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?
Many authors have testified to the goalkeeper’s feelings of exposure and of rising above paralysis. Not only Camus, but Vladimir Nabokov, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Henry de Montherlant, Evelyn Waugh and Egyptian author Mustafa Badawi were goalkeepers, either in their youth or, like Camus, at amateur level. Football appears in passing in Camus’s works The Fall, The First Man and The Plague. He is credited with the saying, “Time is an irritating inconvenience between football matches.” In his work soccer and goalkeeping appear in positive light, as if it were an Algerian forward nicknamed “Watermelon” falling onto Camus’s exposed kidneys or kneeing him “in the distinguished parts” that pushes Camus toward engagement in society as alternative to the alienation portrayed in The Stranger. Camus in Paris supports local team Racing because their shirts, blue-and-white hoops, remind him of those from the Algerian university side on which he played. Spotted by a newsreel crew at a match in 1957 Camus is dismissive of the Nobel Prize he received earlier that year but protective of the Racing goalie: “We shouldn’t blame him,” Camus says. “It’s when you’re in the middle of the woods that you realize how difficult it is.” Camus uses the idiom that schoolchildren use when making a goalkeeper switch. “It’s your turn to go au milieu des bois.”
Nabokov, too, speaks with nostalgia of playing goal as a youth in St. Petersburg and at Cambridge. Footballers appear in many of his works, in Pnin and Pale Fire, for example. In one of his memoirs Nabokov writes, “I was crazy about goal keeping. In Russia and the Latin countries, that gallant art had always been surrounded with an aura of singular glamour.” Nabokov’s countryman, Yevtushenko, too, celebrates soccer in a 1966 essay in Sports Illustrated. With zeal he describes competing against a team that hid knives in their socks. They are called the Destroyers and play on a vacant lot behind a vodka distillery.
I do not believe every word of Yevtushenko’s tale, but he views sport and, in particular, goalkeeping, as participation in a full life. He balances what he calls athletic narcissism, “the cult of the healthy body,” against disharmony that comes from lack of physical activity. He favorably quotes composer Dmitri Shostakovich, known to support Zenit St. Petersburg. Shostakovich speaks of another musician: “What kind of composer is he if he is so scornful of football?” I should not need to point out at this point that these are men speaking about men. As the late Guardian football writer Steven Wells said, football historically in English society, and in much of the world, is a better marker of masculinity than possessing a penis.
In Nabokov, in his memoir Conclusive Evidence, published in 1951, a few dark clouds begin to intrude. The idea of the goalkeeper’s separation from teammates is broached. Nabokov admits gaps in his attention after nights of verse-making and calls the goalkeeper’s work “eccentric art.” Nabokov, fashioning himself, many years after the fact, like famed Soviet goalkeeper Lev Yashin in his peaked cap and black gloves, does more than keep goal. He keeps a secret. He continues:
As with folded arms I leant my back against the left goal-post, I enjoyed the luxury of closing my eyes, and thus I would listen to my heart knocking and feel the blind drizzle on my face and hear, in the distance, the broken sounds of the game, and think of myself as of a fabulous exotic being in an English footballer’s disguise, composing verse in a tongue nobody understood about a remote country nobody knew. Small wonder I was not very popular with my teammates.
Nabokov reminds us that the goalkeeper’s role to large extent is culturally determined. How a society, a football press, and supporters view the goalkeeper’s mission varies. Most everyone could agree that a goalkeeper, in any sport, occupies liminal space. The goalkeeper stands at a threshold between two realities, goal or no goal, desolation or new life. Goalkeepers are polyvalent figures, subject to interpretation and psychoanalysis. German national goalkeeper Robert Enke’s suicide in 2009 was seen in this light. In media reports, his father cites his son’s “fear of the ball being shot at his goal.” In all probability, more relevant to the case is Enke’s history of depression and the earlier death of his two-year-old daughter.
If historian Eric Hobsbawm is correct in saying that nation-states are sometimes best personified as a team of 11 named people, the goalkeeper bears the brunt of much of this nationalist projection. This is how Brazilian novelist Carlos Drummond describes the goalkeeper Cláudio Taffarel after Brazil’s victory over Holland in a 1998 World Cup semifinal:
Saint Taffarel who is in goal
Like a guardian angel
Sweet like honey
Defending our goal, our hope, our happiness.
