When you write about goalkeepers in men’s football, there are certain names you’re expected to cover. Lev Yashin would be the first. Peter Schmeichel and René Higuita loom large in the imagination. Iker Casillas and Gianluigi Buffon also cannot be omitted. And what of the sweeper-keeper phenomenon—the legacy of Gyula Grosics, Tommy Lawrence, and Edwin van der Sar—as realized in Manuel Neuer, who’s now being hailed as the greatest keeper in football history?
You’d expect to read about all that: shot stopping, game reading, dominating the area and playing out from the back. I could tell you about Alisson Becker’s attempted Cruyff turn vs. Leicester (deep breaths, Liverpool fans). I could tell you about the time Werder Bremen decided €600,000 was too high a price to pay for a young keeper named Petr Cech, in contrast to the €80 million Chelsea paid this summer for Kepa Arrizabalaga. I could tell you about the passing of the baton from Brad Friedel to Hugo Lloris at Tottenham, or the years-long goalkeeping crisis at Arsenal.
But actually, I’m going to tell you about Sven Ulreich: the 29-year-old German goalkeeper who came through the youth ranks at VfB Stuttgart, making 293 appearances for the reserves and first team before joining Bayern Munich in 2015 to play understudy to Manuel Neuer. From 2015 to 2017, Ulreich made a total of ten appearances for his new club. Then came the breakthrough: 2017/18 saw Ulreich step in for Neuer, who was out with a foot fracture, and help Bayern reach their 6th consecutive Bundesliga title. Ulreich would end the season with 17 clean sheets and 45 goals conceded in 46 appearances for Bayern across all competitions. He was a reliable presence, solid in 1-v-1 situations, and stopped penalties like nobody’s business.
For all that, it’s his performance against Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinal that dominates narratives of Ulreich’s season in the spotlight. A poor backpass from Corentin Tolisso saw Ulreich racing off his line against an onrushing Karim Benzema. Ulreich hesitated: charge forward and risk losing out to Benzema, or delay and try to block Benzema’s shot? His hesitation proved fatal. Benzema got to the ball first, beat a flustered Ulreich, and put Real Madrid up 2-1. Bayern ultimately lost 4-3 on aggregate.
“Words cannot describe how disappointed I am,” Ulreich later wrote on his Instagram. Calling the goal conceded to Benzema an unnecessary mistake, he accepted the blame: “I cannot explain it. I’m sorry…for my team and for you the fans.”
There’s a quote attributed to Iker Casillas: “Being a good person is like being a goalkeeper. It doesn’t matter how many you save; people will always remember the ones you didn’t.”
The role of the goalkeeper is defined by mistakes—or rather, by ritual failure. If the point of football is to kick the ball and score goals, then the goalkeeper exists to prevent football from being achieved. Ten outfield players move the ball upfield with their feet in accordance with the rules of the game. The eleventh player is sanctioned to use his entire body, hands included, to stop goals from being scored. In other words: the goalkeeper is by definition anti-football.
But conversely: without the keeper, can football be achieved? Kicking a ball into an open goal is hardly something to write home about. Goalkeepers exist so that we can see just how spectacular goal scorers truly are. “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down,” Robert Frost once claimed. The net, the keeper, and metric form are meant to be overcome. Gates are meant to be opened; keepers are meant to be beaten. Only through their failure is football—and meaning—achieved.
Many books have been written on the figure of the keeper, fiction and nonfiction alike.1 Eccentric, melancholic, mad: these are well-established characteristics. Romanticized and stereotyped, the innate otherness of goalkeeping marks the No.1 on the field and in the minds of pundits, poets, and fans. In the words of Nabokov: “He is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender.”
Or, as a Brazilian saying goes: “To be a goalkeeper, you must be either mad or queer.” In this, Brazil are far from the only culture to look askance at the art of goalkeeping. English football historically looked on the keeper as something of a lesser player: a weakling or a misfit, a deviant with an inherent character flaw. There was something suspicious, even disdainful, about boys who would rather play between the sticks, where one is scored upon, rather than out front, where one does the scoring.2
This mistrust of goalkeepers is the flip side of Nabokovian romanticization. That which is different and mysterious ellides into that which is deceptive and taboo. By the rules of the game itself goalkeepers are marked as other. He wears different colors from the rest of the team, visibly separate, and within his area he is allowed to perform that most profane of acts: handling the ball. That which is forbidden for every other player—that which defines football as a game—is the province of the goalkeeper. He is the embodiment of footballing taboo.
