The Last Man Standing

When every kid starts out playing football, they like to score goals. And I was no different. When I started out playing football in Kenya in fourth or fifth grade, I wanted to score goals and I loved the feeling of putting that ball into the net. But over time, as you grow older, you realise that some of you are not cut out for that. You start looking for other positions to play in- midfielders, defenders and finally the unfancied fat-boy position, the goalkeeper.

It’s true. Take any kid’s games these days, nine out of ten games will have the two fattest kids in goal. There are very few kids who genuinely like goalkeeping and want to be a goalkeeper. And I didn’t want to either, until a couple of years back.

I thought I had found my calling card back in ninth or tenth grade in Chennai, playing as a centre-back (to those of you unfamiliar with the term, that’s one of the two or three players who play in the middle of the defensive line in front of the goalkeeper). But little was I to know things were going to change dramatically once I was in my sophomore year in college.

This is my story of what being the last man standing was to me.

An Unnatural Position

I’m not going to go into the details of it but suffice to say I chose to play as a goalkeeper. Here’s the thing. I have never done this in my entire life. I was in the middle of college, taking on a position which on paper is one of the easiest positions to understand and yet in practice, is by far the most difficult about football. Having been around football (both as a spectator and as a player) for most of my childhood, picking up the basic bits and pieces of goalkeeping was not hard. There was some technical fine-tuning needed (like the proper technique to catching the ball or jumping up and so on) but not really radical changes.

The hardest part for me physically was learning to throw my body around the ground. The reason being, it’s not a natural act. The human body and mind are conditioned to avoid trauma and yet, here you are, purposely throwing yourself onto a hard, muddy surface just so you can stop a ball entering the goal. Many a time, on one of my off-days when I just don’t feel like my body can handle the acute stress of a dive, my teammates would say “Dive Sesha! At least attempt to save it!”. Well meaning as they are, the artificiality of the act can sometimes take a toll on your body and sometimes, your body just refuses to be subjected to it- for whatever reason. It’s not that you don’t want to. You just can’t sometimes.

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Oftentimes, we see goalkeepers lunge head-on (as Manuel Neuer is doing in the above picture) into what in football parlance, we call one-on-ones. For those of you who think this is easy, think again. This is a situation which involves you purposely lunging into the feet of a guy who is, for all means and purposes, running at full or near full-speed. There is a distinct possibility of a concussion thanks to a hit in the head, a contusion, a ligament tear and pretty much any medical problem you can think of that can result from this situation. Just look at Petr Cech for a gruesome example.

And yet, here we are.

Goalkeeping takes not just the ability to sniff out danger but also to tackle it head-first in case it materialises into a credible threat. And that takes a lot of subjecting your body to unnatural circumstances as well as an insane amount of mental strength.

Mental Fortitude

“You are part of a team yet somehow separate; there are no grey areas, with success or failure being measured in real time; and you have a physical job which you can only do well by paying attention to your mental well-being.”

Brad Friedel

Goalkeeping, in comparison to other positions, is far more mental. Goalkeepers in general, and especially the best goalkeepers in the world like David De Gea, Thibaut Courtois and Manuel Neuer, are often far stronger mentally than any other player in their team. And it is important that goalkeeper is this way. As American goalkeeper Brad Friedel put it, “You are part of a team yet somehow separate; there are no grey areas, with success or failure being measured in real time; and you have a physical job which you can only do well by paying attention to your mental well-being.”

Success and failure often comes down to one moment. You could have made twenty saves in a match for eighty nine minutes to keep the game at 0-0. But you will always be remembered for the twenty first shot that went in and lost the game. Goalkeepers are expected to be at their strongest from mental point of view for ninety minutes a game no matter what the score is. You could be leading 5-0 or you could be losing 5-0. No matter what happens, goalkeepers cannot allow themselves to be affected by emotion during a game. More often than not, the blame is always laid at the keeper’s door. “De Gea would’ve saved that” or “Courtois would’ve saved that” are common sentences uttered by football fans at some point of time.

I actually have personal experience of this aspect of a goalkeeper’s game- the mental aspect. It was an early morning game in one of the nearby colleges. And I was in no shape for it mentally, having spent most of the previous night engaged in some other work- work that involved writing, actually. The resultant two hours of sleep before game time left me exhausted, sleep-deprived and in no position to play the game. I did, however, play and the result was a shot that I let roll in right past me, accompanied with a flailing, pathetic effort to save it with my left leg. It was a goal I would have easily saved had I been in optimal or even near optimal condition that morning but I wasn’t. And it showed.

Confidence and Withstanding Pressure

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Goalkeeping is definitely not for the faint-hearted. The ability to see a shot go into the net,  pick yourself up and then brace for the next shot like nothing ever happened is an ability that cannot be taught. It has to come from within. But when it comes to pressure on the keepers, there’s one situation that a lot of people think is insane pressure.

The penalty shootout.

