OPINION: The most important position in soccer is between the sticks

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OPINION: The most important position in soccer is between the sticks

Caleb Garbuio

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Soccer is a team sport in which many individuals impact the game. Yet, championship caliber teams often come up short without a world-class shot stopper in goal.

As soccer games progresses tactically and athletically, few positions dictate the tempo as much as the goalkeeper. While goalkeepers have a variety of roles on the pitch, their main responsibility is to keep the ball out of the net. 

In the 2017-18 Champions League Final between Liverpool and Real Madrid, the Liverpool goalkeeper made two blunders, giving Real Madrid a 3-1 victory. This prompted Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp to sign Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson Becker for a record £65m. The next season, Becker won three Golden Gloves in the 2018-2019 Premier League, 2018-2019 Champions League and 2019 Copa America. While the previous year’s roster remained the same, Klopp’s goalkeeper investment paid dividends as Liverpool won the 2018-2019 Champions League.

This is nothing new. During the 2000-2001 Champions League campaign, Bayern Munich legend Oliver Kahn, 2000-2001 Champions League keeper of the year, saved three penalties during Bayern’s penalty shootout in the final against FC Valencia, giving Bayern a victory. Kahn became the first goalkeeper to win the Golden Ball award representing Germany during the 2002 World Cup. Despite Brazil’s Ronaldo scoring eight goals for Brazil, Kahn won in the polls with 25% of the vote, compared to Ronaldo’s 21%, because he helped a subpar Germany overachieve.

There is a correlation between a world-class shot stopper and international success. The winner of the Golden Glove award, given to the best goalkeeper at the World Cup,  has reached every World Cup semifinal, expect in 1994, 1959 and 1938. Ten out of 21 recipients have won the World Cup, and while these keepers played with solid defenses, they were individually responsible for saving their teams.

For example, captain Iker Casillas made 11 total saves during critical moments in Spain’s 2010 World Cup victory. In Spain’s quarterfinal matchup against Paraguay, Casillas saved Oscar Cardozo’s penalty shot with the game tied 0-0. Casillas came in clutch during Spain’s semifinal against Germany, making a pair of saves. In the final against the Netherlands, Dutch striker Arjen Robben broke away from his defender finding himself alone with Casillas to beat. Picking the bottom left corner, Robben fired a shot and watched in dismay as it bounced off Casillas’s foot and out of bounds.

This is nothing new,as Casillas has come to Spain’s rescue on numerous occasions, giving him the nickname “San Iker.” Casillas saved a pair of penalties to defeat defending world champions Italy and former Golden Glove Winner Gianluigi Buffon 4-2 in a penalty shootout, during the 2008 European Championship. While Spain’s 2008-12 side is regarded as the greatest international team of all time, its international success rested in Casillas’s hands.

However, excellent keepers also make an impact on sub-par teams. Keylor Navas of Costa Rica lead his side to the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup, making 21 saves and posting an impressive 91% save rating

Navas posted three shutouts, against two international giants Italy and the Netherlands, helping Costa Rica remain unbeaten. Despite not conceding during regulation against the Dutch, Costa Rica would lose 4-3 on penalties, eliminating the team from the competition. Navas would go on to play for Real Madrid where he would win 12 total trophies, including three consecutive Champions League titles.

Despite being a team sport, people often place enormous responsibilities on individual players such as Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. However, these players rarely achieve any success at the club or international level without having a solid keeper guarding the posts.  Cristiano Ronaldo’s Champions League success with Real Madrid and Manchester United is in no small part due to the world class shot stoppers on his squad. 

Caleb Garbuio plays goalkeeper on the App State Men’s Soccer Team