From the first matchday on August 18, German Bundesliga will appear as though made over from scratch – at least between the goalposts. Allegedly 6 out of 18 Bundesliga clubs may rely on a new number 1. Among the new names, some will have a certain familiarity about them: Jonathan Klinsmann at Hertha BSC, U-21 hero Julian Pollersbeck at HSV, and former German international René Adler at Mainz 05.
German goalkeepers are a subject worthy of ancient Greek tragedy. Names and scenes come to mind: Toni Turek (World Champion 1954), Sepp Maier (World Champion 1974) Oliver Kahn, Jens Lehmann, Robert Enke, Manuel Neuer… Their playing styles and temperaments are as diverse as their outward appearances. Still, goalkeepers are said to be a special tribe. “I‘m not everybody‘s darling like Rudi Völler. I‘m a goalkeeper,” Jens Lehmann once said. What is it that makes the goalkeeper not only a solitary, sometimes lonely, figure but also the target of a far bigger portion of the fans’ hatred or love than seems fair? A special club, Mainz 05, illustrates (if not fully answers) this question.
When René Adler – nominated as a budding talent for the 2010 World Cup and later ruled out with injury to Manuel Neuer’s benefit – joined Mainz 05 on a free transfer (and reportedly on half the salary he received at HSV the previous season), he expressed his joy at coming to a club with such a cooperative stance and a family atmosphere. For the club from the region of Rheinhessen, situated between Frankfurt/Main and Stuttgart and in the financial midfield of Bundesliga, this transfer comes as a blockbuster move. But Mainz goalkeepers have drawn the eye of the public before.
The grandseigneur of Mainz goalies undoubtedly is Dimo Wache. No player has worn the red and white of the Zero-fivers more often. Wache had been with Mainz for 15 years – 406 games – had seen them go from 2.Bundesliga to first, back down again and back up again, and was officially named Ehrenspielführer (honorary captain) when he retired from professional active duty in 2010. The “Krake (Squid) from Brake,” as he was nicknamed after his birthplace Brake (near Bremen) represents the old-school type of stronghold goalkeeper, heavily built and a one-person bulwark. Wache is a type-1 diabetic. Diagnosed at age 25, the way he kept his career going for ten more years made him a role model for others suffering from the disease and added to his reputation as a trustworthy leader on and off the pitch. He was certainly considered a legend by the time he retired.
Wache was succeeded in goal by a pair of notorious troublemakers: Heinz Müller and Christian Wetklo. The former will go down in Bundesliga history as the guy who sued his club to keep him under contract.
Müller is a more “modern” type of keeper than Wache was. Ready to confront a striker far in front of his goal, he represents a transition period between the old fashioned guard-your-line goalkeeper and the modern sweeper-keeper most fully encompassed by Manuel Neuer. Named a budding talent in 1999, recurring injuries repeatedly forced Müller out of goal at his 2.Bundesliga clubs Hannover 96, Arminia Bielefeld. FC St.Pauli and Jahn Regensburg. So he set off to try his luck in Europe and, after a successful two years in Norway, English Championship club FC Barnsley hired the courageous and ready for risk-taking keeper. However, a cruciate ligament rupture ended the further hopes of a man who even attracted Arsenal‘s interest for a time.
Upon his return to Bundesliga, Müller benefited from an injury to regular keeper Wache and became No.1 at Mainz in 2009, only to be ruled out by another cruciate ligament injury in 2010. Although he did notch more than 100 appearances for Mainz 05, his actions off the football pitch attracted far more attention than his career ever did.
Müller‘s decision to go to court after Mainz 05 sent him to play with their U-23 team in 2014 has the potential to turn football contract customs upside down. He challenges nothing less than the customary terminability of professional players‘ contracts. Arguing in court that there was no objective reason to limit his contract – and claiming that naming age as one violates German anti-discrimination laws – his case was granted by Mainz Labour Court in 2015, reversed by Rheinland-Pfalz Labour Court in 2016, and is now proceeding to Federal Law Court in Germany or even the European Court of Justice. Should Müller‘s case prevail, players could demand indefinite contracts, allowing the player to terminate a contract when they so choose rather than allowing the clubs to sell them. Allegedly the whole world of football is trembling at the mention of the name Heinz Müller.
Born in the coal-mining region of Ruhrgebiet, “Wetti” joined Mainz 05 in 2000 and played regularly for the U-23s until he succeeded Wache in goal in 2005. He was known for emotional outbursts. In an interview he once admitted to getting mad at his mother when he lost at Mühle, a popular board game. Mainz fans were soon used to seeing their goalie looking slightly demented, shouting at the top of his lungs when a game didn‘t develop successfully.
In spite of this emotionality, Wetklo was known for his down-to-earth mentality. In the same interview he said “I’m nothing special because I play football. Many people I know in Gelsenkirchen (hometown of Schalke 04) work much harder than I do and earn much less money. My father worked in coal mining for 30 years and raised three kids.” The same attitude made him occasionally fit in as interim-coach at local football club TSV Wackernheim, where he lived and his children played.
Wetklo, as a goalkeeper, was what in Germany is called “a type.” Someone who doesn’t fit everybody‘s cookie cutter, isn’t afraid to react emotionally and would rather ask forgiveness than permission. He himself is aware of the fact that his way of reacting “was too much” for some fans. But others celebrated his frankness. At Mainz they are used to people who don‘t hide their emotions behind slick and cool behaviour. Jürgen Klopp is of that ilk, too.
