5 modern goalkeepers who deserved the Ballon d'Or

Anirudh Menon

In 1956, when Gabriel Hanot, the chief magazine writer of “France Football” thought that it would be a great idea if his colleagues voted for the player of the year in Europe, he could not possibly have grasped the significance of what he had started. That year, they voted for a certain flying winger, Stanley Mathews (of England and Blackpool) and presented him with a little golden ball statuette to commemorate the moment.Not sure what we’re on about here? A little bit of French might help – golden ball literally translates to Ballon d’Or. The award is now an annual tradition, a prize that celebrates the best that football has to offer – with the player being selected by those who spend their entire lives analyzing, dissecting and discussing the finer points of the game we love – the journalists (now with the amalgamation of the FIFA World Player of the Year to the Ballon d’Or, international coaches and captains get votes too).However, be it the historic Ballon d’Or, the FIFA World Player of the Year or the now omnipotent FIFA Ballon D’Or, one thing has remained constant – the pre-eminence of goal-scoring and goal-creating footballers in the awardee honour roll. This in itself is quite natural – football matches are after all won by the team that scores more goals than the other – but it does do gross injustice to the unheralded champions at the other end of the pitch: the goalkeeper.Amidst the hoopla and (justified) hype surrounding the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi et al, we somehow seem to forget just how pivotal the men between the sticks are; the men who face these footballing demi-gods day in and day out, and come up on top more often than not. Only one goalie has ever won the Ballon D’Or - Lev Yashin, the Soviet superhero widely considered as the greatest goalkeeper to have ever graced the game – and no one has yet won either of the FIFA granted awards.In chronological order of professional appearances, I give you five modern goalkeepers who surely deserved/deserve a Ballon d’Or, and the title that comes with it - the best footballer on the planet.Author’s note: I have mentioned only the nationality and club that they played/are playing for in their peak. Also, I have only picked goalies who have been playing from the 90s, otherwise the likes of Gordon Banks, Peter Shilton, Walter Zenga, Sepp Maier and Dino Zoff would have been shoo-ins.

#1 Peter Schmeichel Denmark and Manchester United

For almost the entire decade of the 1990s, Peter Schmeichel was a giant (both literally and figuratively) between the sticks at Old Trafford and for his beloved Denmark

Starting his remarkable career at local club, Gladsaxe-Hero, the belligerent giant would go on to capture the world’s attention at Manchester United, who got him for a ridiculous half a million pounds from Danish Champions Brondby – a deal which Alex Ferguson called the “bargain of the century”. Although prone to hyperbole when it comes to his players, few would disagree with that statement.

In 1992, he was the rock on which the dynamic Danes built their astounding Euro Championship winning campaign, and through the most successful years of the Ferguson era he was the Goliath that was the last line of defence as Manchester United went on the war path, aiming to reclaim England for their own.

In 1996, when Eric Cantona deservedly garnered the praise for leading United to a number of single goal victories and with it the league title, it was the incredible shot-stopping skills of Schmeichel that ensured United preserved those one goal leads.

Almost unbeatable on one-on-ones, the sight of the 6’3”, 105 kg Dane flying out at rocket speed and spreading himself wide in his trademark starfish pose was enough to send many a striker into an existential crisis. He had incredible reflexes as well, pulling off jaw-dropping save after save every time he was called upon, including this ‘save of the decade’.

In a manner befitting the great man, his last game at United saw him captain the side to a historic Champions League victory. Guess who put in a man-of-the-match performance to make sure United stayed in the game long enough for Sheringham and Solskjaer to come on and steal the limelight in those frenetic dying minutes?

The last years of his career saw some mercurial performances at Aston Villa, Sporting Lisbon and Manchester City (!), but when the Great Dane finally hung his gloves up, there was nothing but the utmost respect from all quarters for the great sportsman that he was.

Select Individual honours – IFFHS goalkeeper of the year (92, 93), UEFA goalkeeper of the year (‘92, ‘93, ‘97, ‘98), Premier League Footballer of the year (95-96), PFA English League Team of the Century (1907-2007) Danish Footballer of the year (’90, ‘93, ‘99)

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#2 Oliver Kahn Germany and Bayern Munich

His fans called him Der Titan and Vol-Kahn-o. True to those names, Oliver Kahn at times looked like he had fire for blood and steel for nerves as he led Bayern Munich and Germany with the sort of courage, determination and skill that would have made Ares watch on in envy from Olympus. With the reflexes of a tensed up cat and the overpowering presence of a silver back, Kahn utterly dominated his penalty box for the best part of a decade and a half.

Kahn’s finest moment in Bayern colours came in 2001 when, after keeping Bayern level at 1-1 with a ‘man of the match’ performance against a very talented and very attack minded Valencia, he pulled off a truly remarkable three penalty saves in the ensuing shootout to help Bayern lift the Champions League for the first time since their remarkable run in the mid ‘70s. But the moment that stood out for me was the sight of Kahn walking up to console a dejected Santiago Canizares after the trauma of the shootout – showed the true character of the great man.

