An awestruck murmur of approval went around more than 50,000 spectators packed into a sold-out stadium in Frankfurt during Bayern Munich’s 4-0 victory last Saturday, soon to be followed by ripples of applause from the home fans. Rafinha had just played an awkward lofted back pass to his goalkeeper, who nevertheless played a skilful first-time volley with his heel to Xabi Alonso.
Gareth Bale was impressed enough to pay tribute to the moment on Twitter, and the rest of the footballing community had yet another example of the rather special goalkeeping talents that have been on display in Germany for some considerable time now. The custodian in question was, of course, Manuel Neuer.
The 28-year-old routinely produced similar moments of magic at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil™, where Germany won the title thanks to their almost immaculate collective performances, playing an attacking style rich in free-flowing forward moves. Yet despite the emphasis on attack, Neuer still stood out: his sense of timing was perfect and his ability on the ball as an 11th outfield player helped to break up countless opposition attacks and initiate his own side’s build-up play.
It is precisely for that reason why the colossal blonde Bayern Munich keeper is among the favourites to win the FIFA Ballon d’Or 2014. His Belgium counterpart Thibaut Courtois is more of an outsider, but his displays for his clubs (Atletico Madrid and Chelsea) and his country have been outstanding during the course of the year.
But will a goalkeeper ever be able to win the award in men’s football?
“Black and white” goalkeeping world
One of Neuer’s compatriots in the women’s game has already shown it can be done. “To be honest I’m not expecting to win the vote,” Nadine Angerer said almost exactly one year ago. “It would be a huge surprise if I did, especially as a goalkeeper.” Yet just a few weeks later she was presented with the award, becoming the first goalkeeper to be named FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year.
Only the legendary Lev Yashin has won the Ballon d’Or, but that was back in 1963. The last male goalkeeper to come close to winning was another German, Oliver Kahn, who received the adidas Golden Ball as the best player at the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan before finishing as runner up to Brazil’s Ronaldo in the Player of the Year vote six months later.
Even back then Kahn, now 45, was aware why it is so difficult for the men between the posts to earn recognition. “The world is black and white for a goalkeeper,” he said in an interview with FIFA.com. “Sometimes you only have one shot to deal with, but it goes in. So you look stupid. On another day you save three or four and everyone says you're world class. There's no sense of proportion.”
Neuer can doubtlessly relate to those sentiments, as can the only other goalkeeper on the 23-man FIFA Ballon d'Or 2014 shortlist: Belgium’s Courtois. On 12 January 2015 the results of the vote, conducted among men’s national team captains and coaches as well as select international media representatives chosen by France Football magazine, will be revealed at the Gala at the Kongresshaus in Zurich.
With goalkeepers struggling for recognition more than their outfield team-mates, there is a source of frustration for many shot-stoppers. In an interview with FIFA.com during a goalkeeping seminar at the home of FIFA in Zurich, 54-year-old former Costa Rica No1 Luis Gabelo Conejo insisted that changes must be made: “The question is, why doesn’t a goalkeeper cost as much as a striker? That’s something we need to improve. Each position should be given the level of importance it actually deserves.
“The hero is always the player who scores the goals,” continued Conejo, who played for Costa Rica at the 1990 World Cup in Italy and is currently Los Ticos’ goalkeeping coach. “If a keeper faces 30 shots during a game and saves 29 of them spectacularly, but concedes one that people think he should have kept out, then he is made into a scapegoat. And nobody takes the other 29 saves he made into account. The same thing happens when it comes to [awards] nominations. It’s rare to see a goalkeeper among the candidates because fortune shines on the players who score the goals, not those who concede them.”
Not everyone shares that point of view, however. “Of course it’s harder [for a keeper to win the Ballon d’Or] because there are so many outfield players providing competition,” said former Austria international goalkeeper Franz Wohlfahrt, who has likewise coached his successors in the national side for several years.
“I think it would be a good idea to have two separate votes. You can’t compare a goalkeeper’s game to that of an outfield player. There’s a clear difference.” The 50-year-old emphasised his point by highlighting that shot-stoppers also train differently, saying “it is kind of like a different sport.”
It will certainly be fascinating to see if Neuer and Courtois can finish ahead of renowned attacking talents such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Neymar, among others. Former Ukraine international striker Andriy Shevchenko, who came third in the 2004 World Player of the Year vote, recently argued that Neuer should win - and he is not alone.
“Of course he would deserve it,” Kahn told SID. “He’s taken goalkeeping up to a new level; not only through his performances but also through the way he interprets the game. The way he did that at the World Cup was very impressive. If you’re a World Cup winner you always have a big chance of finishing near the top in this vote.”
Germany coach Joachim Low even believes Neuer has revolutionised what it means to be a goalkeeper. “We had an 11th outfield player [at the 2014 World Cup]. In doing so I think Manuel has triggered a change in world football.”
In exclusive interviews with FIFA.com, former Germany international goalkeepers Jens Lehmann and Bodo Illgner also praised the Gelsenkirchen native’s outstanding displays. “He’s without doubt the best goalkeeper there is at the moment because he’s brave and gets involved in the game,” said Lehmann. “A lot of people called me crazy in England when I used that style, which makes it all the nicer to see that he’s playing so well.”
Illgner echoed that sentiment: “He’s absolutely the complete player. He’s strong between the posts, great coming off his line, excellent with the ball at his feet and superb at getting involved in the play behind the defence. He simply doesn’t have any weaknesses.”
Yet Andreas Kopke, another erstwhile Germany No1 and current goalkeeping coach with the national team, believes it is the sense of security Neuer exudes that makes him so valuable to the side. “His involvement and anticipation were vital,” he told FIFA.com immediately after Germany’s 2-1 extra-time victory over Algeria in the Round of 16 in Porto Alegre.
“He enjoys playing that way and you can see that out on the pitch. Nobody on the touchline is nervous watching him on the ball because we know he knows what he’s doing.” Germany fans are conscious of the pivotal role Neuer played in that match against the north Africans, dramatically racing outside his penalty area to clear the danger just in time on several occasions.
Neuer himself is typically laid back amid such widespread praise. “It’s important that the guys in front of me know I’m there,” he told FIFA.com during the World Cup in Brazil. “It’s all about trust and there are things the defenders and I do that are now second nature.”
A few months later Neuer explained further in an interview with The FIFA Weekly: “It isn’t always easy to manage the range of responsibilities I have, but I don’t think too much about the demands placed upon me; instead I try to demand those things of myself. I also know that I can make mistakes every now and again. As for being the best goalkeeper in the world, it’s been written occasionally, but I’d never say it myself.”
Neuer believes he touches the ball more often with his feet than with his hands during games and is confident he could play as an outfield player in Germany’s fourth division. The Castrol Index on FIFA.com revealed that he completed an astonishing 244 passes and covered a distance of 38.5 kilometres at Brazil 2014. Whether or not that will be enough for him to become just the second German player after Lothar Matthaus to win the highest individual honour in world football remains to be seen.
“I know first-hand that people are inhibited about voting for a goalkeeper because it’s about deciding who the best footballer in the world is,” said Kahn. “But Manuel has a good chance; after all, he’s a footballer too.”