Goalkeepers as victims

This season, as always, we have seen embarrassing goalkeeping errors which have cost their teams dear, writes Brian Glanville.

Goalkeepers are crazy is a very old saying in British football. Years ago I used it as the title of a short story which would be published many times over the years. Later I wrote a boys' book called `Goalkeepers are different' which Peter Shilton, an ace among 'keepers, once told me was the first book he'd ever finished and he'd never thought anyone would understand a young goalkeeper's feelings.

Yet, even Peter Shilton and his illustrious predecessor Gordon Banks, the author of that amazing one-handed World Cup 1970 save from Pele in Guadalajara, have made their costly mistakes. Indeed, I begin to wonder whether the phrase should really be, goalkeepers are victims.

Sayings, comments, come back to me. Once in the Press box at Queens Park Rangers in West London somewhere back in the 1950s I heard a little elderly reporter remark, "A good goalkeeper can break your hearts." In Rome, a few years later, I heard the Roma and Italy 'keeper Giuseppe Moro say, "A goalkeeper's saves are important both for encouraging his own side and for demoralising the opposition."

This season, as always, we have seen embarrassing goalkeeping errors which have cost their teams dear. None more so than that made by Paul Robinson, the England goalkeeper, playing in Zagreb versus Croatia. When his right-back, Phil Neville, rolled a back pass to him, he took a kick at the ball which, to his and England's horror, hit a divot, bounced over his foot, and rolled on into the net. Croatia won the game, 2-0.

Which brings us to the vexed question, why did he kick it? To which the answer is, because he had to. The rule for some years now being that a pass back to the 'keeper, provided it is kicked rather than headed, cannot be picked up; the ball has to be kicked. When the rule came in and was presented at a meeting in Newport of the International Board, which makes the rules for soccer, I challenged the then FIFA Secretary, now alas, the FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, saying that a perfectly good law already existed, which penalised time wasting. His deeply unsatisfactory reply to that was that the rule may indeed have existed, but that it was not being applied. More honoured in the breach than in the observance, as Shakespeare might have had it.

This never seemed a good reason for bringing in such a new rule to me. Nor did it to one of the great goal-scorers of his time, Gary Lineker, who wisely observed that it would speed the game up, just as it needed slowing down. Besides, take a step backwards and consider the implications of Blatter's reasoning and you will find it deeply flawed. What if this dubious principle was applied to laws in general? Burglars, after all, despite the laws, are still burgling, swindlers are still swindling, murderers are still murdering. So let us find some way to change the relevant laws in the hope of stopping them.

What the change has undoubtedly done, as was once emphasised by one of the finest goalkeepers of his day, Gianluigi Buffon of Italy, has been to change radically the role of a goalkeeper, who must now be deft not only with his hands but with and on his feet, able to kick the ball out even under severe opposing pressure, and to avoid, that all too often happens, sending it straight to an opponent who, in all probability, can promptly whack it into the net. There is also, of course, a substantial element of physical risk — always, of course, present in a goalkeeper's remit — since once a 'keeper is obliged to play the ball with his feet, he becomes open to challenge like any outfield player.

And, of course, the scope for blundering is infinite. One thinks of a vital European Champions Cup goal given away at Chelsea a couple of seasons back by the Arsenal and Germany 'keeper, Jens Lehmann. Rashly coming across to the left-hand side of his area and beyond it, he decided to kick the ball clear without forethought. What then alarmingly happened was that it bounced off Chelsea's Icelandic striker, Eidur Gudjohnsen, who was thus enabled to walk it at leisure into the unguarded net.

But then Lehmann's long standing rival for the place of Germany's goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn, was still more profoundly embarrassed in the very World Cup Final of 2002 in Yokahama, having kept a resentful Lehmann out of the team. On the very eve of the Final, Kahn had been voted by journalists the best 'keeper of the competition. But a horrific and untypical mistake allowed Ronaldo and Brazil an easy second goal.

David "Calamity" James on the face of it has every quality to make a great goalkeeper; height, physique, courage, agility.

Time and again he has been called up by England, only to make bizarre, basic mistakes. Such as in Vienna against Austria in the qualifiers for the last World Cup, conceding a goal from the softest of shots and almost another through sheer inattention, allowing the ball to trickle towards and goal, till a desperate defender cleared it. Then, at the start of last season, he was one of the great culprits when England were thrashed 4-1 by Denmark in a Copenhagen friendly.

His predecessor, David Seaman, had in common with many modern 'keepers a burly physique — six footers are small nowadays — and longevity. But go on too long and risks are run. In his latter 30s it was Seaman, so tearful afterwards, who let through the crucial, baffling, free-kick 2002 World Cup goal by Ronaldinho against Brazil. Followed a few months later by a goal direct from a corner against Macedonia. Victims?