The counterpart is Moacyr Barbosa, goalkeeper for Brazil at the 1950 World Cup final who allowed a late near-post goal against Uruguay. This resulted in shocking defeat before more than 200,000 at the Maracanã in Rio. In a 2005 biography the author Darwin Pastorin compares Barbosa to the scapegoat of Leviticus, driven to wilderness, sacrificed for the good of the community. That Barbosa was black meant that repercussions were even more menacing within Brazil’s racial complex.
Even earlier in football history the goalkeeper acquired special agency. In some cultures he embodied the potential of the state or had the power to resist malevolent forces. Vratar’ respubliki, the goalkeeper of the republic, shows how early the concept of goalkeeper as national defender took hold in the former Soviet Union. The story first was a socialist realist musical. Lev Kassil’, a writer of youth novels, published a book version in 1939. The protagonist, Anton Kandidov, competes for a soccer-playing commune after living out the socialist lad’s ideal, his talents spotted as he catches watermelons being unloaded from a cart. The climactic scene is a match on Red Square. Kandidov, who has returned to his commune after an unsatisfying interim as a professional, keeps to his line in this match—he does not venture as more individualistic goalkeepers might. In the musical, he listens to a chorus sing, “Keeper, prepare for the fight. … Imagine there is a border behind you.”
Before Kassil’, Spanish poet Rafael Alberti, attending a King’s Cup final in 1928 between Barcelona and Real Sociedad of San Sebastián, finds himself drawn to Barça’s Hungarian goalkeeper, Franz Platko. Alberti calls him the blond bear. Historical context is vital for reading this poem, titled “Platko.” Alberti refers to camisetas reales (royal jerseys) and las doradas insignias (golden emblems) of Real Sociedad, which means Royal Society. Alberti emphasizes that a team of monarchy—a monarchy propped up by dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera—plays a Catalan side of Republican resistance. Before this game, supporters had been barred from Barcelona matches for three months for booing Spain’s national hymn. Platko, the “goalkeeper in the dust,” in Alberti’s phrase, transcends the goalkeeper’s natural position of anxiety and defends a 1–0 Barcelona victory. Alberti projects onto Platko a Dante-esque rebirth, reading significance into the fact that Platko is foreign, displaced, yet able to reclaim identity by backing a just cause. In historical fact the game ended 1–1 and had to be replayed twice before Barcelona prevailed.
Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz on Holocaust Remembrance Day this year recalled another heroic goalkeeper. In 1943 the Czech Jirka Taussig was transported to Theresienstadt ghetto, where he played in the soccer league for the used clothes warehouse. He played at Auschwitz as well, part of a league the SS organized for its own amusement (see 28 Jan 10). “It was almost like a regular game,” says Taussig, 91, who lives in San Francisco, “with grass and goalposts.”
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.
An alternate version of this essay appears in the current issue of World Literature Today (“Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer’s ‘Last Defender,’ ” July–August 2010, 19–22). An abbreviated version was presented at the Sport Literature Association conference in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, in June. Thanks to Thomas Bauer and Julie Gaucher for consultation on Camus and de Montherlant and for supplying the images here.
Sources on goalkeepers in literature
- Alberti, Rafael. “Platko (Santander, May 20, 1928).” Translated by Kirk Anderson. Pages 214–17 in The Global Game: Writers on Soccer, ed. John Turnbull, Thom Satterlee, and Alon Raab. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.
- al-Kharrat, Edwar. “The Goalkeeper.” Journal of Arabic Literature 26 (1995): 3–4.
- Amado, Jorge. “The Soccer Ball and the Goalkeeper.” Translated by Richard V. McGehee. World Literature Today, July–August 2010, 23–25.
- Anthony, Andrew. On Penalties. London: Yellow Jersey, 2001.
- Dragomán, György. The White King. Translated by Paul Olchváry. New York: Doubleday, 2008.
- Dryden, Ken. The Game. New York: Times, 1983.
