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

To this point I have not said anything about the best-known goalkeeper text, which is The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Austrian writer Peter Handke. It is extraordinary work, the sports novel that is not a sports novel. In chronicling the sad, slow decline of a former professional goalkeeper, Joseph Bloch, Handke sustains the metaphor of the penalty kick throughout. We learn that Bloch’s life dilemma results from the goalkeeper’s angst over choice, trying to guess which corner the penalty kicker will choose. It is a never-ending mind game. For Bloch, the paralysis morphs into semiotic confusion covering every area of life. His epistemology becomes so rigid that he cannot accept mundane human communication at face value. “What number should one start counting at?” Bloch asks himself. Or, “Gradually it began to seem that every word needed an explanation.” Or, “[E]verywhere he saw a summons: to do one thing, not to do another.”

The late Argentine writer Osvaldo Soriano creates a comic variant—the goalkeeper who must wait a week to field a penalty due to an end-of-match riot. He courts potential girlfriends by asking which way he should dive, left or right. Joseph Bloch may be the prototype for the introspective goalkeeper separated from his mates. Goalkeepers with whom I have spoken are irritated by this literary creation, not just by Handke but perpetuated in the press and popular media. Their critique is that goalkeepers integrate themselves in the side by necessity—no one survives stresses unless they view themselves as part of collective enterprise. Modern goalkeepers, in fact, are both defensive players and vital to the attack of many teams by distributing the ball directly to attacking players.

If one divides a football pitch of some 80,000 sq ft by 11—a meaningless exercise, I know—each player is responsible for roughly 7,000 sq ft. The goalkeeper has no more ground to cover than anyone else, although the duties seem greater because the penalty area is demarcated. Other than the touchlines these are the most important markings on the pitch. Other players change positions with some fluidity, attackers tracking back, defenders drifting up front. Only the goalkeeper stands within a marked section of the playing surface and bears special responsibilities within it. Characteristic of grassroots football grounds are the worn patches in front of goal. A Brazilian saying goes: “The grass doesn’t even grow where the goalkeeper stands.”

Robert Green, the England goalie dropped from his number-one position after fumbling an easy chance against the United States on the World Cup’s second day, knows this sorrow. His picture now could appear below the epigraph of Handke’s novel: “The goalkeeper watched as the ball rolled over the line” (“Der Tormann sah zu, wie der Ball über die Linie rollte …”). On a scale unlike any other sporting event, Green’s flub becomes electronic effluvium, replayed in stop-action sequences on televisions, computers and mobile phones on every continent. The moment also recalls the story by Brazil’s Sergio Sant’Anna, “No último minuto,” translated by Richard McGehee for the Sport Literature Association conference two years ago. Literary critics say the story is the first in Brazilian letters to feature videotape as a structural feature. A goalkeeper watches a blunder, in Groundhog Day fashion, on rewind, absorbing the self-diminishing blows. This is how McGehee translates:

I have the ball securely and firmly against my chest and, suddenly, I feel that emptiness in my body. I’m holding air. The ball is escaping and penetrating softly into the goal. The ball doesn’t even make it to the net; it just lies there slightly over the fatal line. And I grasp desperately to reach it, pulling at the ball there inside. But it’s too late; everybody’s already seen that it was a goal. The stadium explodes and I feel my own head bursting apart. I see and hear all of that: their team hugging each other, the buzz of the crowd, the fireworks, and our team running to confront the referee, in a useless attempt to have the goal disallowed. I hear and see all that, but it’s like everything is very far away, without any relation to me.

”Without any relation to me” is a key phrase. Relation for Dante—relation to his guide, Virgil, to the salvific vision of Beatrice and to God—drives the poetic procession to Paradiso. For the goalkeeper, relation also offers potential to transform such isolation, even if only within the imaginations of readers encouraged by the written word to forgive.

Editor’s note

Page 4 of 6 | Previous page | Next page