Chris McGrath: When goalkeepers turn goal-scorers

The Last Word
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The Independent Football

Now that Thierry Henry has shown how quickly some strikers can react with their hands, the goalkeepers' union has evidently resolved to point out the merits of a closed shop. During the week its members came up with a couple of absolute peaches – Sinan Bolat's 95th-minute header for Standard Liège, and Hans-Jörg Butt's penalty for Bayern Munich against Juventus.

There was a marvellous contrast in their respective celebrations. Bolat, true to his surname, became a cross between Borat and Usain Bolt. Team-mates who sought to match his frenzied sprint – forearms clenched, neck stiff, eyes popping – collapsed one by one in his wake. Butt, having taken a balletic half-step on his run-up, turned on his heel and jogged back to his own goal, more or less expressionless as he brushed palms with a couple of admiring comrades.

To some, no doubt, both reactions will corroborate the notorious eccentricity of goalkeepers. For ever since the former goalie at Racing Universitaire Algerios published L'Etranger, these men have been routinely caricatured as introspective, at best, or just plain potty.

Funnily enough, a potty is exactly what Jens Lehmann needed during Stuttgart's game on Wednesday. The former Arsenal keeper appeared to be taking a leak, crouched behind the advertising hoardings, when he was required to heed a still more urgent call, in the form of a counter-attack from Unirea Urziceni. Having since declined to confirm the nature of his predicament, he was asked what else he could possibly have been doing? "There are other things," he grinned. "Use your imagination."

It is this wandering imagination, of course, that sustains the reputation of the goalkeeper as enigmatic outsider. Apart from Albert Camus, deep thinkers between the posts have included Pope John Paul II, Che Guevara and Vladimir Nabokov. A goalkeeper, according to the latter, is "aloof, solitary... vies with the matador and the flying aces... He is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender."

That's all very well, but the reality is that most top-class goalkeepers are distinguished precisely by the evenness of their temperament. Their courage and dependability under fire can suffuse an entire team with confidence. Conversely, when they don't know what on earth he will do next, defenders suddenly become infected with St Vitus's Dance. Likewise, the football parody of Latin flair and Nordic stolidity fails to stand up to the facts. The Mediterranean has both the leading keepers in the world today, in Gianluigi Buffon and Iker Casillas. Fabio Capello, in contrast, is still desperately seeking some such rock for England.

It was Buffon, as it happens, who was sent the wrong way by Butt on Tuesday. It's not the goalkeepers who are crazy, of course. It's the blokes taking the penalties. They're the ones you see disintegrating before your eyes. Good grief, England don't so much take baggage to international tournaments as a chaise longue for each player. Sure enough, within two days of Capello heroically suppressing a smirk at the World Cup draw, he watched Frank Lampard and Jermain Defoe miss critical penalties in the Premier League. Only once in the past five World Cups have the winners not been obliged to survive a shoot-out. If these fellows have been freaked out merely by watching the draw, rather more extensive facilities than were available to Lehmann may have to be provided behind the hoardings in South Africa.

Zinedine Zidane showed the way, facing no less a keeper than Buffon in no less a game than the 2006 World Cup final, when he insouciantly chipped the ball via the underside of the bar. (England will be hoping that he did not owe this kind of thing to his Algerian genes.) Zidane, of course, proceeded to confirm himself crazier than any goalkeeper by showing Marco Materazzi that it's not all in the mind, after all – it's in the forehead.

In a week when two managers, Tony Pulis and Jim Magilton, have both been accused of modelling their post-match analysis on Zidane's encounter with Materazzi, it is surely time to stop misrepresenting goalkeepers. OK, so Scott Carson was sent off for West Brom on Tuesday after headbutting Michael Chopra. But does that make him a typical goalkeeper, or promising manager material?

We all love that frisson of excitement when a keeper gallops crazily into the opposite box for that last, crazy throw of the dice. He looks so incongruous, in his loud shirt, and wide-eyed defenders back away as though reluctantly involved in some kind of care in the community programme.

Even Butt, whose penalty really was delectable, is not immune. In his Bayer Leverkusen days, he once scored a penalty against Schalke 04 and proved so distracted by the celebrations on his way back to his own goal that he was preceded there by the ball – hoofed directly from the re-start by Mike Hanke.

The Butt of many jokes, then. But at least he hasn't got Hanke's problem – he's allergic to grass. In a goalkeeper, naturally, that would be crazy. To a goalkeeper, equally, that would be no laughing matter.

Blanc hastens Old Lady's fall

Perhaps only the presence in the competition of Rangers can spare Juventus as the most shocking failure of the Champions League group stages. In a vital showdown with Bayern Munich this week, on home soil, they were simply execrable.

The Juventus top brass promised afterwards to persevere with their "project" – the idea being that Ciro Ferrara can become their Pep Guardiola. In fairness, they have similar aspirations for Leonardo at Milan, and even he is not looking quite so hopeless now. But Juve's stuttering example puts into due perspective the feats of another novice, whose team were given little chance of getting past Juventus and Bayern.

Bordeaux cantered away with the group, and we now know why Laurent Blanc turned down the chance to serve as No 2 to Sir Alex Ferguson. If he comes to Old Trafford, it will be as No 1.