By the Numbers: 1


Soccer lists are ubiquitous and come in all shapes and sizes, types and varieties. We at O87 never settle for just doing another list. “Just another list” isn’t even in our vocabulary. So, when one of us decided that it would behoove our blog to have it’s own take on the “Best Of” phenomenon of modern sports, we decided that we couldn’t just list the best players in order of their relative merits, by their decades or eras, or even by their positions. We would try something marginally novel (we won’t be so bold as to claim to be the first to come up with this idea): let’s rank players by the number they wore, not by their position. Now obviously, this throws in some wrinkles. Players who might not normally be compared to each other will needs be. For example, Makelele, Hargreaves, Koeman, Zanetti, and Fabregas have all iconically worn number 4. Who to choose? It doesn’t matter! We’re trying to approach this question from a different perspective. We hope you enjoy it.

We begin our first number (the number 1, of course) with a debate. Each number will have a different form (be it a debate, a sonnet, a picture journal, or an a capella paean). If you have any suggestions for us, comment or let us know on Twitter.

Adams: For my money, there are three types of keepers: shot-stoppers, whose acrobatic saves seem to defy both logic and physics; sweepers, who command one-on-one situations and distribute the ball shrewdly; and stewards, who combine skill and leadership to balance and command the team as a whole. To use modern footballers as examples, that would be Joe Hart, Victor Valdes, and Iker Casillas. The question is – which of these three types do we tend to venerate the most? Or, more broadly, how does one define greatness between the sticks? Goalkeepers don’t score a lot of goals (Higuita, Butt, and a few others aside), and cleansheets are often the product of good defending rather than keeping, so we can’t argue solely on numbers. But there must be some quality that exemplifies the position.

Eric: My only disagreement is I’m convinced there were really four types of keepers, the three you mentioned and René Higuita, who deserves a category all his own. I’d imagine that there are occasions when we see one of the former two types become the third, though you can’t really say that of Iker, because he always seemed to be the third kind. I’d argue that Tim Howard is a steward for the U.S. team, but more of a shot-stopper for Everton, yet he still seems to be consistently wonderful in one-on-one situations.

The question I keep coming back to — and the reason I think it’s important we open this series with a debate, rather than a paean of some kind — is when you’re talking about best all-time, what exactly are you looking for? More than any other position, goalkeepers and strikers seem defined by the whims of form, by their good runs and dry spells. Is the best keeper the one who was most consistent throughout his entire career? Who was at his peak (and the peak of his craft) for the longest? Who reached the highest level of dominance, if only for a short time? To what degree is it all of the above?

Adams: And as for the whims of form, a goalkeeper is more culpable even than a striker. When a target man misses an important shot, we cringe and shake our fist but we usually forget about it in the larger context. Not so with a goalkeeper mistake. Bobbling a single shot can define a career. Case in point: Moacir Barbosa, the Brazilian keeper who handed the 1950 World Cup to Uruguay when he found himself out of position for La Celeste’s winning goal. His name has been a curse in Brazil ever since. So if consistency isn’t the primary factor, it’s certainly an important one.

Eric: Yeah, he’s the one with one of the greatest ever soccer quotes: “The maximum punishment in Brazil is 30 years imprisonment, but I have been paying, for something I am not even responsible for, by now, for 50 years.”

Adams: Poor sap. But I think for his era, Barbosa is somewhat of an exception in that, if we reflect on the candidates, we’re more likely to criticize modern goalkeepers for the blunders they make. And that’s because there’s a poverty of evidence for the old guard – someone like Lev Yashin might be at or near the top of the list, but there’s very little video to indicate that he ever made mistakes. Casillas and Buffon are on television every weekend, so the paucity of errors that they do commit shows up on highlight reels and on YouTube. I think that’s a bit unfair to our younger candidates. So for this debate, I would think, it shouldn’t be the negatives but the positives that direct our opinions. You mentioned some qualities like longevity and dominance. I think one thing you’re indicating is that the greatest #1 should be a historic fixture in his national side. Yashin and Schmeichel took middling teams to Euro Championships, Casillas and Buffon have both recently won World Cups. Olli Kahn never won a major award with Germany. Does that rule him (and others) out?

Eric: These are precisely the kind of categories I was thinking of. I think we all agree, and you’ve written as such, that you probably could be the greatest player ever without having won the World Cup (or the European Championships, since none of the players generally mentioned in the topmost tier won that trophy). Why shouldn’t it be the same for goalkeepers?

I’m glad you brought Kahn up. The 2002 World Cup was the first one I really tried to pay attention to, and even though I didn’t know a whole hell of a lot about soccer at the time, it was obvious to me that Kahn was dragging a mediocre-to-good German team kicking and screaming all the way into the finals. Without the goalkeeping of him and Torsten Frings, that team loses to the U.S., hands down. The U.S.!
That month for Kahn (up until the final, when he spilled that long-range effort that allowed Ronaldo to get his first goal) was maybe the best I’ve ever seen any player play. He not only won the Golden Ball as the best player of the tournament, but he was also the runner-up for World Player of the Year (to Ronaldo), which just doesn’t happen ever for goalkeepers. (Yashin did win the Ballon d’Or once. Kahn finished third two times). If I had to pick one goalkeeper to play in a game with my life on the line, it’d be that edition of Oliver Kahn, the one who did all this:

He wasn’t just excellent; he was terrifying, a horrible, unbeatable figure, living up to both his historical and his cultural namesakes.
The case against him is fairly simple: after the tournament his form took a nosedive. It’s almost as if he put so much effort into that World Cup that he ran out of energy entirely, like Yoda after his fight with the Emperor. But before that he did win a Champions League final, saving three penalties during the shootout that clinched it for Bayern, including this one: which is pretty awesome.