From another perspective, then, the point of football is to defeat that which is profane.3 A goal scored is a ritualistic restoration of order against heresy. But it is only through the existence of heresy that orthodoxy gains meaning. No salvation without sin. No yang without yin. No normalcy without deviancy.
“Mad or queer,” the accusation goes. It’s meant to be dismissive, but I find it a peculiarly powerful turn of phrase. It explains, in a way, why I love watching goalkeepers play. Because goalkeeping is to football what queerness is to polite society, the established order of things, and the power structures that center maleness, whiteness, straightness, cisgenderism as the default and the good. “Queer” is the boundary that defines what is right by naming that which is wrong. “Queer” is a slur meant to dismiss and denigrate: but through activism and theory and the continued redefining of identity and desire, queerness was reclaimed as a conscious, political act of existing against the norm.
Goalkeeping, like queerness, exists as the necessary foil against which normalcy is established and maintained. And it is through resilience and reimagining of taboo that goalkeeping is transformed. Being markedly different is no crime for the goalkeeper. Being set up to fail, by the rules of the game itself, is no matter. Even if cultural suspicion lingers, even if those watching are always more likely to blame than to praise, they persist—bravehearts and contrarians, scapegoated and lionized for standing firm in a position that was always meant to fall. I love watching goalkeepers prove the whole world wrong, that they are not just there to be beaten, that they can and will stop the world’s best strikers. That they have no fear of penalties.
It’s a sanctioned performance of queerness in a space where the very idea is still taboo. It’s ontologically subversive, and it happens every week, in every football match. Which is why for me—a queer woman football fan who is constantly tired of having to justify and explain my existence to a world that largely still doesn’t see me as normal or acceptable—watching a goalkeeper make a heroic, improbable save is one of the most viscerally satisfying things that football has to offer.
April, 2008. Having nicked the Salad Bowl4 the season before, VfB Stuttgart lost Timo Hildebrand to Valencia and his replacement, Raphael Schäfer, was having a rough time filling the former No.1’s shoes. After a poor run of games (including a 4-1 rout to Schalke), coach Armin Veh benched Schäfer for a 19-year-old kid named Sven Ulreich.
Prior to being thrown in the deep end, Ulreich had only played for Stuttgart’s regional side. Now he was starting in goal for the reigning Bundesliga champions. Ulreich did well enough at first: after an initial loss, the team managed six wins and two draws over the next eight games with Ulreich in goal. He was undeniably talented, but at 19 he was also inexperienced, and consistency failed him in the ninth game at Bayer Leverkusen where Stuttgart suffered a humiliating 3-0 loss. A photo circulated of the Leverkusen mascot thanking Ulreich for gifting them the win. An irate Veh told the press: “Football is sometimes very simple. We lost because of two goalkeeping mistakes, and everyone saw that. So there’s no point in protecting the goalkeeper.”
The coach’s comments made it to the matchday highlights on TV, where they were seen by Hannover 96 and Germany’s first-choice keeper, Robert Enke.5 What Veh said so incensed Enke that he contacted his glove manufacturer to get Ulreich’s phone number and called him up at his family home. They talked for half an hour. Enke took Ulreich through the mistakes he had made against Leverkusen. Analyzing each goal in detail, Enke emphasized what the young keeper had done right. The rest, he told Ulreich, was down to the opposition’s skill and pure, bad luck. Years earlier, Enke himself had gone through a confidence-shattering experience with Louis van Gaal at Barcelona. Now, he urged a dejected Ulreich not to despair. Just as Enke himself had found a way back after his time at Barcelona, Ulreich would find his way, too.
The goalkeepers’ union is not just a saying: there is something of a bond, of like recognizing like, a solidarity among those who perform under the extreme pressure that the position demands—all too often to a thankless end of being football’s ritual sacrifice. Enke calling Ulreich went above and beyond even that unspoken understanding. It was a moment of pure mentorship between a full German international and a 19-year-old player he had never met, but whose situation moved Enke to pass on a bit of advice, an example and a hope that it does get better.