I cannot speak for any other goalkeeper but here’s the thing. Penalty shootouts are a lot more pressure for the shooter than the keeper. Because here’s the deal- given a situation where you are twelve yards from a 24 X 8 feet goalpost with only a (on average) 6’2″ keeper standing to protect it- you have got to bury that. This is something a lot of keepers don’t know or don’t understand. Sure, it’s not like I am saying this is no pressure but it isn’t as big as you think it is. Put it this way, if you make a save- you’re a hero. And if you don’t, you’re not the villain.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any pressure for the man in the goal. As Thibaut Courtois (the Chelsea and Belgium goalkeeper) once put it in an interview, other players- when they make mistakes- can be covered up. A defence has a keeper and a midfield has a defence protecting it for example. But a keeper has nobody. You get past the keeper and it takes a miracle to keep the ball from going inside the net. And that brings a pressure of it’s own- a pressure to perform at the highest level every minute of every game of every season.

And it’s not just pressure on the field. There’s pressure off the field too. People are only too trigger-happy, placing the blame at the door of the keeper no matter how the goal goes in. People often fail to understand that sometimes, there’s an element of bad luck. For example, when former Stoke City goalkeeper Asmir Begovic scored (yes, scored) a goal from his end of the field, he refused to celebrate out of respect for the other keeper- because he knew that it was just rotten luck. At other times, it’s just a damn good shot or a very good team move which leads to a goal. You’ve just got to accept that and move on. But not a lot of people do. And this often leads to undue criticism of a goalkeeper who, for all you know, did his best. I’ve even seen people criticise Hugo Lloris’ positioning on the shot from Eder which won Portugal the Euros. Honestly, I don’t think any keeper in the world would’ve done it differently. It was just a well-placed shot.

Confidence and withstanding pressure go hand in hand. I have a routine before every game kicks off. I go to my right hand post, close my eyes, grip the post as tightly as I can with both my hands, tell myself, “You’re the best player on the pitch out of all twenty two people. No one. I repeat no one is going to beat you today. Let’s go.” Saying that, I kiss the right post, punch it once, walk over to the left post, punch it, and finally end it by touching the crossbar near the middle with my fingertips. A six-line routine that barely takes ten seconds. Does this mean I keep a clean sheet every game? No. And yet, this routine gives a unique kind of confidence that helps me deal with a 2-0 loss just as I would deal with a 2-0 win.

Keepers are not immune to mistakes- we’re only human. And I’m not justifying any blatant mistake by a keeper- including myself. But sometimes, criticism of a keeper, even in a good performance can only cement the pressure on the person to perform and handling this with bravado is an essential quality for goalkeepers.

Supreme Intelligence and Unrewarding Work

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There’s a saying- I think Gianluigi Buffon popularized it- that the hallmark of a good keeper is when he doesn’t have to dive in a game. Sure, it looks attractive when it happens- a top corner save like how David De Gea denied Philippe Coutinho back in Anfield last year- but as Buffon said, you can’t be doing that every single time and call yourself a great keeper. It just shows a lack of good positioning and a lack of a proper read into the game.

In modern day football, the goalkeeper and the playmakers in midfield are probably the two most intelligent sets of players on the field. What Buffon said about diving can be extended to the larger part of the game. When a striker reaches the keeper for a one-on-one, the ball has to cross three lines of defence- namely, the striker, the midfielder and the defender before it reaches anywhere near goal. As many things as people (so called “experts” who have never kept in their lives) tell you about goalkeeping, they never tell you that you marshal your defence. You are the general when the other team has the ball- pointing out threats to defenders, pointing out darting runs from strikers, engaging with the defence to close out any gaps in the backline, all the while keeping an eye on the guy posing a threat to your goal on the ball and being on your toes (literally) for a shot. The centre-backs, the wingbacks and the midfielders do their jobs well- they close down gaps and track runs as much as they can. But the key is you have a 360-degree view that they don’t and that puts in the unique position of looking at the larger picture and manipulating that picture to make sure that threats get snuffed out on the go.

You’d think this is important work. Here’s the thing. If done correctly, it leads to clean sheets with the keeper doing work that is much below average. And the credit for that, will always go to the defence and the midfield, never minding the work the keeper puts in. After all, who cares about how much mental work goes into a keeper organising a defence when all the highlights show successful tackles and interceptions. Goalkeeping is an unrewarding, dull, unattractive job on the outside when done right (only keepers will realise how rewarding, gruelling and sadistically attractive it actually is).

When I played football as a kid, goalkeeping was a job for the fat kid. As I grew up, and began to play as a centre-back in school, I realised that goalkeeping was not, in fact a fat kid’s job but that of a fairly good athlete and fairly good communicator. And when I actually became a keeper and studied the position like I had never before, I realised that goalkeeping is an art. It’s a game of subtleties and nuances amalgamated with a healthy dose of bravery, confidence and a willingness to do what nobody else will.

It is the closest football will ever come to being the perfect position.

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