With a largely non-glamorous and thankless job, they watch over their citadels even as their more illustrious teammates hog the limelight with their goals, assists and nutmegs — all the while bearing the cross to be vilified for the team’s loss. An outfield player might get a chance at redemption but for a custodian, his mistakes are more often than not punished.
But strangely at this World Cup, there has been a shift in the balance of power. As opposed to the norm, goalkeepers have grabbed headlines with their sturdy show under the bar. While Spanish captain Iker Casillas and Igor Akinfeev of Russia gained notoriety for their woeful performances in the World Cup, there have been others who have stood tall with their deeds, be it effectiveness in commanding the penalty area or bringing off a bunch of heart-stopping saves. Past heroes, 2010 Cup winner Casillas and 2006 Italian champion Gianliugi Buffon were unable to prevent their sides from going out in the opening round itself.
Now, how the times have changed! Regardless of the fact that there have been more goals in this World Cup already than the entire tournament in South Africa, goalkeepers have showcased an array of scintillating performances. None more so than Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa and USA’s Tim Howard.
The long-haired shot-stopper was a brick wall in front of the goal, refusing to budge despite all the efforts from the opposition. Ochoa was instrumental in keeping the Brazilians away, including an out-of-the-world save from a Neymar kick, as Mexico held the hosts goalless to ensure their path into the knockouts.
And Ochoa was again on top of his game against the Netherlands in the pre-quarterfinals, saving a string of shots from the formidable Dutch frontline using his positional sense and lightning fast reflexes, until two late goals (one from the penalty spot) knocked Mexico out of the World Cup. It’s hugely ironic given that Ochoa, without a club and fearing for his career before the World Cup, is now on top of many club’s transfer wish list!
Another ‘keeper, who had made waves with his outstanding performances is United States’ Howard, jokingly dubbed their ‘secretary of defense’ in a Wikipedia post before it was taken off. More than USA’s gritty display, Howards’ super-human show will go down in Cup folklore. The Everton ‘keeper played like his life depended on it against Belgium in the last-16. Forced to produce save after save due to his team’s ineptitude in defence, Howard came to his sides rescue no less than 16 times, a stunning record, to force the game into extra time before conceding twice. The Belgium players’ response at the end of the game where they sought out the seasoned American to console him was proof enough as to who the man of the match was.
“Two words… TIM HOWARD #respect”, was the simple tweet sent out by the Belgian captain Vincent Kompany. Another man getting glowing reviews for his performances between the posts is Costa Rican Keylor Navas. The graphic designer-turned goalkeeper has used his creative instincts to safeguard his team with some acrobatic efforts.
After topping the group which contained Italy, England and Uruguay and shocking everyone with a performance that ill-befitted their whipping boys tag, the Ticos piled on the shock by storming into the quarter-finals edging out Greece on penalties. Unsurprisingly, it was built on the back of Navas. The goalkeeper conceded just one goal in the group stages and then produced eight fantastic saves against the Greeks before stepping up in the penalty shootout to drag his side by the scruff on the neck into the next round.Their goalless draw in the quarter-finals against Netherlands was thanks to his almost intuitive saves and quick reactions, even though Costa Rica eventually lost in the penalty shootout.
While all these ‘keepers have enhanced their reputation at the World Cup, Julio Cesar has fought to reclaim his. Following some less than convincing performances, the Brazilian was not the first choice to guard the goal. After a poor season for his English second division side Queen’s Park Rangers and an eventual loan move to MLS side Toronto, none can be faulted for raising an eyebrow at Luis Felipe Scolari’s decision to keep his faith in him.
But Cesar has since proven his credentials with good reactions when called upon and his penalty shootout heroics against Chile, where he saved twice from the spot to keep Brazilian dreams alive, left Neymar and Co in tears.
Not a showman unlike the others, Germany’s Manuel Neuer has perhaps shown the next evolution in football. Many have flirted with the idea of having a goalkeeper capable of playing the sweeper role behind the defence with Spain’s Victor Valdez and Hugo Lloris from France capable of playing this role to a degree. But Neuer has taken it to the next level as he raced off his line at every sign of trouble, time and time again, against Algeria in pre-quarters.
Knowing that offence minded Mats Hummels and a rather slow Per Mertasacker would need some backing, the Bayern Munich man was on his toes to lend a hand, playing like a sweeper of old. All the while, he kept pulling off some impressive saves when called upon his primary duty to steer Germany into the semifinals.
With anticipation, speed, technical proficiency and comfort with the ball at his feet to play this role, Neuer may just be the prototype of the new mould in which the goalkeepers will be required in the future.