Ulreich’s father, Dietrich, had been a goalkeeper himself. “He played only in the lower tiers, but it was always nice when he packed his bag,” Ulreich recalls. “It was always special to me when he packed his gloves.” Dietrich passed away when his son was fourteen, but Sven promised his father that he would one day play for VfB Stuttgart. Five years later, that promise was in danger of being undone thanks to that disastrous day in Leverkusen—and then Robert Enke called.
“[Robert] gave me courage,” Ulreich said. Years after, he continued to recall the phone conversation with the late Enke as an extraordinary gesture of humanity in a sport where such understanding—a modicum of forgiveness for human error, human weakness—is distinctly lacking.
And Ulreich did find his way back from that run-in with Veh’s unforgiving side. He committed to improving himself, willingly taking a demotion to the reserve side in order to gain more playing time and experience. And after Jens Lehmann finally hung up his gloves in 2010, Ulreich became Stuttgart’s first-choice keeper.
But Veh wasn’t the only coach Ulreich had struggled to impress. Just before he was sacked in October 2010, Christian Gross took aim at Ulreich during a bad run of games, demanding that the keeper show more authority on the pitch as Stuttgart struggled to defend. “A young goalkeeper makes mistakes,” Ulreich said after Gross’s departure. “But he needs trust. That’s the only way he can develop.” Develop he had, during his stint with the reserves, and develop he continued to do as Bruno Labbadia took the reins in December 2010. Ulreich’s troubles didn’t end with the new coach, who opted to drop him for veteran Marc Ziegler. But an injury to Ziegler soon saw Ulreich reinstated to No.1—a spot that he would keep for the next four years as Stuttgart alternated between fighting relegation and making a surprise run to the German cup final in 2012/13.
Ulreich’s steadfast performance in goal provided a sense of stability while the team searched for consistency. After failing to find an even keel for three seasons, Labbadia was relieved of his duties. His successor Thomas Schneider lasted six months. Schneider’s successor, Huub Stevens, lasted four. Then came the 2014/15 season, and Armin Veh was invited back. Second verse, same as the first: Veh’s relationship with Ulreich quickly soured again. Or perhaps it had never recovered from that first impression in 2008. After a string of losses, Veh benched Ulreich in favor of Thorsten Kirschbaum—a man whose competitive experience consisted of third-tier football with Hoffenheim and SV Sandhausen, leading to a short-lived spell in the Swiss Super League, after which he returned to Germany by joining Energie Cottbus in the 2.Bundesliga.
Stuttgart’s all-around troubles went far deeper than poor goalkeeping, however. By the end of the season, Veh was gone again. But by then, club management no longer had faith in their longtime number one: Ulreich’s form had dipped, and years-old grumblings resurfaced that Stuttgart should have shipped Ulreich out and kept Bernd Leno back in 2011 when the club had a choice between the two young, talented prospects for the future. Sporting director Robin Dutt privately asked Ulreich if he would be open to looking for new opportunities.
In August 2015, Ulreich left his childhood club for Bayern Munich, to sit on the bench in the long shadow of Manuel Neuer. Still, Ulreich readily credits Neuer as a positive influence: “You learn quite a lot when you watch a world-class keeper like him every day. But you can’t copy everything because a lot of Manu’s qualities are just gifts of God.”
Last year’s Champions League disappointment notwithstanding, Ulreich is hoping for more playing time this season, even with Neuer back to full fitness. It remains to be seen whether new Bayern coach Niko Kovač will put his faith in Ulreich, the way Jupp Heynckes did last season. But a manager’s apparent no-confidence is nothing new to Ulreich: his years at Stuttgart and the years he’s spent as deputy at Bayern proved that he possesses not only the unruffled steadfastness of a No.1, but also the patience required of a backup keeper—the readiness, and willingness, to fight his way back from the constant reality of disappointment and mishap.
