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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

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