Orion, £20 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper By Jonathan Wilson

This winning account of football's troubled sentinels covers the park, from myth to tactics

What do Pope John Paul II, the moderator of the Church of Scotland and David Icke have in common? A shared belief in the supernatural or divine?

Yes, but more profoundly, perhaps, they have all been goalkeepers. So too with writers: Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Argentinean novelist Osvaldo Soriano, Vladimir Nabokov and Albert Camus all played in goal. In The Outsider, Jonathan Wilson offers an ebullient history of the goalkeeper and tries to work out what it is that attracts the spiritual, the quizzical, the odd and the reflective to the position.

In contemporary football the goalkeeper is clearly the odd man out. Dressed in a distinctly coloured shirt, the only player allowed to handle the ball, the goalkeeper appears to be at one remove from their team and the action for much of the game. But, as Wilson argues, it is more than sartorial or ludic differences that separates the goalkeeper; there is a deeper polarisation at work.

In its pre-modern folk forms, football was often tied to religious or local ritual, bound up with the celebration of agricultural cycles and the organisation of courting rituals - both occasions in which the game would help bring fertility and birth. In this context, the scoring of goals takes on the quality of impregnation and fertilisation, the return and nourishment of the sun. The person responsible for preventing this happening is thus mythologically aligned with the forces of famine and disaster.

Certainly the goalkeeper must endure the role of scapegoat more often than any outfield players. They are inevitably seen as the final line of defence; ultimately responsible for conceding last-minute equalisers and devastating winning goals. Wilson's eye for the keepers whose careers, lives and eventually emotional balance has been shattered by a single moment or a crushing defeat is particularly good. Barbosa, Brazil's keeper in their cataclysmic loss at home in the 1950 World Cup final was cursed, then shunned as a clown, a fool and a failure.

In the mid-Victorian public school, where the rules and mores of modern football were emerging, this was precisely the role the goalkeeper was cast in. The manly, intrepid and spirited would always opt for the bustle of forward play and the glory of scoring goals; the "funk-sticks" were relegated to protecting the goal. It was only in 1871 that goalkeepers actually appeared in the rules of the game and another couple of decades before they had to wear a distinctive shirt. They were able to handle the ball in the whole of their half but were vulnerable to charging and barging by the opposition.

Goalkeepers were at last able to emerge as more than the fall guy. The advent of diving for the ball in the late 19th century made the keeper athletic and offered great opportunities for flamboyance and heroism. Others traditions of play embraced the stoic, solid unflappability of Edwardian masculinity. In the increasingly large shape of William "Fatty" Foulkes, the goalkeeper had become a celebrity.

Wilson's appetite for the goalkeeper is insatiable, covering the stories and meanings of the position from Russia to Brazil, from Cameroon to Italy. He asks why Scottish goalkeepers have acquired such a bad reputation and why Americans such a good one. His account of the sweeper-keeper in the second half of the 20th century - and the reintegration of the goalkeeper into the flow of the team - is outlined with both great tactical acumen and a sharp appreciation of the complex calculus of risk involved. Goalkeepers that come off their line to play with the team may occasionally concede an embarrassing goal to mistakes or a lob, but on balance prevent more goals than they let in.

The calculus of uncertainty lies at the heart of goalkeeping's other great dilemma – the penalty. This dual between taker and keeper not only decides many championships but has provided rich intellectual pickings for modernist cinema and game theory, which have explored existential despair and the limits of rational choice through the spot kick. In this respect, Wilson offers a picture of the goalkeeper as an outsider, but also more of an everyman that you might think.

David Goldblatt's global history of football, 'The Ball is Round', is published by Penguin

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Arts and Entertainment
Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters performs at Suncorp Stadium on February 24, 2015 in Brisbane, Australia.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans had initially distanced himself from the possibility of taking the job

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
British author Matt Haig

books
Arts and Entertainment
Homeland star Damian Lewis is to play a British Secret Service agent in Susanna White's film adaptation of John le Carre's Our Kind of Traitor

Film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map
    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
    Paris Fashion Week

    Paris Fashion Week

    Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
    A year of the caliphate:

    Isis, a year of the caliphate

    Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
    Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

    Marks and Spencer

    Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
    'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

    'We haven't invaded France'

    Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
    Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

    Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

    The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
    7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

    Remembering 7/7 ten years on

    Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
    Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

    They’re here to help

    We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
    What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

    What exactly does 'one' mean?

    Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue