The Outsider: A History Of The Goalkeeper
By Jonathan Wilson
‘He is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender’ – unfortunately, history hasn’t always shared Vladimir Nabokov’s romantic vision of the goalkeeper. Until the Twentieth Century, he was an ‘unspoken other’ – goalkeepers only started wearing different shirts in 1909 – and according to football writer Jonathan Wilson he ‘is doomed always to be an outsider’. Distrust and disregard have long surrounded a role burdened with the ultimate, decisive responsibility and ‘all its potential for greatness’. Powered by this paradox, The Outsider relates a fascinating narrative arc from ridicule to recognition, from alienation to reintegration.
Each chapter is a case study analysing a different topic, whether that be geographical (Russia, Africa, South America, Britain, USA) or stylistic (‘The Sweeper-Keeper’, ‘Land of the Giants’, ‘The Fear of Penalties’), or both. But at the heart of each country and each technical phase, Wilson demonstrates, are the same core goalkeeping debates – reactive shot-stopping vs proactive sweeping, reflexes vs anticipation, calm solidity vs risky extravagance, strength vs agility, aggression vs composure, ‘the stoics who quietly absorbed the punishment, and the extroverts’. The Outsider is a celebration of the variety of skillsets that have graced the goal, even if it concludes with the progression towards a more rounded approach in the new generation led by Iker Casillas, Manuel Neuer and Hugo Llloris; ‘it’s rare now to find goalkeepers who don’t both command their box and feel comfortable with the ball at their feet as well as having a basic competence at saving shots’.
The many goalkeeper profiles in the book present some interesting common denominators, including a beginning as an outfield player and a background in athletic, dextrous sports such as handball (Peter Schmeichel), volleyball (Buffon, Taffarel) or basketball (Brad Friedel). And, of course, there are also more obvious core parallels, such as confidence, bravery and mental toughness, or as Serbian keeper Milutin Šoškić puts it, ‘a goalkeeper must be hard with feelings’. Wilson is an impressive curator and historian but where both he and his book excel is in the realm of investigative journalism. The chapters where he goes in search of his own answers are particularly compelling, as he interviews the great Cameroonian rivals Thomas Nkono and Joseph-Antoine Bell, for example, or America’s coaching guru Šoškić and Steau Bucharest’s shoot-out hero Helmut Ducadam.
This is sports writing for the stout of heart and mind. In Wilson’s highly capable hands, a history of goalkeeping becomes a history of football and even, at times, a small-scale modern world history. The keeper is placed at the centre of concentric circles of ‘perception’: football, culture, geography, politics, history, philosophy, literature. Be prepared for Nietzsche and discussions of ‘the dissonance between the apparent simplicity of the signifier and the complexity and layered meaning of the signified’. But this scholarly approach, as Wilson explains, is a fitting tribute to a role that has often been linked with the artistic temperament – ‘individuals, not necessarily intellectuals, but at the very least people who think for themselves’.
It’s hard to find fault with such a comprehensive study. Perhaps the slightly odd positioning of a chapter on Lev Yashin and the Soviet tradition in between chapters tracing the largely British pre- and inter-war history? For the most part, though, Wilson knits together theme and chronology nicely by picking out stand-out figures (Van Der Sar, Buffon etc.) and then retracing their national histories. Occasionally, however, this approach does throw up puzzling results, such as the equal coverage for IFFHS’ second best goalkeeper of all time, Dino Zoff, and virtually unknown Ghanian Robert Mensah. The lack of technical detail regarding the Italian great is noticeable, but The Outsider sticks to its storytelling guns throughout, sometimes prioritising eccentric anecdotes over conventional (and much-repeated) biography. As Wilson explains in the prologue, this is ‘not an encyclopaedia of goalkeeping’.
And that’s the only minor drawback; for all its tremendous scope, The Outsider remains a selective study, where lengthy discussions of book and film plots and historical anecdotes do occasionally crowd out insight. The psychological angle in particular feels frustratingly underdeveloped, or at least unassembled. Except for scattered references to goalkeepers with ‘a shadow across his soul’, the issue only really comes into focus during the final chapters covering Buffon’s depression and Oliver Kahn’s mid-life crisis. Goalkeepers yo-yo between the very extremes of life; as Wilson puts it, ‘No sportsman, surely, so regularly confronts the arbitrariness of the fates.’ As well as those forever haunted by high-profile mistakes, we’re told of many great goalkeepers who recovered from early setbacks: Yashin, Gilmar, Frank Swift and Gordon Banks to name but a few. But how? Perhaps, despite Wilson’s sterling efforts, the goalkeeper will always remain that ‘man of mystery’.