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

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.”

Page 3 of 6 | Previous page | Next page