The beginning of the end of his Mainz days came for Christian Wetklo in 2013 when he received a red card in an away game at Augsburg. Afterwards, he was unable to win back the position between the posts from a young man in a green jersey – Loris Karius. Still, Wetti isn‘t one to say goodbye to dreams and emotions too easily. His “senior days” held the fulfilment of an old dream: the boy from Gelsenkirchen played for Schalke 04. After Mainz didn’t extend his contract, and a contract with Darmstadt 98 was suspended before the season even started, Schalke called for him as a backup to regular keepers Ralf Fährmann and Fabian Giefer. Fate didn‘t grant him actual playing time for die Knappen, but he stays connected to the club as goalkeeper coach and even plays an occasional game for Schalke‘s U-23 team. Christian Wetklo has come home.
The days of stationary keepers are undoubtedly over and with Loris Karius, born in 1993, the new generation entered the field at Mainz.
Karius was born to rule Instagram. Gone were the days of the lone wolf goalkeeper, grey of hair if not of attitude, guarding the gates of heaven. Modern day goalies are warriors on the warpath, sporting their warpaint and creating their own personal Haka on social media.
At Mainz he won the hearts of (most of) the fans with a mixture of talent, leadership displayed in spite of his young age, aggressive hairstyles and tattoos, and posing with Justin Bieber on Instagram. Surely a guy who is reported to have Bieber’s cell phone number won‘t let any goals in, would he? Far from representing the father-figure of old school keepers, Karius is one of the “young guns” ready to shoot as much as to keep. He looks to dominate the box, hoping to open offensive play with a wide ball but still aiming for balance.
His undeniable talent and his attitude – which did include snubbing fans occasionally – made him a figure larger than life in Mainz. When he left for Liverpool in summer 2016 – a contract until 2018 notwithstanding – very few among the audience at Opel Arena were ready to accept his successor, Jonas Lössl.
Although Karius almost immediately flopped at Liverpool, made – understandable – mistakes, especially in his very own box of social media, and was quickly ruled out with one of the most feared injuries for a goalkeeper, a broken wrist, Mainz 05 fans nostalgically hold on to his image. In the end it proved a shadow too big for Lössl to step out of.
The Danish international came from Ligue 1 midtabler EA Guingamp, where he’d rescued his side a 1-0 win over Paris Saint-Germain by snatching a 100% chance from Zlatan Ibrahimvic’s boot in 2014. He was everything Karius wasn‘t: rather reserved, reluctant to draw attention to himself, always trying to add up with the team rather than stand apart. While the momentum of goalkeepers becoming a dominating figure in an offence built from the box grew, he fell away. The UN-like mixture of nationalities and languages at Mainz 05 may have played a part in creating communication complications, but Lössl was met with distrust and rejection from the fans – who were clearly missing Karius – almost from the start. The usually good-natured fans at the Karnevalsverein were snapping at the heels of the 27-year-old in a hitherto unprecedented manner. Disregarding the fact that the defence of the Rheinhessians left much more to be desired than the goalkeeper, the decline of the club in the second part of last season was largely blamed on Lössl.
With the goalkeeper becoming a figure of influence in and for the game, the Dane couldn‘t satisfy either role: that of the bulwark stronghold, à la Wache, or the aggressive warrior type, ready to pounce, of Karius. When he was loaned out to Huddersfield Town, newly promoted to the Premier League, everybody in Mainz breathed a sigh of relief, probably even Lössl himself. The position of (now considerably reduced) dreams and expectations was taken by René Adler.
Adler is one of the big fish Mainz Sporting Director Rouven Schröder, following long-time and highly influential Christian Heidel (now at Schalke 04), managed to catch for the Zero-Fivers. Sure, Adler‘s days of international duty are in the distant past. He played 12 games for Germany, but last wore the jersey (with the symbol that also happens to be his surname, the eagle), in 2013. He may have been nominated for the Number 1 spot for South Africa, but in reality, he is a might-have-been international.
Still Adler provides experience, the ability to dominate the box and – an important plus – he cost Mainz 05 no money. He left almost-relegated Hamburger SV on a free transfer and allegedly accepted a severe cut in salary to be the Mainz No. 1 for the coming season. In the turmoil of developing a new style of goalkeeping – a task underway in Europe for over 10 years now – Adler emphasises that bringing calmness, strength, and experience to the game is still the main task of a keeper. The explosive trips to the midfield line of a sweeper-keeper, which make the spectators hold their breath and turn the game into a turmoil of possibilities, are just one feature of a successful goalkeeper…and shouldn‘t occupy more than 30% of his player profile.
The German Bundesliga, as one of the most influential leagues in the world, will no doubt keep an eye on the rise of the sweeper-keeper in the coming season. With Manuel Neuer and Marc-André Ter Stegen representing it best for the national team as they prepare for Russia 2018, the concept of a “playing keeper” will be put to the test. Maybe, at the same time, the likes of Renè Adler will demonstrate that this type of keeper sometimes needs to be reined in –before the referee does it with a red card for handling the ball outside the box (as happened to PSG’s Kevin Trapp against Tottenham in the International Champions Cup while this essay was being written). The Mainz 05 veteran may remind us all of the need to clip the wings of the sweeper now and then