development of African goalkeepers, a continent previously lacking in any of note with Lille’s Vincent Enyeama keeping two clean sheets in his four games for Nigeria and CSKA Sofia journeyman Rais M’Bolhi making eleven saves to keep Algeria on the brink of upsetting Germany.

Tim Howard, no stranger to us in England had a great tournament for the USA and was a nuisance to Belgium in their knockout game and he may well have become the catalyst for the evolution of football in the States. A goalkeeper inspiring a nation to love the sport, if Nike had made the advert we would have laughed in their faces.

Each of these teams have exceeded their country’s expectations and that is down largely to the man betwixt the sticks, shunning the spotlight to assist his team mates.

Although Lionel Messi will probably defeat James Rodriguez for the prize of Golden Ball, the third place could undoubtedly go to Germany’s Manuel Neuer. It is not necessarily the three clean sheets in five games so far, but the way he has led his team. As their fifth defender he has allowed Germany to play a much higher pressing game using his concentration, judgement and speed to extinguish any danger that escapes his slow central defenders. He plays like a child in a playground, discontent to stay on his line, anxious to join in with the fun the other boys are playing, but do not be fooled that there is any signs of rashness in his decisions. If Germany are to progress to the final, especially playing such a high-line then Manuel Neuer could follow his compatriot Oliver Khan to become only the second goalkeeper to win the Golden Ball.

In a World Cup that will be remembered for its many goals, how great it would be for one of these gloved madmen to receive its highest individual accolade.

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