The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (And Other Anxieties)

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© Federico Manasse, thesefootballtimes.co

The goalkeeper is trying to figure out which corner the kicker will send the ball into,” Bloch said. “If he knows the kicker, he knows which corner he usually goes for. But maybe the kicker is also counting on the goalie’s figuring this out. So the goalie goes on figuring that just today the ball might go into the other corner. But what if the kicker follows the goalkeeper’s thinking and plans to shoot into the usual corner after all? And so on, and so on.

It’s stoppage time at Vicarage Road. Watford goalkeeper Ben Foster has been given the go-ahead to attack a free kick inside the Chelsea penalty area. Deulofeu’s delivery finds Doucoure, who flicks on a header which is attacked by Foster, but is ultimately saved by Kepa stretching to his left. Future data analysts watching footage of Foster making a connection to the ball might be relieved that the dataset Well, It Wasn’t A Total Waste Allowing the Goalkeeper to Go Ahead for the Setpiece, finally has a new entry. It’s a strategy that is as last ditch as they come, and yet one can’t help wonder what if the impossible happened. Imagine Hans-Jörg Butt scoring the equalizing goal for Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 Champions League Final. Surely that kind of a goal would not only cement Butt’s place in pub quiz folklore but also grant him unlimited bragging rights in the goalkeepers’ union.

What’s a goalkeepers’ union? Well going back to the Foster/Kepa incident… Kepa was immediately flanked by his teammates, ecstatic at having secured the 3 points in the dying stages of the game. But there was another curious participant in the group hug — Ben Foster himself. In his post match interview, Foster showed signs of dejection at coming so close to an equalizer but was beaming on the pitch when his opposite number made the save, acknowledging the sheer absurdity of the situation. Years ago when Tim Howard’s goal-kick saw Bolton’s Adam Bogdan’s posts breached, Howard refused to celebrate and later said that he spoke to Bogdan, mentioning how he felt about the whole situation, having been there himself. There’s a prevailing thesis that due to the idiosyncratic nature of a football goalkeeper’s job, an unwritten code of honor exists between them. Your average Sunday league goalkeeper might not dress like Jorge Campos but they’re connected by the fact that the both of them willingly volunteered to have balls flung at their faces with speeds of 40 km/hr.

Depending on the ebb and flow of a game, a goalkeeper will either be subjected to quiet stretches of inactivity or be bombarded with a frantic flurry of shots aimed at breaching the last line of the defense. Despite all the technical proficiencies of the modern sweeper keeper — for all intents and purposes, a goalie is job that nobody wants to do unless you’re really fascinated with the idea of using yourself as a human shield and subjecting yourself to varying degrees of pain and blows . Or if you’re an intellectual and you believe that — no, actually a goalkeeper has the vision of the entire field, so it’s up to them to organize the defense and to dictate the game from one end to another. I’m not the last line of defense, I start the defense and I start the attack. Or maybe you’re just really, really bad at football and an absolute liability at any outfield position.

Questions can be raised about the authenticity of the goalkeepers’ union when the German National Team is having its well-documented problem of having two world-class goalkeepers playing at the same time. Manuel Neuer, one of the parties in this incongruity didn’t have a straightforward rise to the national team. The Gelsenkirchen shot-stopper’s journey to South Africa in 2010 was accelerated by injuries to Rene Adler and the untimely death of Robert Enke.

Robert Enke’s suicide is a damning account of how the world of sport is sympathetic to the smallest of knocks on your knee but still does not have a structure in place where the crests and troughs of mental illness can be diagnosed and dealt with. After a promising start to his career at Borussia Mönchengladbach and a turbulent spell at SL Benfica, Enke’s move to Barcelona in 2002 would brew up a storm in his personal and professional life that never seemed to cease. Out of favour at the club due to his conservative and traditionalist keeping style, yelled at by Frank de Boer for a defensive mix-up and finding himself in deeper waters after the exit of Louis Van Gaal, Enke moved on loan to Fenerbahçe — where a defeat to İstanbulspor coupled with the overwhelming wrath of the fans made Enke realize that Turkey was not the place for him to be battling with his depression. He only played one game for Fenerbahçe, before returning to Spain and finding solace at CD Tenerife in the Segunda División.

