Some countries have better goalkeeping history than you might be led to believe…
When David de Gea conceded the second goal in Manchester United’s FA Cup final defeat to their noisy neighbours, the immediate reaction was to question the goalkeeper’s club future once again. This was the man that Edwin van der Sar had described thus: ‘...good feet, comes with authority and is agile. He has everything to be one of the greatest goalkeepers in the next ten years.’
The qualities listed by the Dutch legend were very much in line with Spanish football heritage. A 21st-century goalkeeper for La Roja has to be the puppetmaster, connecting the wires of the circuit board that permeate the pass and move. De Gea has just won the Golden Glove in England but his face – and feet – don’t fit the national team.
Before the country’s tiki-taka became hospitalised in a 5-1 loss to Holland at the 2014 World Cup, Iker Casillas’s reflexes, agility and leadership skills elevated Spain’s golden generation to a world title and two European trophies. His distribution wasn’t always top-drawer, much like that other great Andoni Zubizarreta, owner of no fewer than 126 caps.
Coach Johan Cruyff shunned ‘Zubi’ at Barcelona for essentially not being a footballer after the 4-0 loss against AC Milan in the European Cup final in '94. Incompatibility in a system was a crime against total football under Cruyff. Zubizarreta’s style was called sobri in Catalan, which in its literal sense means austere, an ornament without decoration. There’s still a time and place somewhere for traditional qualities.
As the Nations League semi-final approaches against old rivals Italy, De Gea isn’t even on the heat map of new Spanish boss Luis de la Fuente. National football leaves its best exports behind sometimes. Unai Simon is the current man in possession, with ballplayers Kepa and David Raya also in the squad.
Simon has admitted recently that the modern obsession with distribution is a little “crazy”, although it was a total prerequisite for Luis Enrique. No doubt everyone remembers that goal against Croatia in Euro 2020. Goalkeepers must buy into looking stupid when they commit to the tactical cause. It’s in the contract.
On the other side of the Euro coin, Italy appear to be safe in the hands of Gianluigi Donnarumma. His meteoric rise was underlined by a strong lead performance in the victorious Euro 2020 campaign where he was coolness personified. Since the move from the Rossoneri, the 24-year-old has become less assured in a wealth of uncertainty at PSG.
Italian goalkeeping history runs deep with Dino Zoff and Gianluigi Buffon as the grandfather and father, the grandmasters, of all that preceded and followed. Donnarumma is cut from the same cloth. He is a worthy heir to the throne, a veteran of 52 caps at a tender age and perhaps a temporary victim of his brilliance as a teenager.
Italy need to recapture the spirit of the ‘thou shalt not pass’ philosophy that runs through its catenaccio. As FIFA states on its website, goalkeepers are the antithesis of goalscorers and the Azzurri, above all, have revelled in that. Who can forget Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini’s brick wall against Tottenham in the Champions League? That is the perfect imagery of what it means to defend as a unit and a reminder that celebration should never be confined to one business end of the pitch.
In their pomp, England had the luxury of Peter Shilton and the late Ray Clemence battling for the shirt in the ‘70s and ‘80s but suffered a twilight zone of goalkeeping options when the golden generation failed to deliver. Scott Carson, Paul Robinson, David James and Robert Green were viewed as a step down from the heights of the Banks-Shilton-Clemence-Seaman VIP service. A tournament-defining goalkeeper was missing until Jordan Pickford came along.
Similarly, Scottish goalkeeping competency was mocked mercilessly through the prism of the savage humblings that the English handed out at Wembley. Stewart Kennedy’s freeze frame display in 1975 – he didn’t move a great deal – is one that lowered expectations of custodians north of the border.
Jim Leighton’s very public travails with Sir Alex Ferguson and his rather ugly end at the 1998 World Cup tainted his many qualities. And, on a night that turned from triumph to tragedy in Cardiff, Scotland’s reserve goalkeeper Alan Rough remembers his last exchange with Jock Stein, who died within the grounds on the evening of September 10th 1985.
Rough, who had been thrust into action at half time, due to the fact that first choice Jim Leighton was missing a contact lens, prefers to recall the lighter side of the last words he shared with his former boss.
"As I walked out of the dressing room Big Jock was standing near the door, his last words to me were, "Good luck, ya fat bastard.’”
When Ally MacLeod predicted the Scots could win the 1978 World Cup, they drew with Iran and got pummelled by Peru as Rough’s near post was breached numerous times. Andy Goram, Alan McGregor, and Craig Gordon have since proved that there is substance above the dodgy goalkeeper banter that has stuck like glue to the shirt.
Brazilian goalkeepers, meanwhile, haven’t always enjoyed the rich talents of Alisson and Ederson. Or that’s the narrative that has developed from a rather insular European press. The obsession with the perfect ten football played by the formation always gave the impression that the goalkeeper was extraneous.
During the 1970 World Cup, where the Seleção were described as the best team ever, Felix was seen as a weak link by many. Bob Wilson called him ‘the most incompetent goalkeeper to win a World Cup medal.’ So much for the support of the goalkeepers' union.
Poor Moacir Barbosa was vilified for losing the trophy on home ground in the 1950 final against Uruguay: “Under Brazilian law, the maximum sentence is 30 years. But my imprisonment has been for 50 years” the former Vasco da Gama goalkeeper muttered shortly before his death in 2000.
Barbosa was one of the goalkeeping greats in the late 1940s but he suffered the wrath of wagging tongues and exclusion. Even his mother said: ‘He was the one that brought all of Brazil to tears.’ Well, there was the 7-1 defeat to Germany in 2014 when Julio Cesar apologised on behalf of the players: “I would have preferred to lose 1-0, with another terrible error from me, than to lose 7-1.” It’s a tough gig in Rio.
Ultimately, the emergence of Claudio Taffarel, Dida, and the rest was always huge evidence that there was never a shortfall, more a short circuit in fair coverage.
On his website, Rafa Benitez expressed continued surprise at the general isolation of the goalkeeper in training sessions. Given the key specifics and responsibility of the position, the different methodologies and global collective, they are still a breed apart.
Goalkeepers are different by definition of skill set but also by dint of continent or country. They are a map of the way the world sees the game, however distorted that prism is.