Hand in Glove

Germany's national soccer team goalkeeper Manuel Neuer stops a ball on his chest during the team's final practice session at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro yesterday, one day ahead of their 2014 World Cup quarter final match against France.  – Reuters pic, July 4, 2014.

Reuters, July 4, 2014

Consider for a moment, if you will, the cumbersome plight of being the world’s best goalkeeper.

Perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Consider instead the plight of being a goalkeeper at all. As opposed to playing in the field, where mistakes happen but are usually not directly responsible for giving up a score, playing between the pipes requires unrelenting focus and incredible confidence, along with a certain degree of insanity. As far as meme-able requirements go, the goalkeeper’s is as web-friendly as they come because he or she really only has one job: keep the ball out of the frame.

A great deal of sacrifice goes into the decision to become a keeper. Like that of the American football kicker, being a keeper is often a thankless job, until it isn’t (SEE: Howard, Tim). You can make ten saves, but if the eleventh happens to go in, and your team loses 1-0, you invariably become the scapegoat. You feel wretched when it happens in a Sunday morning recreational league (but seriously); imagine amplifying that to the world stage, and the emotional currency involved suddenly starts to look like the national debt.

Which brings us back to the world’s best goalkeeper, a 28-year-old German who in the last two years has accomplished everything any stopper could ever hope to achieve. Manuel Neuer, the last line of defense for Bayern Munich and his own national team, has a perfectly latter-day Aryan countenance and looks as though he was created in a Drago-esque lab for the sole purpose of keeping round things out of rectangular places.

Following his rise to prominence with FC Schalke 04, he transferred to Bayern in the summer of 2011 and has continued his meteoric trajectory at both the club and national levels. In 2012, he helped lead Bayern to the UEFA Champions League Final against Chelsea, which memorably went to penalties. Remember what I said about confidence being integral to becoming a goalkeeper?

Bayern did lose that game thanks to the antics of one Didier Drogba, but the Bavarians claimed the 2013 Champions League title during a run which included four consecutive clean sheets from Neuer. All this, while claiming the last two Bundesliga championships in spectacular fashion as well.

With Germany, Neuer recorded four clean sheets en route to a World Cup victory in Brazil this summer. Naturally, he was named the best goalkeeper of the tournament, having only conceded four goals total. In doing so, he firmly and emphatically displaced San Iker of Spain as the world’s premier backstop.

Neuer’s 2014 warranted inclusion on the shortlist for the FIFA Ballon d’Or, which for the last few years has served as an excuse for haughty soccer big wigs to wear tuxedos, drink champagne and hand a garish trophy to either Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi (For the purposes of this piece, I will be referring to the Ballon d’Or as an all-encompassing term for both FIFA’s current Ballon d’Or and the award the magazine France Football gave from 1956-2009 under the trophy’s current name).

The Ballon d’Or is said to go to the best soccer player of a given calendar year, though typically that has meant the best outfield soccer player. Goalkeepers rarely find themselves in the conversation. You’d have to go back to 2006, during the Gianluigi Buffon/Italy era of dominance, to find a keeper listed among the top three in the world, and only one, the USSR’s Lev Yashin in 1963, has ever actually claimed the award.

Neuer’s case is unique, however. Very rarely does a goalkeeper, or anyone, truly change the way his position is played. The revelation with Neuer is his tendency to act as sweeper-keeper, charging from his box to disarm a trudging, foolish ne’er-do-well who wishes merely to put a ball into a net. Neuer approaches breakaways as if he is a centre back, and he very well could have been with his imposing frame. Here’s a video simply entitled “Neuer Can’t Help Himself,” demonstrating tactics which, for anyone else, may be seen as dangerous.

Things like that should not work. They shouldn’t even be feasible. Watching Neuer play keeper is like watching Hendrix play the guitar: he’s the very best, he will undoubtedly inspire a new generation of keepers, but attempting to mimic him may result in gargantuan embarrassment, and you may be moved to give up the trade entirely.

Marc-Andre ter Stegen, himself no slouch, recently recognized his fellow countryman as the best keeper but would not name any of the Ballon d’Or finalists as his winner. Methinks he did not want to upset one of his new club teammates, a certain diminutive Argentine with a penchant for mind-melting magic. What ter Stegen did do, however, is a classic case of game recognizing game. International coaches and captains dictate who wins the Ballon d’Or, which also works as game recognizing game. Based on his destruction of all things soccer this year, Neuer may find himself in a position to change the game once again.

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