Plus, he did this,, which even with the tinkly piano music in the video is kind of heart-wrenching. I’m not sure I’d vote for him, but I am convinced that Kahn needs to be in the discussion.

Adams: Kahn, for all his carnal magnificence, played for Bayern for most of his career, just like Casillas played for Real Madrid and Buffon played for Juventus. Doesn’t it seem convenient that almost all of the candidates played for some of the greatest sides in history? Yes, you can argue that they played for great clubs because they were great players. But what I’m saying is, moreso than any other position, goalkeepers at lesser clubs tend to be ignored. Someone like Andres Palop, Sevilla’s steward, may not deserve to feature in this debate, but at least in the last few years he’s been overlooked largely because he doesn’t play for Barca or Madrid. On the contrary, David de Gea, who spent a couple of exciting seasons with Atleti, has only really been discussed as one of Europe’s on-form keepers since joining United. I remember watching a rerun of the 1972 European Cup final between Inter and Ajax (two teams on the decline and rise, respectively). The Inter keeper pulled off some incredible saves. I had to know who this guy was. The commentator, a British chap, called him Bordon. I looked him up immediately but the internet didn’t have a lot to tell me about him…this heroic figure, this god between the sticks, didn’t exist beyond a simple bio. Now, Inter’s no team to scoff at, but in the 70s they were an average team – a remnant of the Grande Inter of the 60s, at least. Does a team’s profile inform the goalkeeper’s plaudits? And if so, should we make an effort to level out those biases?

Eric: I’ll take your three question marks in order: yes, definitely yes and probably, but I have no idea how we would go about doing that. My response is going to be more or less all questions, so feel free to answer whichever strikes your fancy.
Is it possible that there’s some goalkeeping Roy Hobbs out there, spending his years toiling away at some lower level club because nobody knows about him? Or should we just assume that the scouting net is nearly perfect, that the world’s best keepers play for the world’s best teams because they have the resources to identify and purchase those players?

Where I see this hurting people is the players on the fringes of those great clubs, the Bayerns and Reals and Uniteds. Is Pepe Reina’s legacy hurt by the fact that he’s spent all these years at a Liverpool team that’s in decline? What if they had been able to continue their run of form from when he first started there, when they were challenging for the title and making the Champions League final and whatnot, would he be on that top tier of modern goalies, or still a level below them? Is his position as Spain’s number 3 proof enough that he’s on the level where he should be? Or is it the fact that he actually wears #25?

Take someone like the still-biggest name non-Big 3/4/5 keeper, Igor Akinfeev. He’s missed a ton of time this year with an injury, but disregarding that, I can’t tell if he’s overrated or underrated because his whole career has been playing in Russia. I mean, this is a player who has played 70 games in European competition, who is always the subject of transfer rumors taking him to God Knows Where as the Next Big Thing, but nobody has actually bought him yet. Where does that put him in the overall scheme of keepers today? And where does that put his historical brethren in terms of keepers all-time?

Adams: It goes both ways, though. Valdes plays for the (now former?) best club in the world, but most critics don’t consider him world class. The takeaway is that the team doesn’t make the player. We should rely more on performance than circumstance. And that’s one reason Yashin sticks out to me. In spite of never playing outside of Russia, he’s in every Best Ever conversation.

But on top of that, he possesses a trait we haven’t touched on yet. Timelessness. You get the sense watching clips that he could play in any era, even though he was one of the first true practitioners of the goalkeeping art. That’s rare. Even in the Messi-Pele-Maradona discussion, the inevitable retort is that “Leo/Diego/Pele couldn’t have done what he did if he played 10/20/30 years later/earlier because the game was too fast/technical/physical.” Lev both revolutionized the position and managed to be so good that no one could really argue he wasn’t fit for the rigors of future iterations of the game.
There are plenty of keepers who fit in the timeless category, I suppose, but Yashin gets the nod for me because he was the first. Plus, he’s the only goalkeeper in history who belongs in Teddy-Roosevelt-bareknuckle-boxing-martians territory on the badassery scale. Even Putin would vote for him.

Eric: Well, for what it’s worth, the wonderful time-wasting site The Football Pantheon agrees with your assessment. It has Yashin as the greatest-ever keeper, 27th best player of all-time. Second is Sepp Maier, who we managed not to mention even once in this whole conversation, despite the fact that he won a World Cup, European Championship, three European Cups and four German leagues, which is pretty good. This selection business is hard.

Maier’s resume is impressive, but when you think that Iker’s only one more European Cup away from equalling those honors, it makes him hard to select. I like Iker a lot, but I wouldn’t nominate him for the greatest keeper of all-time, even if he wins this European Championship and next year’s Champions League too.
I don’t want to give it to him, but it looks like Yashin’s the best choice. Most of the time the hive mind tends to be right about this kind of thing, and there’s a certain value to being the first, in this case the first keeper to boss the game in such a complete way. Two hundred and seventy clean sheets are tough to argue with.

Adams: No shame in your decision. If Sean Connery made Bond, Yashin made the goalkeeper. It’s best to start out our lineup with a bang anyway, right? Build from the back, they say. Lev will be a steady foundation for a stellar Best XI.


Lev Yashin

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