Picture the sweltering humidity of a Mexican summer. The haze, long since descended, thick and inescapable, converges upon you, distorting, refracting the warm air. Through the ineluctable blur, a stadium; a restless, chanting crowd and before you the on rushing charge of yellow jersied, blue shorted men.
One, relentless, forces his way towards the byline and, from your left, propels the ball through the thick, heated air towards a leaping legend. Redirected, the ball then powers its way towards your goal; stopping it separates you from the ordinary.
Moments like those can define a goalkeeper’s career just as easily as a bumbling mistake. In 1970, Gordon Banks answered that call and, consequently, will never be forgotten. Robert Green, however, dropped the receiver. But did the Pele-entitled ‘Save of the Century’ involve the greatest goalkeeper of all time, just as it arguably involved the greatest striker of all time? Was it truly a case of unstoppable force met by impassable object? We debate the top five goalkeepers of all time…
The England goalkeeper’s credentials are second to none.
He was first capped by the national side at the age of 25 – late birth even by the standards of yesteryear. During his career he featured no less than 73 times for his country, in three different World Cups between 1962 and 1970. He became the first goalkeeper to keep more than ten clean sheets for the national team – 35 in total, seven of them coming in a row before Portuguese legend Eusebio’s penalty in the 1966 World Cup semi-final. He also featured in 23 consecutive games in which England never slumped to a defeat – imagine that for a moment…
Unfortunately, at club level, he wasn’t graced with the best of luck. The goalkeeper was on the losing side twice at Wembley in the FA Cup final with Leicester, losing out to Tottenham and then the Busby Babes. But he did manage to attain the League Cup twice both for Leicester and for Stoke in 1964 and 1972.
To cap it off, the shot-stopper won several outstanding individual awards. In the 1966 World Cup his superb performances earned him the Goalkeeper of the Tournament award. In 1972 he earned the FWA Footballer of the Year award along with his second nomination as European Footballer of the Year (the first of which came in 1970). In 1999, unable to shy away from acknowledgement, he was again rewarded with acclaim as England’s Goalkeeper of the Century by IFFHS (International Federation of Football History and Statistics). Clearly, to beat that remarkable CV, you need to be something exceptional.
So, next let’s compare him to one of the modern greats.
With a big red nose, big red ears and a thundering voice that would make Brian Blessed wee himself, the Big Dane frame of Peter Schmeichel is fondly remembered as one of the greats of the modern game.
Unlike Banks, Schmeichel was successful at both international and club level, which is remarkable considering that he played for Denmark. Although he only participated at one World Cup, reaching the knockout stages, he and his Danish brethren defied all odds to claim the 1992 European Championship in Sweden, beating Germany in the final, and shocking the continent. It was an extraordinary feat made even more sensational by the fact that Denmark hadn’t even qualified for the tournament via merit – their qualifying group winners, Yugoslavia had been disqualified as a result of the Yugoslav wars.
Furthermore, Schmeichel is a Champions League winner, a League Cup winner, three times FA Cup winner, and five times Premier League winner – in which he holds the best clean-sheet-to-games ratio ever. He was voted Danish Footballer of the Year thrice, UEFA Club goalkeeper of the year thrice, European goalkeeper of the year four times, and was voted into the Premier League’s Team of the Decade and earned a plethora of minor individual awards.
So how does one of the modern greats stack up against one of the classic and most iconic goalkeepers of football’s golden years?
Providing the backbone of Italian football for over a decade, Dino Zoff was a calm, levelheaded goalkeeper that strove indefatigably for perfection to his game. His circumspection and drive enabled him to complete four World Cups during his career, becoming the oldest man, as captain of Italy, to collect the trophy in 1982, at the age of 40.
Moreover, Zoff is owner of one of the most notable World Cup records. Between 1972 and 1974 he went 12 international tournament without conceding a single goal. And his overall record is just as impressive; he kept 55 clean sheets in 112 games for his country.
