Taking a turn ‘in the woods,’ confronting the goalkeeper’s choice

Gégène, gardien de but (Gégène, Goalkeeper), a French serial from the 1920s. Image courtesy Thomas Bauer, Institut National du Sport.

As Paul the Octopus shows, a life fully lived—even as an exotic sea creature—involves choice. Probability experts could state the odds of Paul’s being right about the World Cup final between Holland and Spain. Every cephalopod is due a hot streak.

Theorists of chance and the mind long ago started applying their models to football games, with special attention to the penalty kick. In the current Journal of Sports Sciences, Greg Wood and Mark Wilson of the University of Exeter report the results of equipping 18 university footballers with eye-tracking devices as each takes five penalties. Researchers instruct the goalkeeper to wave his arms on some kicks and to stand still for others. Analysis shows that such movement harms the kickers’ concentration. The taker has anxiety at the penalty kick as well.

One story of the 2010 World Cup has been tension between chance and certainty. Many observers—many Americans of my acquaintance—believe that in an event such as a World Cup, little should be left to chance. This opinion pertains especially to refereeing decisions, but also to such trivialities as placement of free kicks and throw-ins. The American football variant, naturally, maintains a pretense to precision in hand-carried yardage markers and in the game’s frequent stoppages and conferences. “Why do they throw the ball down just anywhere?” I am asked, incredulously, during World Cup matches.

Philosophers, theologians and writers know the necessity of acting on uncertainty. To Blaise Pascal, life is a gamble: “We ought to work for an uncertainty according to the doctrine of chance.” Existentialist writers of the 20th century found in goalkeeping and in goalkeepers a paradigm for reasserting the moral imperative of action.

Existentialist thought, of course, does not have its roots in Albert Camus—the Nobel Prize–winning goalkeeper to whom I will return—or Jean-Paul Sartre, but before. Well before Dante, whose Commedia theologian Paul Tillich refers to as the finest poetic expression of existential despair. Tillich finds the fundamental statement in Platonic thought. Plato realizes that existence in a transitory world alienates a person from an ideal, from the idea of being, from a divine essence that seems without substance in the world of human cares.

From wholeness to estrangement and back again is the journey Dante takes. Dorothy Sayers, although she could not complete a three-volume translation before her death, calls the work a “drama of the soul’s choice.” In the first stanza of L’inferno Dante describes a fragmented human soul far from home.

Nel mezzo del cammin

di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura

ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,

I woke to find myself in a dark wood,

Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.

(I.1–3, trans. Dorothy Sayers)

To survey world literature is to find that goalkeepers have been portrayed as seekers not dissimilar to Dante, as narrators of their experience, as personalities defined by the choices they make—especially when they have chosen the correct direction to dive for a penalty. Reading these thoughts about the goalkeeper as literary character, they seem banal. Goalkeepers as literary figures possess characteristics that many literary actors have—the power of agency, internal conflicts and demons, the capacity for self-disclosure.

Authors over time have intuited what Ken Dryden, in his memoir of 1983, writes in The Game. This is the story, of course, of Dryden’s goaltending career. Within the work he reflects on the goalkeeper position in ice hockey, a sustained meditation for which I have yet to find a parallel in world football. “I am often afraid,” Dryden says of the puck. Elsewhere, he writes, “Playing goal is not fun.” He notes the ephemeral nature of the save in contrast to the permanence of scoring a goal. “Goalies are different,” Dryden says. “[W]hatever it is, the differences between ‘players’ and ‘goalies’ are manifest and real, transcending as they do even culture and sport.”

It is worth reflecting on the last phrase—“transcending … even culture and sport.” What evidence do we have for goalkeepers’ transcendence in football?

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