Think about it: between the sticks on a football field is a really lonely place to be. While the others are running around having fun and getting stuck in, the keeper stays in his isolated place.
In essence, in a sport admired and celebrated for its team ethic, the goalkeeper retains his individuality: his role is different, his thinking is different, he even wears a different colour jersey – but, even more crucially, his importance cannot be underestimated.
On Friday, in two absorbing quarter-finals of the 2018 World Cup, it turned out to be night of the goalkeeper, both good and bad. Because, unfortunately, and it’s the nature of this often maddeningly frustrating game, a striker can miss a host of chances, but heaven forbid the keeper makes a mistake.
Two quarter-finals, and three goalkeepers at the heart of the results: in the opener, France were leading 1-0 when, shortly after scoring, Uruguay had a great chance to draw level, but goalkeeper Hugo Lloris pulled off a magnificent save to deny Martin Caceres.
And, later, the error from Uruguay goalkeeper Fernando Muslera put paid to the South Americans’ hopes. It was a horrible clanger - and it was patently evident, after that, Uruguay’s heads visibly started to drop.
Brazil v Belgium? Well, I only have to mention one name: Thibaut Courtois. The Belgian goalkeeper was simply awe-inspiring. It didn’t matter what the Brazilians threw at him, he was prepared for anything; he saved everything.
This is the art of goalkeeping: as the most exposed player on the field, his every action is critical to whether the team wins or loses. Courtois and Lloris produced the moments needed to inspire their teams to victory; for the unfortunate Muslera, it was the opposite. For the former, there will be slaps on the back and words of high praise; for the latter, there will be many years of hurt - football fans have long, long memories.
I guess there is an oft-told anecdote that may soon be doing the rounds in Uruguay: During a match, Liverpool goalkeeper Tommy Lawrence had the ball slipped through his legs – a nutmeg or shibobo, as we say in the PSL – and afterwards, the keeper told the manager, the curmudgeonly Bill Shankly: “Sorry, boss, I should have kept my legs together.” Shankly replied: “No, Tommy, your mother should have kept her legs together!”
Meanwhile, Belgium’s Marouane Fellaini comes in for a lot of stick and is often the butt of ridicule. But there is no denying how vital he is to a team. Yes, he’s unorthodox, ungainly, sometimes his technical ability is far below expected standards at this level, but, make no mistake, he’s the man for a crisis.
In the round of last 16, he got Belgium right back in it, and in Friday’s quarter-final, he was a lung-busting, annoying midfield presence (from a Brazil point of view). But, not just Fellaini and Courtois, each and very Belgium player deserves applause for a performance of courage, skill and composure under pressure. Kevin de Bruyne was inspirational, Romelu Lukaku a powerful, menacing presence, and Eden Hazard a slippery spectre, to single out just a few.
It was a prime example of how a game plan is carried out to the letter and executed with ruthless precision.