In addition to his World Cup in 1982, sitting in the Zoff trophy cabinet is his 1968 European Championship winners’ medal, six Italian scudetti with his club Juventus, two Coppa Italias and the 1977 UEFA Cup – a competition in which he reached the final three teams.
Complementing his club and country awards, Zoff, despite being a modest man, is regularly voted as one of the best all time goalkeepers by both piers and critics. In 1999 he came third in the IFFHS’s Goalkeeper of the Century poll while in 2000 he was also voted by FIFA as the World Goalkeeper of the Century.
Contemporaneous to his playing career, the Italian of course received an abundance of individual honours. He was awarded with the European Goalkeeper of the Year award on two separate occasions. On top of that, adding to his winner’s medal he was awarded the 1982 World Cup’s Best Goalkeeper. At the European Championships, he was also honoured with the goalkeeping award in 1968 and again in 1980.
From one Italian giant to another. The only man still playing his football in this list, Gianluigi Buffon is known by many as the most expensive goalkeeper ever following his £32million move from Parma to Juventus.
The reason Juventus paid so handsomely for the young ‘keeper? ‘Gigi’s talents were clear. At only 18, Buffon was designated as the starting goalkeeper for Parma’s 1996-1997 campaign. That alone was enough to track the attention of Italy’s elite. He went on to make over 200 appearances in six seasons for the club and, convincing Italy that it had another footballing prodigy on its hands, Buffon aided Parma immeasurably in their 1999 UEFA Cup and Coppa Italia winning season.
After switching Parma for Turin, the agile shot-stopper went on to win four scudetti before allegations of match fixing surrounded the Old Lady in disgrace and the team were relegated as punishment to the second tier of Italian football. However, in 2006, amid those allegations, came the goalkeeper’s greatest moment as he helped Italy lift the World Cup trophy aloft in Germany, keeping five consecutive clean sheets on the road to the final. For those solid displays he justifiably earned the award for best goalkeeper in the tournament.
Individually, he has been voted seven times as Serie A’s best goalkeeper and has on three occasions received the award for European goalkeeper of the year. Moreover, he has been dubbed as the IFFHS’s World Goalkeeper of the Year on no less than four occasions.
Whether the match-fixing scandal or his recent absence at the South African World Cup will damage his near-legendary reputation remains to be seen. But whatever the aftermath of his illustrious career, he can stake a claim for being one of the greatest in the modern game, if not of all time.
If you have an award named after you than, my friend, you have to be damn good and Lev ‘the Black Octopus’ Yashin is one of those men.
Highly regarded as the greatest goalkeeper in the history of the game, the socialist shot-stopper from the Soviet Union remains the only goalkeeper to win the coveted European Footballer of the Year award. Standing at 6ft 2.5in, the Russian, with his imposing stature and surly demeanor (on the field, at least), dominated his area with amazing athleticism and outstanding reflexes – skills he undoubtedly honed playing ice hokey before becoming a goalkeeper.
So determined was he not to let the ball pass him that he once said, upon seeing Yuri Gagarin’s first flight in space, that the joy of seeing a Russian in space could only be superseded by that of a good penalty save.
The records that the indomitable Russian kept are equally out of this world too. His career saw him keep an unbelievable 480 clean sheets from 812 games, saving a record 150 spot-kicks along the way. He took part in four World Cups – coming fourth in the 1966 finals – and won the embryonic European Nations Cup final in 1960, the forerunner to the European Championships, before returning as Runners-up to Spain four years later.
Additionally, he won a gold medal for his participation in the Olympic Games in 1956. At club level he won the Soviet League five times and the Soviet Cup three times with Dynamo Moscow in an ultra-competitive socialist environment that regarded football as the greatest exponent of the virtues of the communist system.
Now, the greatest goalkeepers are awarded the Lev Yashin award, in homage to the ‘Black Russian’, who has won so many posthumous awards since 1990 that to list them would simply not do them justice.