The Year of the Goalkeeper

By: Alfonso Duro

Oliver Kahn was the last goalkeeper to become a finalist for the Ballon d’Or in 2002. He had completed a magnificent World Cup that summer and helped Germany get all the way to the final. Twelve years later, his countryman Manuel Neuer has a real chance to beat Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi for the season’s main award to individual soccer players. Whether he wins or not, the fact that a goalkeeper made it to the top-three is already worth noting, and the truth is in 2014, goalies all over the world seemed to have a made a united stance to reclaim their share of the spotlight in the sport.

This being a World Cup year, performances in the Brazilian tournament went a long way in determining a player’s overall rating. And some of the Latin players competing at the highest level not only managed to get a bit of the spotlight back for themselves, but actually completely snatched it away.

Memo Ochoa: The Mexican had been known more for his curly hair and abilities to appear in TV commercials than for his progression as a great goalkeeper. Although he impressed in his early years at America, his late move to Europe—to a lowly ranked team in France like Ajaccio—and his failure to keep up with other goalies in el Tri made everyone think his prime had passed him by without remorse. But the match against Brazil in this summer’s World Cup would change everything. Ochoa showed the world he should still be considered among the best in the business, and he had offers from some of the top clubs in Europe to show for it. He chose Málaga as his new home, which, although seemed like a great move to begin with, hasn’t really panned out as expected. But that’s a totally different story.

Keylor Navas: A full season starting at Levante, a low buyout clause, a series of impressive training videos (that went viral) online. That was Keylor Navas’s recipe for success in 2014. Well, that and an outstanding World Cup performance with Costa Rica. The Ticos were the surprise of the tournament, coming out alive from a group that hosted three former champions, getting past Greece in the round of 16, and giving eventual bronze-medal Holland a run for their money in the quarterfinals. Keylor Navas was at the forefront of that success, with his saves and leadership from the back, becoming Greek forward Theofanis Gekas’s nightmare and making Louis van Gaal try to pursue his signing for Manchester United after being über-impressed with his game against Holland. Eventually, Navas would move on to Real Madrid as their starting option for more than the foreseeable post-Casillas future, which surely makes it sound like a great year all around for the Costa Rican.

Sergio Romero: Romero’s rags-to-riches story should inspire more than one young goalkeeper to never give up. Tending goal can be one of the most un-gratifying jobs, especially for those keepers who spend large parts of their careers as second options in their clubs, but in Romero’s case, a bad year with Sampdoria and Monaco (three games played all season) did not deter coach Alejandro Sabella from making him the starter for Argentina. And boy, did the goalkeeper repay him for his trust. His two saves in the penalty shootout against Holland in the semifinal of the tournament were key to keeping Argentina’s dreams alive—despite van Gaal taking some of the credit. His performances against Nigeria and Iran were also some of the trending topics during the Brazilian tournament, and his future would forever be changed after the final in Maracanã: Romero is now starting for Sampdoria and has teams like Liverpool or Arsenal chasing his transfer.

Claudio Bravo: Professionalism goes a long way when you are a goalkeeper, and Chilean Claudio Bravo had spent the better part of the last decade showing this attribute above all others at Real Sociedad. It was time he joined a club with bigger ambitions, but he needed the right platform to show his talents in order to impress the top clubs in Europe. Brazil 2014 was just the place to do it, and topping the previous World Cup champions in the group stage was the best way to get his name out there. Bravo also showed impressive agility, smart playmaking with his feet and tremendous leadership to help Chile put the host nation against the ropes in the round of 16. Bravo’s performances did not go unnoticed, and Barcelona shelled out 12 million euros for him to take Victor Valdés’s starting spot at Camp Nou. In a few months, the Chilean became an idol, broke a legendary record and is currently sitting as the best goalkeeper of the season. Dreams do come true, and Bravo is a testament of it.

Alfonso Duro is a Spanish freelance writer. When he's not managing Google's agency in the United Arab Emirates (his current job), chances are he's watching and writing about soccer.