We like to believe that adversity is temporary, character-building, leading ultimately to a happy ending. It’s hard to justify suffering without the delusion of ever-after, to accept that often there is no divinely ordained or narratively satisfying reason for why bad things happen; it just happens, all the time, and you have to carry on. I have watched Sven Ulreich carry on, through tragedy and hostility, with faith in his own ability and a humbling acceptance of its limits, producing performances to inspire, as well as more than a few calamitous results. A goalkeeper has to be mentally tough to endure the psychological pressure the role demands. Mental toughness is the key to success. And Ulreich is certainly successful—but his toughness isn’t dependent on success: it’s the same, whether he’s playing for Bayern Munich in the Champions League or sitting on the bench at a team struggling to stay out of the relegation zone. Watching Sven Ulreich reminds me that toughness doesn’t have to be belligerent: instead it can, and often does, take the form of resilience.
The first time I watched Ulreich play was in February of 2011: VfB Stuttgart at Borussia Mönchengladbach, a relegation six-pointer between two struggling sides. Gladbach were up 2-0 at halftime, then Stuttgart clawed back two within ten minutes of the restart, before scoring a late winner to abscond with all three points.
There isn’t always a clear reason why favorites become your favorites. Over in London that same year, there was a Polish keeper who was quick to come off his line and even quicker to crack a joke. Wojciech Szczęsny divided opinion on his qualities as a goalkeeper, but no one could dispute his love for Arsenal—or his particular brand of cheeky, self-deprecating irreverence. There was the time he bantered off Ashley Cole for a penalty miss. The time he bantered off Cesc Fàbregas for his questionable hair. There were countless jabs at Tottenham (that continued even after he’d left Arsenal), including the time he took out Gareth Bale twice in one North London Derby, then winked at the camera as if to say, “What’s a derby without a little shithousery?”
In between the antics came the heroics and the stunning stops. Szczęsny cheerily admits that goalkeeping is a painful and nonsensical aspiration. He’d broken both his arms in a freak training accident, age 18; by age 20, he was confidently talking about stepping up as Arsenal and Poland’s number one. Watching Szczęsny, every day was a cheerful rebellion colored by the defiance of someone who’s got everything still to prove. And it was fun (at one point the Arsenal media team gave him his own segment)—except for when teenage rebellion morphed into actual tomfoolery.
In 2013/14, Szczęsny won the Golden Glove following a stand-out season. Six months later, he was at fault for both goals conceded in a 0-2 defeat at Southampton and was caught smoking in the showers after the match. He was fined £20,000 and dropped for the rest of the league season. In May, Szczęsny started the FA Cup final and helped secure Arsenal’s second consecutive trophy in two years. Two months later, he left on loan to Roma as Arsenal signed Petr Cech to fill the No.1 role.
“For 10 years I played for a club I loved,” Szczęsny said looking back on his time in London. “The thing that sticks out not playing for Arsenal is, although when you lose it hurts just as much, when you win it doesn’t taste as good.”
Szczęsny never took things too seriously, least of all himself. At the same time, you got the feeling he took some things a little too seriously. He loved the club the way a fan loves the club. He was driven by his emotions, the way fans are driven by their emotions. There’s a difference between playing for a club and supporting a club. Though we love to love the romance of player loyalty, it’s probably best not to be that attached to your employer. Szczęsny acting out (because that’s what it was) by sneaking a cigarette after a bad loss to Southampton was absurdly unprofessional—but it was also completely understandable, as a fan. There’s been more than a few Arsenal matches after which I’ve wanted a cigarette or ten.
“I’ll show you,” was the defiant catchphrase that, according to Jens Lehmann, explains almost everything about his life and career as a goalkeeper. To me, the thing that defines Szczęsny’s Arsenal career—more than the banter, more than the saves—was the defiant cheek with which he was always looking to prove someone somewhere wrong. Like he never quite understood that he was, in fact, the club’s number 1 (even if he wore the number 53, followed by 13). Dumped into the spotlight as a twenty-year-old in 2010, Szczęsny played for the next four years like he was still that kid just back from Brentford on loan, a chip on his shoulder the size of his not-inconsiderable ambition, desperate for the approval and validation of his parent club.
We outgrow our rebellious phases, and Szczęsny eventually outgrew Arsenal. He later admitted he had failed to develop as a goalkeeper during his time in London, and that going to Serie A was probably the best thing that could have happened for his career. After two years on loan at Roma, he signed permanently for Juventus in 2017. When asked about his former club during the press conference, Szczęsny got as far as, “Yeah, it’s a difficult question, because I spent 11 years…” before choking up and leaving it unanswered. Though neither could help each other in the end, Arsenal still means something to Szczęsny, just as Szczęsny—I like to think—still means something to Arsenal.
But defiance need not necessarily be a tragic coming-of-age lesson. There is space for the playful alongside the painful. The happy-go-lucky goalkeeper may seem like an ontological oxymoron, but happy goalkeepers do exist. One of them is named Yann Sommer.
The same year Szczęsny stepped up at Arsenal’s first-choice keeper, FC Basel won the domestic double thanks in no small part to a penalty-saving masterclass by Sommer in the Swiss Cup final vs. FC Luzern. At 6’0”, Sommer is on the short side for a goalkeeper. But he was larger than life that day: he faced four penalty takers, read all four correctly, and successfully saved two shots. Before the second match-winning save, Sommer raised both arms in a jumping-jack motion and stuck out his tongue as the Luzern captain, Florian Stahel, stepped up to the spot. Whether because of that, or whether the pressure had already gotten to Stahel—the penalty was taken tamely, and Sommer saved to clinch the cup for Basel.
Sommer was roundly criticized for his antics, drawing negative headlines as well as the ire of fans who deemed his behavior disrespectful and unsportsmanlike. “I did not think I was being disrespectful to anyone,” Sommer said when asked about the incident five years later. “I did not insult anyone, I just tried to exploit insecurity.”
The penalty is arguably the most psychologically intense form of football. Stripped of technique, tactics, and the millions of variables of open play, the game becomes offensive force versus defensive force: the penalty taker and the goalkeeper, a game of nerves—who moves or caves or gives it away first—as each tries to read, intimidate, or game the other in the seconds before the ball is struck. A penalty shoot-out is something that most goalkeepers relish. It is the one time when the expected order is turned on its head: the taker is expected to score, and if a keeper saves one, he is the hero. In fact, he can win the game for his team.
That’s Sommer’s philosophy when it comes to penalties: “As a goalkeeper, you can only win.” This positive outlook is reinforced by an easy-going confidence. Sommer freely admits that he thinks quite highly of himself, and has claimed that, unlike Jens Lehmann, he doesn’t need a piece of paper to help him through a penalty shoot-out.6 It’s an attitude and a style doesn’t quite fit into classic European stereotypes of the mysterious, the melancholic, mad goalkeeper. Nor does he resemble the stoic, stalwart type so beloved by fans of the English game. Rather, Sommer’s approach could probably be best described as roguish.
A few weeks before the 2012 cup final against Luzern, Sommer faced a penalty in a league game against FC Zürich. It was a repeat of what had happened in the Basel-Zürich fixture earlier that season. A penalty was awarded to Zürich; Sommer sauntered over to his line with a casual expression and a little wave as if to say, “Bring it.” Both penalty takers missed.
Resilience and defiance are the same in that they’re both reactive forces. Just like goalkeeping itself is inherently reactive to the flow of the game, the forward drive of a football toward the back of the net.
Being reactive logically means that you can only be as good as the active force you are denying. A keeper has a fine game if he makes fine saves. But those saves are only possible if the opposition have taken multiple shots on goal, and too many shots being allowed (even if they are saved) would indicate deeper issues with the team’s defense and midfield. For a striker (or any outfield player), a mistake or missed opportunity on goal can always be redeemed by making good on the next one, and the next, and the next, until the final whistle blows. There is no such redemption for a keeper: a mistake, a goal conceded, cannot be taken back. Even defenders score once in a while off a set piece, but it’s almost unheard of for a goalkeeper to do the same.7
“In the end, you need to be a little masochistic to be a goalkeeper,” said Gigi Buffon. “Because when you play in goal, you know the only certain thing in life is that you will concede goals. And you also know that conceding goals is not something that brings you happiness.”
Apart from the existential angst, goalkeeping is flat-out dangerous. Football is a contact sport, and every position on the field brings with it unique challenges and dangers. Goalkeepers in particular, however, are subjected to direct bodily trauma as a result of a collision with the ground, the goalposts, or other players. When jumping to collect a ball, goalkeepers fall back to earth without the use of their hands and arms to help soften the impact. The force of a shot can sprain or dislocate a keeper’s fingers. And going to ground to stop a shot—against an onrushing striker, or in a crowded penalty area—means putting your neck on the line, literally, as your head comes level with feet, knees, and studded boots.