Years later Enke had put his career back on track and was considered to be one of the best keepers in the league while playing for Hannover 96. But the death of his 2 year old daughter from a heart defect in 2006, combined with the stress of captaining Hannover gradually saw Enke fall back into the same patterns and eventually end his life. Enke’s failure at a club like Barcelona, just like so many others at elite clubs is often attributed by the media and fans to a singular tune of ‘he just wasn’t good enough’, peppered with guitar riffs about mentality and strength, and a drum roll of ‘should have learnt how to handle the pressure at a top club’. Generations of supporters have reveled in the idea of football consisting of hard men who refuse to wear their heart on a sleeve and refusing to show emotion. They’re designed to be passion merchants who will die for you, bleed for you, vicariously knock down your enemies for you — but no matter what happens, they won’t flinch and show any sign of weakness. All for you.

The venomous bite of social media along with the intrusive nature of tabloids and journalist have indoctrinated amongst the public — the idea of the perfect footballer. An idea carefully molded by PR agencies. He trains hard, he bonds with his teammates in training and has fun answering trivia questions with them, he’s passionate about the deli in your city, and so on. It’s how you’re being trained to see the person and every time something dismal on the pitch occurs, you’re not blaming him— you’re blaming Mr. Perfect Footballer , who you seemingly interact with a lot because you see pictures of his wife and kids on vacation. It’s a nightmare to imagine what someone like Enke would be going through in the current landscape of football.

Enke’s playing position — that of a goalkeeper, certainly wouldn’t have helped his mental state. The fact that goalkeeping has changed in the past few decades and the inclusion of ball-playing goalkeepers is seen as a necessity for every side, goalkeepers have seen themselves cast aside at clubs when new management comes in simply because they’re not good with their feet. What’s gonna happen to the fat kid who can’t adapt to the intense rondo? What position is he gonna play? Add to the fact that at any club there’s only gonna be one goalkeeper. Do they secretly pray for an injury to the #1 so that they can capitalize on any opportunity or do they contend yourself with training every day alongside the person who has the job that you want? An outfield player frequently changes positions — wingers become fullbacks, strikers become defenders and so on. It’s a solitary life for a goalkeeper on the pitch and an even more desolate life for a backup goalkeeper.

Loris Karius, after his howlers in the Champions League Final against Real Madrid was pictured apologizing to the fans in tears. While it is believed that Karius was indeed given the opportunity to redeem himself in pre-season and was not immediately cast out, the simple answer is that a performance like that at the biggest of stages would crush anyone’s confidence forever. The butt of incessant jokes by online trolls, Karius, like Enke sought a move away to Turkey but unlike his German counterpart, has endured an entire season at Besiktas — not without its own peaks and valleys. It is simply the demanding nature of the position that leaves no margin for error, especially when the errors are spilling a regulation catch and having your throw blocked by a striker’s outstretched leg. Life as a permanent bench-warmer or a demotion to a smaller club is never too absurd a prospect.

If you give a manager the choice between the greatest technical keeper in the world, and the most fearless keeper in the world, I guarantee you that he will choose the fearless bastard every single time. On the other hand, a person who is fearless can easily forget that they have a mind. If you live your life in a nihilistic way, thinking only about football, your soul will start to wither. Eventually, you will become so depressed that you won’t even want to leave your bed.

In his Players Tribune piece about battling with depression, Gianluigi Buffon also talks about the impact that Cameroon goalkeeper Thomas N’Kono had on his personal life, inspiring him to become a goalkeeper. Not because it was cool or chic, but because of N’Kono’s artistry, his style and his soul. N’Kono’s consistent ability to command his area, claim crosses and punch the ball clearly was an inspiration to the Italian Superman. Dominating the little area of the pitch and protecting it- like a mother bear protecting her cubs, orchestrating the movements of the c̶u̶b̶s̶ defenders to minimize space and time for the attack — it’s all an exercise in trying to lend a dynamism to a role that often might be misconstrued as a passive observer to the game, useful only when called upon. There’s situations where you can go from being a vocal titan inside your area, sniffing out danger at every corner, to lying helpless and exposed in a counter-attack. No other role in a game gets you to traverse the whole nine yards of emotions.

The history of the goalkeeper is the history of the outcast and the history of the scapegoat. Madness is almost a prerequisite in this business because if you weren’t crazy, you wouldn’t even dream of attempting something like this.

“When the kicker starts his run, the goalkeeper unconsciously shows with his body which way he’ll throw himself even before the ball is kicked, and the kicker can simply kick in the other direction,” Bloch said. “The goalie might just as well try to pry open a door with a piece of straw.”

The kicker suddenly started his run. The goalkeeper, who was wearing a bright yellow jersey, stood absolutely still, and the penalty kicker shot the ball into his hands.

“The goalie watched as the ball rolled across the line …”

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Something is happening here, Mr. Jones.

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