Why is it that goalkeepers perennially fall short of the big prizes?
Goalkeepers are not glamorous. Never have been. Never will be. They are a species that take more hits from the press than Jack Grealish, but complain far less. A FIFA missive at the beginning of the Millennium reported: 'the goalkeeper is often subjected to direct trauma against the body, which increases the risk for contusions, abrasions, and other injuries produced by direct trauma'.
That’s about as glam as watching Nick Pope take a goal kick in the 93rd minute. Gianluigi Buffon once said: “You score goals as a kid. Then you grow up stupid and become a goalkeeper”. They are at the business end of the pitch but somehow a mere extra too. It’s a strange parallel existence.
When the male Ballon d’Or winners are announced, it’s generally good advice for goalkeepers to “look away now if they don’t want to know the result”. Thibaut Courtois almost became militant when he didn’t even rank in the top three in Paris last month, eventually coming in at an underwhelming seventh despite an incredible box set of saves in the Champions League.
The Belgian was almost as furious as Robert Lewandowski’s agent the previous year. He shouldn’t have been. The last custodian to win was Lev Yashin. In 1963. There is no point in obsessing over the finer details of why such a specialist position can be refrigerated while the allegedly finer motor skills of finishing are always hot off the press.
The 30-year-old received the sap of the recently created Yashin award (a glitterball only created in the last, ahem, three years). Goalkeepers are so often the afterthought. Courtois sniffed: “At least they’ve invented this trophy…. because every year a goalkeeper is more important in his team. You have to make the saves and stay like a book behind the goal line. Let’s hope that one day we’ll do it and we’ll continue to fight for it."
It sounded like Courtois wanted to start a Trade Union movement to get his membership noticed in the eyes of the wider public. Manuel Neuer made goalkeeping cool again when his sweeper 'keeper suite of tools was rolled out across Europe. He even made that podium in 2014 behind Mess-aldo. Maybe it was the Cruyff turns in the box? Or just doing something that those between the posts aren’t supposed to.
It didn’t change the overall arch of the narrative. There’s something irrational in restricting our access to their world. We like to stick them back in their cage. “A book behind the goal-line”? Custodians are merely on the back shelf in the reference library when everyone wants to read the big blockbuster at the front. It’s always been like this.
Keylor Navas insists “people only care about the number of goals and assists and they never ever care about our saves”. It’s a labour of love that is rarely reciprocated or rewarded. Goalkeepers can be the heroes but only transiently, in a frozen moment when the world tries to work out how the ball stayed out. The camera prefers the eye candy that moves like quicksilver and finishes like a flash of lightning.
So the uber-cool Karim Benzema strode to the stage, revelling in the star status that had been denied him while Messi and Ronaldo were having their own global street fight for gold. The Frenchman once said that he played football for people who go to the stadium to see something different. That’s the showbusiness strikers bring to the stage.
When Benzema collected his prize he was the epitome of the eye-catching Hollywood moment, stating that there was no finer individual award and that this piece of gold was the “pinnacle of beauty.” Therein lies the rub. Goalkeepers don’t get admired for their grace.
They are the artisan, not the artist. They will always be the Salieri rather than the Mozart. They are the antagonists, the killers of hope, the security bouncers that stand at the gates to temper and concuss the goal rush of adrenalin.
Goalkeeper celebrations are parochial affairs, made between the members of that inner circle on the pitch; like Chiellini and Buffon repelling another attack and celebrating clearances as if they had just cracked the Da Vinci code. We smile and acknowledge these as idiosyncrasies, slightly abnormal obsessive types. They are coalface workers, not A-list celebrities.
This blockade at the back is a harder sell when the true sense of elation is only set off by the rippling of the net and the mad-eyed, wild vocals of the team in the corner flag or behind the goal. The number one has to run the length of the pitch just to feel like they are somehow part of that moment. Alisson is doing his best to make that a thing.
The edge of life for goalkeepers is a tightrope with frayed edges. Former England international Jack Robinson said they must be made “like a compound of steel and gutta percha”. Keepers ‘don’t do’ running but scan, organise, shout and cajole. Such under-the-radar work doesn’t make the highlights reel. Jordan Henderson’s vocals drive his team forward while Joe Hart is seen that irritating bloke that never stops talking. It’s the language of belittlement.
Even the thrill of a dramatic save is not on the same soundtrack as a goal. It’s always the B-side. The audience wants more compelling narratives from those who caress and control and manipulate the ball. A goalkeeper can often be sentenced to various angles of guilt before judgement is passed.
The camera save is almost a negative construct. It's a chance to knock the union for being flash, which undermines their real skill of making hard work look easy. If a striker makes a sweet but unnecessary turn then roll out the red carpet.
The holy trinity of attackers offers the special effects, the fireworks display, while the goalkeeper douses the flames. Such is life in the 18-rated box.