In October 2006, Petr Cech suffered a depressed skull fracture in a match against Reading FC. Cech was described as “bravely” sliding in to collect the ball, in the course of which Stephen Hunt’s knee collided with the goalkeeper’s head. Emergency surgery saved Cech’s life. Since that nearly fatal day, Cech has gone on to win two Premier League titles and four FA Cups, in addition to lifting both the Europa League and Champions League trophies. Now 36 years old, Cech’s tenure as Arsenal’s No.1 is likely drawing to a close. The club signed Bernd Leno for €22 million over the summer. It’s something of a sea change in North London: after years of relying on veteran keepers under Arsene Wenger, Arsenal are finally joining the modern era with a young goalkeeper who is comfortable playing out from the back.
Yet for eight matches from August to the end of September, Leno was only selected for Arsenal’s Europa League group matches and a tie against Brentford in the Carabao Cup. Meanwhile, Cech had retained his position as No.1 and was attempting to perform the duties of a modern ball-playing keeper—with mixed results. A misplaced pass against Manchester City on the opening day of the season saw Cech get into a Twitter spat with Leno’s former club, Bayer Leverkusen, allegedly about respect in online discourse. But really, it was about what qualities are valued in today’s keepers. Being comfortable on the ball is the new fashion (you could argue: requirement), but a goalkeeper’s primary job is still to stop balls from going into the net. By that measure, Cech has not put a hand wrong so far this season. The volume of criticism he has faced is disproportionate to the performances he has delivered.
Generational and goalkeeping paradigm shifts aside, Cech and Leno have more in common than divides them. Cech is a fearless, no-nonsense goalkeeper; Leno, when he broke onto the scene, looked to be cut from the same cloth. In August 2011, Stuttgart loaned a 19-year-old Bernd Leno to Bayer Leverkusen. Within weeks, Leno had kept three clean sheets in his first three games. A month later, he became the youngest German goalkeeper to ever play in the Champions League when Leverkusen took on Chelsea (and Cech). And three months after his arrival, Leno had cemented his place as Leverkusen’s number one. A permanent transfer was completed in November for a fee of €9 million. A gifted shot stopper and a calm presence in goal, Leno had pundits questioning whether Neuer would soon find himself with a challenger for his spot as Germany’s number one.
At the time of this signing, former Leverkusen sporting director Robin Dutt asserted that Leno was in the same league as Petr Cech. Leno trained with Jens Lehmann during his time at Stuttgart, and representing the German national team has placed him alongside keepers like Roman Weidenfeller and Marc-André ter Stegen as well as Manuel Neuer. But ask him, and Leno will tell you that his idol is actually Spain and Real Madrid legend, Iker Casillas. “He’s calm and no-nonsense,” Leno says of Casillas. “I’m the same. I don’t have to make a show of myself to stand out.”
Former teammates agree: Leno, even at 19, exuded calmness and maturity. He had the reflexes of an exceptional shot stopper and the steady temperament of a veteran keeper far beyond his years. Leno stepped into his role at Leverkusen fearlessly. And for the next six years, that fearless confidence would produce jaw-dropping saves as well as heart-stopping moments: Leno racing off his line to intercept a runner—or run straight through him, taking himself out but still somehow getting the ball in the process—became a familiar sight at the BayArena and across the Bundesliga.
Leno’s heroics were partly due to his aggressive style of goalkeeping. But another part of it was down to the fact that Leverkusen from 2014 and 2017 were coached by Roger Schmidt, a man who didn’t necessarily believe in the concept of defending. Time and again, Leno was left exposed by Leverkusen’s high line and defensive indiscipline. He was forced to take risks. Coupled with poor goalkeeping training under Schmidt (or, indeed, a complete lack thereof), recurring errors and poor judgment dulled the stellar reputation he’d previously enjoyed. Leno’s most famous error to date was an own goal in 2015, when he misjudged kick at what should have been a routine back pass. But critics will also remember his disappointing showing at the 2017 Confederations Cup: after two costly mistakes in the opener against Australia, Leno was dropped for ter Stegen for the rest of the tournament.