He did even better for Die Mannschaft a year later, when he almost single-handedly dragged a rather mediocre Germany to the World Cup final. Along the way he put in a run of barely believable performances, stopping everything that came his way as he stood tall in the German goal. Sadly, and as if to underline the sado-masochist nature of the profession of goalkeeping itself, it was the magnificent Kahn’s one mistake of the tournament that the great Ronaldo (the original) capitalized on to open the scoring for the Brazilians in the final.

But even in tragedy Kahn shone, coming up with a series of wonderful saves to try and keep Germany in the game which they ultimately lost 2-0. For his braveheart performances throughout the tournament he was given the Golden Ball for best player at the World Cup – the first and only goalkeeper to have received the honour. That year, he lost out at the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year Awards to Ronaldo. Arguably though, Kahn’s influence on his teams had been the greater.

Injury, personal problems and possible depression soon led to a fall from the dizzying peaks of form he had hit upon, and he would never again be the keeper he once was.

Select Individual honours – IFFHS World’s Best Goalkeeper (’99, ’00, ’01, ’02), Yashin award (’02), FIFA World Cup golden ball (’02), UEFA Goalkeeper of the year (’99, ’00, ’01, ’02), German Footballer of the year (’00, ‘01), 3rd in the Ballon D’Or (’01, ’02), 7 time winner of the Bundesliga keeper of the year award.

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#3 Gianluigi Buffon Italy and Juventus

Thomas N’Kono, the legendary Cameroonian goalkeeper, was a revelation at the 1990 World Cup – ever dynamic and assertive, he was the kind of person who you could easily see becoming a cult hero. For a young midfielder from Carrarra, N’Kono was exactly that, as the awe-struck kid would become inspired to take up a pair of goalkeeping gloves – and for that, Italy and the world owe N’Kono their eternal gratitude.

After breaking through the youth ranks at Parma, Gianluigi Buffon, or ‘superman’ as he was known by fans (and himself – witness this astounding save and brilliant celebration),would soon establish himself as their undisputed no. 1. His unparalleled athleticism, agility, aerial ability and speed off the line would see Parma reach unprecedented heights with him as the man behind it all. Juventus would pay a record-breaking €52 million to secure his services in 2001 – an amount that stands till date as the highest transfer fee for a goalkeeper.

Buffon hit the ground running at Juve and would quickly become integral to one of the strongest defences of all time. In 2002-03, Milan and Juve played out a goalless draw in the Champions League final and even though Buffon saved two penalties, shoddy spot-kicks from his teammates would see the men from Turin lose. The game, however, would not have entered penalties if it hadn’t been for the superhuman reflexes of Buffon, who saved a brilliant header from the goal machine Filipo Inzaghi at close range – a save that had Super Pippo looking on in disbelief.

2006 saw the greatest performance yet by Buffon in an Azzuri shirt. As part of the strongest defence seen at any World Cup, Buffon was at his spectacular best (never more so than in the final when he saved this Zidane header from an impossibly close range), as he organized his defence with the calm authority that only a truly great sportsman at the height of his powers can hope to possess.

The fact that he stuck with Juve after their relegation (a result of the Calciopoli scandal) - despite just winning the World Cup and having top-line suitors across Europe - spoke volumes about the character of the great man.

Despite his advancing age and competition from the youngsters, his amazing longevity means that Gigi Buffon is still inarguably one of the best goalkeepers in the world and quite naturally, he still remains the lynchpin of both the utterly dominant Juventus side as well as the national team.

Select Individual honours – IFFHS Goalkeeper of the Year award (’03, ’04, ’06, ’07), IFFHS Best Goalkeeper of the Decade (2000-10), UEFA club footballer of the year (’03), Yashin Award (’06), runner up Ballon d’Or (’06), UEFA goalkeeper of the year (’03), 8 time goalkeeper of the year in Serie A.

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#4 Iker Casillas Spain and Real Madrid

San (Saint) Iker - as he is known and worshipped by his legion of fans - is the archetypal hero having grown up through the ranks of his hometown club to become the undisputed no. 1 for club (Real Madrid) and country (Spain). By the age of 19 and 21 his athleticism, agility, reflexes and blinding speed, saw him become first choice for both Madrid and Spain respectively an unprecedented move considering just how flooded with talent the two teams have always been, and just how hard it is for a young goalie to break into the senior teams starting eleven at any level!

He became the youngest goalkeeper to win a Champions league in 1999- 00 and would go on to win it twice more (most recently last year in 2013-14) and win 5 domestic league titles as he grew into a cult hero for the Madridistas. Owning the box with speed and athleticism, Casillas was virtually unbeatable for a major part of the last decade; this logic defying save - where he scrambled from one post to the other to keep outwhat should have been a tap-in, in a vital match against Sevilla in 2009 - showing the world just how good he was

While the world celebrated the smooth passing and lovely movement of the dominant Spaniards as they tiki-taka ed their way to back to back Euros and a WC in between, few could overlook the absolutely pivotal role that Casillas played in the team.In the 2010 World Cup final, Andres Iniesta stole all the headlines for his brilliant injury time winner, but the match would never have reached that point if Casillas had not kept his wits and skills about him when faced with a flying Arjen Robben one-on- one deep in normal time. Casillas pulled off a stunning save to keep his team in the match and give Iniesta the opportunity to do what he so gloriously did.

