Football is a game that has always primarily been about scoring goals. You win a game by outscoring the opponent. Nothing else matters. But there is more to football than just players finding the back of the net.
Enter goalkeepers – the unsung heroes behind every win. It is no easy task to stand patiently at one end of the field for a majority of ninety minutes, and watch the match unfold. Someone once said, “Goalkeepers are spectators who get to handle the ball every now and then.” That may be true, but it is only in these “every-now-and-then” moments that matches are won or lost. It is these “spectators” who determine the fate of their team, more than any outfield player. If a forward misses a goal-scoring opportunity, it may (possibly) turn out to be inconsequential. He’s got ninety minutes to convert as many more opportunities as he can create. But for a goalkeeper, every opportunity decides the outcome of his team. For him, an opportunity lost is lost forever. One slip, one incorrect dive, one wrong call, or one misjudged ball is all it takes for the net to bulge behind him. Unlike an outfield player, a goalkeeper lacks the freedom to make up for his blunders by scoring. He must pull himself up, dust himself down, and once again, await the next challenge.
There are several ways to score a goal – you can chip, volley, head, half-volley; it’s a long list. On the contrary, have you heard of multiple ways to save a goal? It’s unlikely. Nobody seems to care. Anyone who has watched football will agree that goalkeeping requires tremendous courage. Every now and then, you see goalkeepers fling themselves fearlessly at the feet of advancing opponents. But what is the immediate response to a goalkeeper’s unflinching lunge, his beautiful dive or his lightning-fast reflex that just managed to keep the ball out of the goal? A pat on the back from his nearest defender, and (if we’re in the mood for it) an animated “Ooooooh!” from the rest of us. If the ball happens to go out of play, a replay is shown just so that those who missed the save can appreciate how close the striker got to scoring. Only if there is time for the replay, that is. Otherwise the game simply goes on. Now, picture Gareth Bale (actually, anyone but little Argentine midgets will do just fine) flying down the wing, and launching an inch-perfect cross to Cristiano Ronaldo, who leaps high above all the surrounding defenders to head the ball past the paralysed goalkeeper. I’m sure that sounded more thrilling than the previous scenario. And yes, you know what happens next. The stadium is drowned in a thundering cacophony of joyous screams and cheers. We, who watch the match on televisions and laptops, jump off our couch, punch the air as hard as old Iron Mike would, and (if the match isn’t too late and the rest of the household/hostel roommate isn’t asleep) we often add some vocals to our celebration. The goal is followed by at least three replays, each showing a different angle. The commentator doesn’t cease to appreciate what an amazing goal it was. The scorer’s name is penned down on the scoresheet. The entire team rushes to the corner flag and to the crowd, huddles and celebrates for a whole minute, while the goalkeeper is left to celebrate alone, a hundred yards away.
In the first scenario, the goalkeeper prevented the opponent from going one up. This time, the outfield player took the team one up. Mathematically, the two situations may seem equivalent, but there’s a catch. The goal scored is remembered, and the goal saved is often forgotten. At the end of the game, it is the number of goals scored that determines the winner, and not the number of goals saved. And that makes all the difference.
Let’s take a look at the final Ballon d’Or nominations for the Player of the Year award. Portuguese and Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo, four-time winner Lionel Messi, and German and Bayern Munich goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. Neuer is often regarded as one of the best goalkeepers to ever have graced the sport, and undoubtedly the best ever “sweeper-keeper”. It is said that the FIFA World Cup is the ultimate stage for professional football. Not only did Neuer win the World Cup with Germany, but also contributed significantly to its victory with a string of outstanding saves. Did Messi win the World Cup? “Almost” doesn’t count. Did Ronaldo win the World Cup? Not even close. Even if you set aside their respective teams and compare their individual performances, Neuer greatly outshone the other two. He conceded just four goals in seven matches in the unnaturally high-scoring World Cup. Apart from his success with the national team, Neuer also played crucial roles in Bayern Munich’s Bundesliga and German Cup victories. But was that enough for the “No. 1 of No. 1s” to win the Ballon d’Or Player of the Year Award? Of course not! It conveniently went to Cristiano Ronaldo.
A goalkeeper is probably the most vital part of every successful football team. Yet, in all of football history, only one has ever been awarded the Ballon d’Or, and that was way back in 1963. Last night, Manuel Neuer should have been made the second such goalkeeper, not just for the sake of all those unsung heroes, but for the sake of the game itself.