It’s an irony and a resignation that goalkeepers, however talented or successful, are always more often remembered for their mistakes. It’s the logical conclusion of playing a position where you can’t win on your own merits, where you are expected to fail. In general and in specific. Cech being asked to play out from the back, at age 36, is being set up to fail. Leno being asked to keep goal behind a line as high as the one Leverkusen employed was also being set up to fail. A microcosm of the entire experience of goalkeeping: you are being set up.
And this is the point at which we can no longer avoid talking about the elephant in the room: Manuel Neuer, a goalkeeper who turned the entire set-up on its head.
What can I write about Manuel Neuer that hasn’t already been written and rewritten in fascination and resignation? The man for whom the term “sweeper-keeper” seems to have been invented,8 Neuer’s success and consistency over the years have long since earned him the provisional title of goalkeeping GOAT. It’s excessive, repetitive, exhausting—especially if you happen to be one of those people not particularly fond of either Bayern or Germany. And yet, despite all the media attention and the supersaturated debate among fans, it’s difficult to overstate just what Neuer brings to a team and to a game.
For example: there’s the Porto vs. Schalke Champions League clash from 2008, where a 22-year-old Neuer kept his side in the game with possibly the best shot-stopping performance of his career—and then saved two penalties in the shoot-out to send Schalke through to the quarterfinals. Then there’s the time he helped open the scoring against England in 2010. There were the 1,147 minutes he went without conceding a goal after joining Bayern (a streak that was only smashed, finally, by a Holger Badstuber own goal). There’s the Germany vs. Algeria match from World Cup 2014, wherein Neuer actually produced a defender’s heatmap as he finished the game with 5 clearances and 50 touches, 20 of which came outside of his box.
“It’s up to me to help my defenders and it’s better for me to get the ball before the striker than to have a one-on-one situation in the box,” Neuer says of his extreme proactive approach to goalkeeping. “That’s more dangerous than to go out, because the striker has the chance to score a goal. If he can’t get the ball, he won’t get any opportunity.”
And there’s the fact that despite his default starting position of halfway up the pitch—shadowing the deepest-lying defensive player rather than tending to his own area—Neuer has not been beaten from distance since 2012 when Marco Reus took advantage of a bad giveaway. Before that, the last time he’d been punished for playing libero was April 2011, when Dejan Stankovic beat Neuer with the most outrageous volley from the halfway line.
“I know the rules,” Neuer says of his job and his own particular interpretation thereof. “When a keeper stops a penalty kick, he’s the hero, but if he doesn’t get to a seemingly stoppable shot, he’s the idiot. I accept that. That’s the business.”
That’s the job, and it’s one he does well. The highlights reels of Neuer’s best saves are impressive. Yet it pales in comparison to what really makes him outstanding: in the right team, and with the right tactics to maximize space and time by playing the 11th man advantage—in such a system, Neuer could be considered a deep-deep-lying playmaker setting the tempo of the game from the eighteen-yard box.
He’s an all-around good footballer, comfortable controlling the ball with his feet and head as well as his hands. Legend has it that Neuer has been mistaken for an outfield player, while practicing at Schalke to improve his abilities with his weaker left foot. Further legend has it that Schalke considered converting Neuer to an outfielder—which may have been an indictment on his goalkeeping ability, rather than an endorsement of his skill with his feet.9 But it’s not just his goalkeeping technique that makes Neuer what he is. It’s his formidable football intelligence, his ability to read a game and anticipate the next move, that allows him to play the way he does—and succeed.
“I consider that part of my job as a pro,” Neuer says, “to know who you’re up against and how the attacking players play, what kind of characteristics they have, their qualities, how they move, their preferred foot.”
Put another way: where other sweeper-keepers still take their defensive duties as defensive duties—positionally and tactically, Neuer often plays as an outfielder who just happens to have the power of his hands when inside his area. It’s no coincidence that one of Bayern’s and Neuer’s worst spells was under Carlo Ancelotti, who moved Neuer back into his box and took away one of the best attributes that Neuer brings to any team. By playing as high as he does, by anticipating play as well as he does, Neuer effectively adds an extra man to his team’s formation. Against teams that play with ten outfielders, Neuer gives his side the numerical advantage with eleven.