- Fernández Moores, Lucio, and Julio Elías Musimessi, eds. Ser o no ser—arquero: [Interviews with] Musimessi … [et al.]. Buenos Aires: El Ateneo, 1992.
- Galeano, Eduardo. Soccer in Sun and Shadow. Translated by Mark Fried. Rev. ed. London: Verso, 2003.
- Glanville, Brian. Goalkeepers Are Different. New York: Crown, 1972.
- Handke, Peter. The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. Translated by Michael Roloff. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972.
- Hines, Barry. A Kestrel for a Knave. 1968. London: Penguin, 2000.
- Hopcraft, Arthur. “A Village Goalkeeper.” Pages 136–38 in Football Classified: An Anthology of Soccer, ed. Michael Parkinson and Willis Hall. London: William Luscombe, 1973.
- Kassil’, Lev. Vratar’ respubliki [Goalkeeper of the Republic]. Moscow: Sovetskiy pisatel’, 1939.
- Keating, Frank. “Goalies.” Pages 185–88 in The Faber Book of Soccer, ed. Ian Hamilton. London: Faber and Faber, 1992.
- Livers, Keith A. “The Soccer Match as Stalinist Ritual: Constructing the Body Social in Lev Kassil’ ’s The Goalkeeper of the Republic.” The Russian Review (October 2001): 592–613.
- Nabokov, Vladimir. Conclusive Evidence, a Memoir. New York: Harper, 1951.
- Olesha, Yury. Envy, and Other Works. Translated by Andrew R. McAndrew. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1967.
- Paquin, Paquita. “The Lady Loves Fabien Barthez.” Pages 152–57 in Le Foot: The Legends of French Football, ed. Christov Rühn. London: Abacus, 2000.
- Plenderleith, Ian. “Goalkeepers Are Different.” Pages 22–23 in Power, Corruption, and Pies—Volume 2: The Best Writing from the Second Decade of “When Saturday Comes.” London: WSC Books, 2006.
- ———. “Save of the Day (in a Small Scottish Village in 1974).” Pages 3–12 in For Whom the Ball Rolls: Football Fiction and More. London: Orion, 2001.
- Reng, Ronald. “The Goalkeeper Is the Poet’s Darling: On Rafael Alberti’s Verses about Franz Platko.” Translated by Matthias Goldmann. Anstoss no. 4 (The Magazine of the Artistic and Cultural Programme for the FIFA 2006 World Cup), February–April 2006.
- Sant’Anna, Sérgio. “No último minuto (‘In the last minute’).” Translated by Richard V. McGehee. The Global Game, 25 February 2009.
- Simic, Goran. The Lonely Goalkeeper. http://goransimic.com/plays.htm. 2005.
- Soriano, Osvaldo. “The Longest Penalty Ever.” Translated by Miranda Stramel. Pages 88–95 in The Global Game: Writers on Soccer, ed. John Turnbull, Thom Satterlee, and Alon Raab. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.
- Talshir, Uri. “The Goalkeeper of Theresienstadt.” Ha’aretz, 12 April 2010.
- Tillich, Paul. The Courage to Be. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952.
- Turnbull, John. “Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer’s ‘Last Defender.’ ” World Literature Today, July–August 2010, 19–22.
- Watson, Scott B. “One Guess Is as Good as Another: Reading Life into Handke’s Soccer Goalie.” Aethlon 18, no. 2 (spring 2001): 47–56.
- Waugh, Evelyn. The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh. Edited by Michael Davie. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976.
- Winters, Edward. “How to Appreciate the Penalty Save.” Pages 149–60 in Soccer and Philosophy: Beautiful Thoughts on the Beautiful Game, ed. Ted Richards. Chicago: Open Court, 2010.
- Wodehouse, P. G. “The Goal-keeper and the Plutocrat.” Pages 240–51 in The Man Upstairs, and Other Stories. Repr., London : Barrie and Jenkins, 1971.
- Wood, Greg, and Mark R. Wilson. “A Moving Goalkeeper Distracts Penalty Takers and Impairs Shooting Accuracy.” Journal of Sports Sciences 28 (July 2010): 937–46.
- Yevtushenko, Yevgeny. “A Poet against the Destroyers.” Sports Illustrated, 19 December 1966.