A goalkeeper’s job is often unappreciated. More often than not, a critical save, or Big Save, by a keeper is the difference between winning and losing. Is making a Big Save as important as scoring a goal?
Gianluigi Buffon, a World Cup winner for Italy, and perhaps, the greatest goalkeeper of his generation, concurs. Buffon says, “I honestly think it is. Goalkeepers know that it’s hard for them to make up for any mistakes they might commit. It’s a position that demands total concentration. You can never afford to relax.”
Buffon was also asked about the greatest save he ever made in his career: “It’s very hard to pick one out in particular. Luckily, I’ve had quite a few, though I think one I made from Zinedine Zidane in the Final at the 2006 World Cup in Germany was probably the most decisive.” So it was – it won Italy the World Cup. Had he not made that save, France might just have nicked the World Cup instead. That is the influence a Big save has on the outcome of a football match.
The point made by Buffon has been showcased by several football experts in the past. One of the greatest British football managers, Brian Clough used to say that a making a save is as important as scoring a goal. Clough was the manager of Nottingham Forest and he took a critical decision in 1977-78, which arguably won the Forest side the title in that season – which was the signing of a super talented 18-year old keeper, Peter Shilton.
Clough discussed why buying a top goalkeeper like Shilton made such a difference to his side, when conventional wisdom would make managers buy a striker or an attacking midfielder as the biggest signing of the club; certainly not a goalkeeper: “With Shilton in goal, it gave everyone more confidence. It spread through the side … The defenders felt safer, and the forwards thought if we could nick a goal, there was more than an evens chance that the opposition wouldn’t score at the other end.”
That’s true, isn’t it? One learns about the values of having a good goalkeeper in the team only when the one you have on your side, makes mistakes and loses you the match. We do not show any kind of concern when world class goalkeepers like Buffon or Iker Casillas of Spain make one big save after another to save their teams from certain defeat. We are far too focused on the attacking players – Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney and their likes. A keeper is often the forgotten man of football – he is remembered only when he makes a mistake, which can lead to his team’s defeat.
So, what is it like for a goalkeeper when he makes the Big Save, one that ensures that a lead does not go to waste or his team does not go behind with just a couple of minutes left to play? To understand what it feels like – the euphoria, the joy, the pure adrenaline rush – one has to understand the pressure, the keeper is under, for most of the match, doing nothing for the most part till the moment when he has to make that one Big Save which decides the team’s fortunes.
The keeper is different from other outfield players because he is isolated on the field, stands alone and is constantly exposed to attacks from the opposition. The outfield players sometimes hide by not moving or not making themselves available for a pass when they don’t feel up to it. A goalkeeper has no such luxury. He cannot afford to make mistakes, because a single mistake has the potential to make his team end up on the losing side.
When a goalkeeper makes that critical Big Save, they are heroes, and if they don’t – they are the villains, mocked by the crowd and shunned by their teammates. And this can happen several times in a single game. A keeper may make dozens of saves, but if he fails to keep out a ferocious shot in the 90th minute, all of the brilliant efforts so far, are forgotten and only his moment of misfortune is remembered.
It is a goalkeeper’s job to make Big Saves. But it does not happen by chance. It requires critical physical elements such as agility and power. Goalkeepers blessed with agility and jumping ability, decent size and flexibility, are the ones capable of making a big save.
But physical and athletic prowess is hardly enough – a world class keeper needs something more. There is a psychological component to goalkeeping. Most goalkeepers can make brilliant saves in practice or in an unimportant match. But it takes someone like Buffon to make a Big Save in a World Cup final, which wins his team football’s greatest prize. Not everyone can deal with the pressure, and very few goalkeepers can produce their best when it really matters.
That’s not all – a goalkeeper needs courage. There hasn’t been a single goalkeeper at the highest level who was not a courageous person. Not every keeper can rush at fast moving striker, put himself at risk of getting hit in the face by his feet as they try to block his shot from getting through to the goal.
A goalkeeper is a complete athlete, one who never shies away from a big challenge and steps up to the plate when required to, making a Big Save even if it means getting injured in the process. A goalkeeper is his team’s biggest hero, because without a good goalkeeper, no team can ever win a game of football, especially at the top level – it just hasn’t happened.