It was Johan Cruyff who delivered the maxim, “The goalie is the first attacker, and the striker is the first defender.” Neuer is that total football goalkeeping archetype: physically imposing, mentally strong, tactically astute, quick on his line and off. Not only is he the last defender, he is also the first man in attack. The master of the killer first pass that obsoletes opposition players sitting too deep between the center-backs. A well-placed ball from Neuer leaves those strikers in the dust as Bayern push forward with the numerical advantage. Critically, Neuer does not immediately retreat back into his area after making that pass: he makes himself available to receive the ball again, thus creating problems for the opposition by expanding the geometric possibilities when his team have possession. Defense to offense in one pass.
Or throw. Neuer has been known to hurl the ball 60 yards directly into the path of a full-back or winger charging down the touchline. It’s a style reminiscent of, and an improvement on, Peter Schmeichel starting counterattacks for Manchester United with his strong arms. And yet at the same time in 1997, the Barnsley FC goalkeeper daring to roll the ball to his full-backs was considered so unacceptably subversive that the coach went down to the pitch to point out the exact spot, near the halfway line, where he demanded the ball be kicked long instead.
How things change, and how extreme the effect, as demonstrated by Neuer. The point of football is to score goals. The point of football is to defeat its own self-created, self-contained antithesis: the keeper, the man who exists in order to fail. A keeper like Neuer upends that entire system of understanding. His existence and success is a continued challenge to the transgressive ontology of goalkeeping. If goalkeeping is performative queerness within footballing space, then Neuer is the break with accepted wisdom of resistance and existence. His proactive, forward-facing goalkeeping is more than a tactical evolution or a defiant up-yours at prevailing football orthodoxy. It is an active reclamation of everything that goalkeepers were denied as part of the game yet always separate from the game.
Neuer as a sweeper-keeper makes himself an integral part of the game, indispensible in attack as well as defense. With every foray out of the box, every tackle made and ball intercepted, every astute first pass and every outright assist—he legitimizes and forces us to reconsider what it means to be a goalkeeper.
Jens Lehmann, Neuer’s childhood hero, mused, “Scoring a goal is definite, while every saved ball is just another step down the path—a path that never really finds an end.”
And perhaps not. But even if there isn’t an end, there are the things that matter: the things for which you’re remembered. According to Iker Casillas, people will always remember the goals that a keeper failed to save. “Masochism,” is Buffon’s chosen turn of phrase. “I know the rules,” Neuer said himself of a goalkeeper’s task. He will probably not be remembered for most of the saves he has made for Bayern, or Schalke, or even Germany. He may even be remembered for one of the few shockers he has conceded, like the Stanković goal. But he will certainly be remembered as the player who assisted one of Miroslav Klose’s record-breaking 16 World Cup goals—with a goal kick that, like so many of his beautifully calibrated passes, unerringly found its target.
I wonder what the Barnsley coach who was so incensed by his keeper failing to hoof the ball clear would have made of it all. Because here’s the lesson of keepers like Manuel Neuer: you can and should reimagine what’s possible. There’s nothing inherently existentially damning about goalkeeping or being a goalkeeper. Life, like queerness, is about expanding possibilities. Sometimes, it’s about stepping outside of your eighteen-yard box.
1 Albert Camus would be the most famous.
2 Jonathan Wilson, The Outsider (2012).
3 It’s been theorized that football in its earliest iterations was a ritual where a globular object (perhaps representing the sun) is carried across distance and placed/forced into a demarcated area (phallic metaphors abound) to ensure fertility and a bountiful harvest. In other words, the goalkeeper is a literal actual cockblock.
4 The nickname for the Bundesliga trophy, because that’s what it looks like.
5 Ronald Reng, A Life Too Short (2010).
6 An irony here being that the decisive penalty in that 2006 World Cup quarterfinal against Argentina was against a taker that Lehmann (and coach Andreas Köpke) had no data on. Lehmann taking a long, ponderous look at his slip of paper before Esteban Cambiasso stepped up was a pure psych out.
7 Shout-out to Jens Lehmann, Frank Rost, and Hans-Jörg Butt.
8 It wasn’t, but Neuer’s existence did arguably forcibly inject the term into modern football parlance.
9 Neuer’s passing ability, while very good, is arguably not as refined than that of Marc-André ter Stegen, who is six years his junior.