Who'd be a goalkeeper?
As fans, we all understand that we can witness profound moments when watching football. For me, personally, Thierry Henry’s return to Arsenal in 2012, to score against Leeds in the FA Cup, springs to mind. As does Tshabalala opening the scoring for South Africa in the first game of the 2010 World Cup. Those highs moved me as a spectator. There were all that’s good and magical about football. Hair raising stuff. At the opposite end of the scale, but no less emotive, was seeing Loris Karius fumble Gareth Bale’s speculative effort and seal his side’s fate last night in the Champions League final.
There are, of course, things in life that matter far more than football. Bill Shankly’s famous “people think football is a matter of life and death…it is much more serious than that”, is certainly a brilliant quote, but it isn’t actually true. That being said, last night, I, and millions around the world, witnessed what must be one of the worst moments in a young man’s life unfold before us in slow motion. Surely it was in slow motion?
It’s natural for fans to try and empathise with those on the pitch. We all try and insert ourselves into the minds of players and managers at vital moments (believing we could do better). As the final whistle sounded in Kiev, and Karius crumpled to the turf, I wondered…what now? How could he face what had just happened?
I know, or at least I think I know, what I’d have done in his position. Tears, straight down the tunnel, tears, airport, tears, flight to, well, anywhere far away. I’d call myself Boris Darius and begin a new life away from football. At least, that’s all I’d want to do. Credit to Karius, he fronted up, stood before the Liverpool fans with palms raised in apology and they were (mostly) supportive.
Support is what Karius is going to need now. From his team, coaches and from those in his private life. Every goalkeeper knows that they’re the most vulnerable player on the pitch. Outfield players can misplace passes, shank crosses and wander out of position – 9 times out of 10 they’ll get away with it. It’s the opposite for ‘keepers. For them, each and every error could very easily result in conceding a goal, that’s just the nature of their profession. Because of this, the ability to assimilate and compartmentalise mistakes is ingrained in ‘keepers from a young age. ‘Bouncebackability’ – to borrow a term from Iain Dowie – is an essential attribute for any goalkeeper.
I hope to see Karius bounce back from this and believe he will as he can’t have gotten this far in his career as a ‘keeper without having real character. Though, I doubt he’ll still be Liverpool’s number 1, or perhaps even at the club, next season. Last night the Liverpool faithful got behind their man, they realised that they needed to, but that won’t extend to wanting to see him between the sticks at Anfield in the foreseeable future.
How last night will affect his relationship with the squad may also be a factor. I’m sure his teammates will be supportive and realise that, as Jordan Henderson said after the game, “we lose as a team”. But players can recognise a weak link and will look to move on themselves if they don’t see it being resolved. The issue of ‘blame’ will be avoided within the team, but as Gary Lineker and Rio Ferdinand agreed in the post-match analysis, “they won’t say it, but they’ll think it”.
It’s easy to forget or dismiss the emotional turmoil that comes with being a footballer. It’s not really part of the conversation that exists around football. Per Mertesacker’s interview earlier in the year in which he was open about his anxiety issues was refreshing and bold in this sense. The tragedy of Robert Enke, Mertesacker’s old teammate and Karius’ fellow goalkeeper, is a stark reminder of what can happen when these issues of mental health aren’t addressed.
I’m not suggesting that what happened to Karius last night will have such an impact upon his mental health. It is vital though that modern football clubs have support structures in place to help their players and that the taboos in the game surrounding mental health issues and perceived ‘weakness’ are battled against.
‘Keepers are on the goal line and the front line – everyone’s shooting at them, and that can be a lot to take. You need courage and nerve to keep donning the gloves week after week. Who’d be a goalkeeper? Someone with bottle. Someone who can fall on the biggest stage, and then stand to tearfully applaud and apologise to their own fans. Someone like Loris Karius.