It doesn’t matter at what level of football you play, being a goalkeeper can be a really unpleasant job.
Even on the school playing field, it has always been the position that nobody wants to play. You pick sides one player at a time. You slowly pick off the best players until eventually your team is left with the weakest, least competent member of the group. So what do you do with them? Well, it’s obvious. You stick them in goal in a vain attempt to keep them out of harm’s way. Then when your team wins, the focus is on the goalscorer and the goalkeeper’s efforts go unnoticed. When your team ends up losing, there is only one person to blame, isn’t there?
But in the professional game, is it any different? When people think of the greatest goals of all time, they think of Diego Maradona vs England (not the first goal, obviously!), Marco Van Basten vs USSR, Cantona vs Sunderland, Bergkamp vs Newcastle, Henry vs Manchester United, Zidane vs Bayer Leverkusen, Di Canio vs Wimbledon… the list goes on.
On the other hand, when people think of the greatest saves of all time… well, you’ve got Gordon Banks vs Brazil… and that’s about it. Take nothing away from goalkeepers such as Schmeichel, Zoff, Yashin, Khan, Van Der Sar, Buffon and Casillas. They have all produced mind-blowing saves during their careers, but it’s only ever Banks’ physics-defying save from Pele’s header that truly sticks out in the minds of the footballing public.
Sadly goalkeepers are rarely remembered for their heroics in front of goal. If anything, they are remembered for the exact opposite. If you type ‘great goalkeeping saves’ into YouTube, you will receive over 18,000 videos in response. But type ‘goalkeeping errors’, and the number of responses is almost trebled!
Yes, we all enjoy watching the old blooper every now and again (as long as it doesn’t happen to your team!), but it’s of little wonder or surprise that being a goalkeeper is one of the most stressful jobs in any sport. There is simply no margin for error. If a team has an off day and fails to score, the best they can hope for is a draw. But if the keeper has a bad day, his team could end up with nothing at all.
And the pressure just doesn’t go away. The new Premier League season is only just over a week old, and yet we have already witnessed no fewer than seven goalkeeping howlers. Even the League’s most reliable goalies, most notably, Petr Cech, David De Gea and Shay Given are amongst those to have fumbled already this season.
In the modern era, when every single match that is played is scrutinised right down to the finest details, goalkeepers always remain subject to criticism, scepticism and mockery.
The cynics amongst us might say that ‘they’re only job is to stop shots from going in to the back of the net. How hard can that possibly be?’ But being a goalkeeper is about so much more than that. It is about being a master of your own state of mind. It is about conquering your own self-doubt. It is about not letting your mistakes affect your ability as a player.
The question is how does a goalkeeper deal with all of these issues? Well, nowadays the biggest clubs have all kinds of facilities to help players psychologically, however most players are apparently too reluctant to commit themselves to dealing with their own self-doubt, for fear of what their manager and team-mates would think of them.
One of the biggest fears for a footballer is rejection. One week, you think you are playing well, but the next week you find yourself on the bench. This can have a massive psychological effect on any player, but for this to happen to a goalkeeper, where there is only one place in the team up for grabs, the thought that your manager favours another player over yourself can be very damaging to the psyche.
Back in March, former England goalkeeper David James wrote an article in the Observer about the lack of psychological support in football:
‘There’s a misconception that all footballers are very confident, but it is the opposite for most.
‘It is a great irony that in a game where we routinely talk of confidence on the pitch, psychological support off it is so appallingly neglected. When I was going through a bad time at Liverpool I approached the club for some support. Back then, I was told, “Shut up and deal with it”. Sadly, I don’t think football has moved on from that position.’
Every goalkeeper suffers from self-doubt, even if they won’t admit it. Even Edwin Van Der Sar, one of the greatest keepers of all time, has admitted to being prone to this. But the best thing they can do is simply try to brush it off, learn from that mistake and try not to let it happen again. Some are able to brush off their mistakes and move on even if their reputation takes a hit as a result.
Robert Green’s reputation has been completely tarnished by his error during England’s match vs USA at the 2010 World Cup. Massimo Taibi seemed to completely disappear off the radar following his howler for Manchester United against Southampton in 1999. Even David James has suffered a similar fate, inheriting the nickname ‘Calamity James’ during a torrid spell at Liverpool. But the truth is all of these players did not let their mistakes get to them. Despite another error recently, Robert Green is still a top flight goalkeeper at QPR, Massimo Taibi went on to have a successful career in Italy, and David James, despite not currently being attached to a club, is still playing in his 40s.
Sadly, some goalkeepers are never able to fathom the amount of responsibility that they have to deal with. The most prominent and tragic example being that of German goalkeeper Robert Enke, who committed suicide in November 2009. In Ronald Reng’s book, A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke, we examine the life of a man struggling to battle with his own personal demons and are given an insight into the pressures and fears of playing sport at the highest level. Enke’s story is a shining example of how it could all go wrong for today’s professional goalkeeper.
It’s easy to say that clubs could do more to support their players psychologically, and there is no doubt in my mind that they should. But players need to take it upon themselves not to let their self-doubt get the better of them. Thankfully, the example of Robert Enke is one of a kind. But all goalkeepers, regardless of how good they are, should learn from him.
Goalkeepers simply need to learn one thing: they are only human. The chances are extremely high that a goalkeeper will make more than one mistake in his career. But this doesn’t mean that his reputation has to suffer. One mistake or one bad performance doesn’t define a goalkeeper. It’s how they bounce back from this mistake that defines them.