“Most kids dream of scoring the perfect goal. I’ve always dreamed of stopping it.”
Iker Casillas sums up pretty much every football enthusiast’s ambition in this priceless sentence. There’s just an in-built tendency in every fan’s heart to want to score, or see an exceptional goal being scored. It’s completely true, and I’ve been there, picturing myself wheeling away in celebration after having scored a knuckleball free kick, or having smashed a volley into the bottom corner, or having curled the ball into the net, Toni Kroos style.
If you’re caught in traffic and call up your mate to ask what the scoreline is, you instinctively ask who scored, if there was any exceptional chance created, and what is the likelihood of one being scored (again). It can’t be helped, it’s just there. What no one would ever ask would be something like ‘Did the goalkeeper make any outstanding saves?’, ‘Was there any exceptional, goal – saving tackling?’ There are extremely few who dream of bumping fists with their ‘keeper after having made an inch perfect sliding tackle, or clearing the ball off the line, or coming out with the ball in a 2v1 situation as the last defender.
What I’m getting at is somewhat an under-appreciation and undervaluation of a defender’s job. And a goalkeeper’s, for that matter. Their contributions are paramount to the success of any footballing side, but ironically, they’re also the very same contributions that are easily overlooked by most around the world. There are a great amount of players who make their impact felt on the pitch. You give them the ball and 2 seconds on it, they’ll pick the perfect pass to play a teammate in, or shoot one in the top bins from 35 odd yards out. And these are the people who are adored, whose jerseys are bought, whose names make all the big headlines, and rightfully so. But there exists another set of players, and these are the ones whose impact is noted in their absence. They are the unobtrusive gems of any side, and you notice what they bring to the table only after it’s taken away. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the first set is that of the sharpshooters and the clinical target-men, and the second is that of the watchful protectors, and midfield generals and the men who make the team ‘tick’.
A striker missing a 1v1 is generally forgotten minutes after the match, but a defender’s ‘naivety and recklessness’ is a cause for debate for quite a long time. It seems that nearly their every action is carefully scrutinised, and there is a negligible tolerance of errors. Being a good goalkeeper is like being a good person – People tend to forget all the great saves you’ve made, but focus on the ones you let in. To quote Ian Rush, “It’s best being a striker. If you miss five then score the winner, you’re a hero. The goalkeeper can play a blinder, then let one in… and he’s a villain.”
And it isn’t just in the mind and mentality, even if you look at the estimated transfer value and the actual fees (in transfers and in wages), you would notice a pattern that attackers are placed at a higher value and are generally paid better than their defending counterparts.
And coming to the final part, which is the question of accolades. The most prestigious individual award is the FIFA World’s Best Player Award, now that the Ballon D’Or has been scrapped. In all honestly, it is undeniable that Messi and Ronaldo have been extremely deserving of all the awards they’ve received. With that being said, I’d like to put forward a point originally made by Phillip Lahm, that the Ballon D’Or is now simply a popularity contest among strikers. “Only the players who score goals can be crowned the best footballer of the year…But football is teamwork, unity, defence, assists, sacrifice. I believe that when FIFA hands out an award, it should not be a marketing prize that solely honours the protagonists of a media-crazy sport. Maybe there shouldn’t be an individual award in a team sport but (in addition to the world XI) four single awards for best goalkeeper, best defender, best midfielder and best striker instead.” And it’d be extremely hard to disagree with him.
While there is a growing admiration of the creative hubs and the pass masters, and appreciation for the N’Golo Kantés of the world has been on a rise, there are still a huge amount of players tasked with playing most of their game inside their own half who are still criminally underrated. Let’s hope that veneration for these guardians continues to rise, and they finally get the recognition that they so deserve.
After all, their goal is stopping yours. And them doing their job doesn’t guarantee a win, but it guarantees that you never lose. People have scored plenty of lucky goals, but no one has ever made a lucky save….