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FIFA Ballon d'Or

Goalkeepers go it alone

Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer of Germany holds the ball
© Getty Images

Goalkeepers are loners, a breed apart. They spend the majority of the game far removed from the action. They train alone. They wear a different shirt to their team-mates. And they are the only ones allowed to pick the ball up with their hands in a sport that is called football for a very simple reason.

Their sense of solitude is felt even more keenly whenever awards are being handed out. A case in point is the FIFA Ballon d’Or and its predecessor the European Footballer of the Year award – also known as the Ballon d’Or – with only one goalkeeper appearing on their respective rolls of honour in 57 years.

That lone custodian was the great Soviet shotstopper Lev Yashin, who was recognised in 1963 for many years of excellence in the box and his fabled ability to save penalties, an estimated 150 of them during his career.

“The only thing that brings more happiness than seeing Yuri Gagarin fly through space is a well-saved penalty,” joked The Black Spider in reference to his compatriot’s achievement in becoming the first man in space in 1961.

The legendary Dynamo Moscow goalkeeper once said that before games he would smoke a cigarette to relax and have a stiff drink to tone his muscles. While it is doubtful how much that pre-match ritual aided his performance, there can be no question that he made his mark on the history of goalkeeping, thanks to his exceptional drive and motivation and the self-doubt that pushed him to strive for more.

“What goalkeeper doesn’t feel torment when they concede a goal? Torment is the only thing you can feel,” said Yashin, an Olympic and European champion with the USSR in 1956 and 1960 respectively. “If they feel calm, then that’s the end. It doesn’t matter what they did in the past because they have no future.”

In Yashin’s case though, the future brought no more major individual accolades, he did earn a place in posterity as one of the game’s great keepers. He himself believed he deserved nothing less. “There have only ever been two world-class goalkeepers,” he once commented. “One was Lev Yashin, and the other was the German boy who played for Manchester (the legendary Bert Trautmann, who kept goal for Manchester City between 1949 and 1964).”

Name checks for Zoff and Viktor
After hanging up his gloves in 1970, the Russian idol would have to add another name to that select list, that of Italy’s Dino Zoff,who took second place in polling for the 1973 award after going a whole 21 months and 1,142 minutes of playing time without conceding a goal for his country.

The Italian finished runner-up to Johan Cruyff, though the order could well have been reversed had it been Zoff’s Juventus and not Cruyff’s Ajax who won that year’s European Cup final. As it was, the Dutchman guided his club to a 1-0 victory, their third consecutive triumph in the competition.

Zoff would crown his glittering career by lifting the FIFA World Cup™ at the age of 40 in 1982, a year in which he could reasonably have expected to be in the running again for the Ballon d’Or, having also won a sixth Serie A title with La Vecchia Signora.

As it turned out, however, his Italy and Juventus team-mate Paolo Rossi won the award on the back of his six-goal haul at Spain 1982. France’s Alain Giresse and Zbigniew Boniek, another Juve striker, completed the top three that year, proof were it needed that goalscorers and playmakers have it easier when it comes to winning individual awards.

One distinguished keeper who did achieve recognition ahead of his outfield team-mates was Czechoslovakia’s Ivo Viktor in 1976. While Antonin Panenka earned his place in football history with the delicious chipped penalty kick that decided that year’s European Championship final against West Germany, it was the man between the Czech posts who polled third in the Ballon d’Or running. As fate would have it, the award went not to a striker this time but a defender, Franz Beckenbauer, who had been on the losing side when Viktor and the Czechs took the European title.

A great honour
Germany’s Oliver Kahn matched Viktor’s achievement several years later, but unlike the Czech, and Zoff and Yashin for that matter, he stands alone as the only goalkeeper to have made the top three twice, in 2001 and 2002. That second year the German custodian also polled runner-up – behind Ronaldo and ahead of Zinedine Zidane – in voting for the FIFA World Player of the Year award, which came into existence in 1991.

“They are both magnificent players who have shown their class time and again and have the ability to change the course of matches,” the Mannschaft gloveman commented at the time. “That makes it even more flattering for me to be named alongside such great players in the running for the trophy. It’s a tremendous honour and an amazing feeling, even more so because it’s two or three times harder for a goalkeeper to be selected.”

Gianluigi Buffon would not disagree with that, having had to fight it out with entertainers such as Thierry Henry, Zidane, Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o in becoming the last goalkeeper to make the Ballon d’Or podium in 2006. Buffon’s flawless performance at Germany 2006 was instrumental in him taking second place behind Fabio Cannavaro, his national team captain at the time.

“Without a great goalkeeper you’ll never win a title,” Kahn told during the 2010 World Cup. “Nowadays it’s simply not possible for even the most talented team to compensate for having a poor goalkeeper. Ultimately it’s the goalkeeper who tips the scales, for better or worse.”

Germany’s current custodian is Manuel Neuer, who was on the losing side in the semi-finals against Spain in South Africa but who starred last season in helping Bayern Munich land a stunning Bundesliga, German Cup and UEFA Champions League treble.

His contribution to that outstanding achievement has earned him a place among the 23 nominees for the 2013 FIFA Ballon d’Or. Nevertheless, the fact that he is the only member of his profession on the shortlist is yet another reminder of just how often goalkeepers have to go it alone.

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