Thursday, 6 December 2007

El Portero Esta Loco

Goalkeepers are a strange bunch. Growing up playing park football, those who would willingly spend some time between the sticks were either maniacs, overweight kids who could not play outfield, or unpopular kids, desperate to play some sort of part in the game. The one thing that all of these children had in common was a general lack of technical skill with a ball at their feet.

In Latin America, things are done slightly differently. This year’s Guinness Book of Records included, for the first time, a section for the highest scoring goalkeeper of all time. The record is held by the Brazilian goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni, whose tally of sixty-six goals between 1997 and 2006 has displaced the previous record holder, Jose Chilavert of Paraguay, who finished his career on sixty-two goals.

Jorge Campos, the former Mexican national goalkeeper, also figures highly on the list, having made a career out of his ability to play both as a keeper and as a striker should his team need him. It was as a striker that he first got a regular starting berth with Pumas, scoring fourteen goals in the 1989/1990 season, before being made first-choice goalkeeper for the following year’s championship victory. He finished his playing days on thirty-five goals.

A lot of the Latin American dominance of goalkeeper scoring has to do with their more open, technical approach to football, which lends itself to keepers getting involved with the taking of attacking set-plays. In addition, flamboyance is pretty much a pre-requisite for any Latin American goalkeeper. Despite this, Rogerio Ceni has admitted that he received some funny looks when he first raised the idea of taking free-kicks at Sao Paulo. He told their then goalkeeper Zetti that he would be the first keeper to score a free-kick for Sao Paulo and duly obliged on the 15th February 1997, scoring against Uniao Sao Joao, having struck the crossbar the previous week against Flamengo.

It was the excellent free-kick work of Ceni and Jose Chilavert that gave more acceptance to the idea that goalkeepers could play a vital role at the other end of the pitch. Chilavert became the first goalkeeper to take a direct free-kick in a World Cup game, for Paraguay against Bulgaria at the 1998 World Cup. He was also the first goalkeeper to ever score a hat-trick, when he scored three penalties in Velez Sarsfield’s victory over Ferro Carril Oeste in 1999.

In European football there is much less openness to the idea of goalkeepers taking set plays, such as free-kicks or penalties, because the risks if they miss are too high. It is only when you look much further down the list that European goalkeepers start to appear and even then, it is only really Peter Schmeichel that is of any particular note, having scored eleven goals. The solitary situation where goalkeepers usually get a chance to score in Europe is in the dying moments of a game, when their manager may allow them to come up for a corner or free-kick to try and cause confusion in the opposition penalty area.

The fact that European clubs only tend to use goalkeepers as a last desperate attempt to get a much-needed goal usually dictates that when they do score, it is of massive importance to their side. The most famous example is probably Jimmy Glass, whose goal ten seconds from time in the last game of the 1998/99 season saw Carlisle avoid relegation and the likely financial uncertainty that would have followed their demotion to non-professional football.

Also worthy of mention is Sevilla goalkeeper Andres Palop, whose headed goal in injury-time took their UEFA cup game against Shakhtar Donetsk into extra time. Sevilla won the game in the extra period on the road to lifting the 2007 trophy.

These occasions are more than rare, especially in the top European leagues such as England, Italy or Spain. In England, there have only ever been three goals scored by goalkeepers in the Premiership, the most recent of these being Paul Robinson’s goal for Tottenham against Watford last season.

With the increasing globalisation of football, it would be a shame to see Ceni as the last of a generation of Latin American goalkeepers who have proved to be just as proficient with the ball at their feet as they have with it in their hands. Although it is unlikely that the practice of goalkeepers taking attacking set-plays will ever take on in Europe, one would hope that in Latin America the tradition will continue, as it is certainly one of the more interesting unique asides offered by football in the region.

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