After Euro 2012, Casillas had a strange dip in form and when a power struggle with Jose Mourinho left him out of the starting eleven at Madrid (at least in La Liga), his form and confidence took another big blow. The great man has been uncharacteristically error prone ever since (notable in the Champions League Final and against Holland in the World Cup).

Although he has the skill, courage and determination to make it back to his previous peaks, it does look like we have already seen the best of Saint Iker.

Select individual honours Five consecutive IFFHS Goalkeeper of the year award (08-12), Yashin Award (10), UEFA goalkeeper of the year (10), La Liga Goalkeeper of the year award (08)

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#5 Jose Luis Chilavert Paraguay and Vlez Sarsfield

When you hear the name Jose Luis Chilavert, most football fans tend to remember the crazy South American goalkeeper who would race out of his box to take deadly free-kicks from anywhere on the pitch. Very few would associate him with being one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time but that is exactly what he was.

Using his powerful frame to utterly dominate anything in the air inside his own box, Chilavert had a speed and agility, that belied his huge size, that made him a fantastic shot stopper in his prime.Dont believe that?Have a look at this ridiculously brilliant save off a (what should have been) unstoppable Diego Maradona free kick.

The fact that he played for footballing minnows Paraguay and played most of his best football for Argentinian club Vlez Sarsfield meant that very few across the world could appreciate the greatness of Chilavert. Aggressive, eccentric and possessed of a fiery temper, El Buldog was a truly astounding character who did things his own unique way. He even entered the record books as the only goalkeeper to have scored a hat-trick in a competitive match (all penalties).

For Paraguay he shone brightly in 1998 World Cup, putting in a brilliant display of shot stopping as he led his nation out of the group stage (of course, he also almost scored with a wonderful dipping free-kick against Bulgaria). He was at his scintillating best against France in the next round, but his heroics ultimately proved futile as they conceded a late golden goal in extra time to Laurent Blanc.

His best football though came at Vlez, where he played for ten amazing years, helping the team to domestic, continental and inter-continental triumphs as he pulled out one amazing display after the other. The great man, scored an astounding 67 times in his professional career but it was his incredible shot stopping skills that have made him inarguably the greatest goalkeeper to come out of South America.

The fact that the players in front of him rarely matched up to the players that the four preceding goalkeepers had in front of them show just how amazing his performances were.

Select individual honours IFFHS Goalkeeper of the year (95, 96, 98), South American footballer of the year (96), Argentian Clausura Footballer of the year (96)

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#6 Honourable mentions

Edwin van der Sar Holland and Manchester United/Ajax

Bought into the Ajax first team by Louis Van Gaal, the lanky Dutchman was a pivotal presence in their remarkable European triumph of 95, he also played magnificently at Juventus and (surprisingly) Fulham till he reached Manchester United for his last glorious stint. For sheer longevity and (the incredibly high levels of) consistency few footballers can match the amazing goalkeeper whose keen sense of position, athletic diving abilities and supreme agility marked him out as one of the best goalkeepers ever.

In the 2008-09 season, he went 1,311 minutes without having conceded a single goal in the league - a record for a single season

Petr ech Czech Republic and Chelsea

The Petr ech that played for the Czech Republic and Chelsea from 2004 till that horrific depressed skull fracture in 2006-07, was one of the greatest talents ever. At one point it was scary how much potential the man had, if it were not for that injury, he would have walked away with the title of greatest goalkeeper playing now with ease for he had the kind of dominating presence few have ever been able to produce on a football field.

Lets face it, the injury changed him, and most understandably so. Even though he still undoubtedlyone of the best in the business, he could never recapture that incredible aura of invincibility that surrounded him at one point; when he broke the Buffon Casillas hegemony over the IFHSS Goalkeeper of the year award to be voted best in the world in 2005.

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#7 Likely candidate in the near future

Manuel Neuer Germany and Bayern Munich

Few can argue with the assessment that Manuel Neuer is on top of the goalkeeping pile right now Still prone to the occasional rush of blood, the Giant German has a golden opportunity to become one of the all-time greats if he keeps up this level of performance (although indications are he could just become better a scary thought for strikers worldwide)

Others to look out for

Thibaut Courtois - Belgium and Chelsea (he was utterly brilliant for Atletico over the past couple of years and at Chelsea he looks like he will be the no. 1 for the foreseeable future)

David de Gea Spain and Manchester United (quite possibly the best Spanish keeper out there at the moment and has all the makings to become Schmiechel-esque cult hero at Old Trafford)

Keylor Navas Costa Rica and Real Madrid (lets just hope he gets a game for Madrid if he does, he surelywill becomea candidate for not justthe top keeper in the world, but the best footballer on the planet)

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Edited by Staff Editor


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