World Cup 2014: Goalkeepers, the difference between success and failure.

With the World Cup in The Hague almost here, the teams participating are starting to formulate their strategies on how they will see off their competition and get their hands on that coveted trophy. Big tournaments are won and lost on the smallest of margins so unquestionably each player in each squad has their own part to play in the tournament. With that in mind it is hard to underestimate the role of the goalkeeper in the quest for glory. The difference between success and failure could hinge on the quality of the No1 at a team’s disposal.

There are plenty of examples of where goalkeepers have made the difference on the big occasion. With penalty corners now a massive part of deciding games, especially in the men’s competitions, goalkeepers are becoming specialists in that aspect of the game. In the same way Mink Van Der Weerden or Ashley Jackson practice flicking penalty corners for hours on end, goalkeepers are also practicing keeping them out.

130818 eng poland 30Nicolas Jacobi, the current German No1 has carved something of a reputation for himself as a difficult man to beat from set pieces, most recently he kept out a number of penalty corners in the Hockey India League, helping his side Delhi Waveriders to take the trophy in dramatic fashion. Likewise, keepers such as George Pinner can be seen making full use of their giant frames to repel numerous penalty corners. Pinner’s ability to deny the best around led to him being named goalkeeper of the tournament at the World League Final and helped his England side to a bronze medal. The two are inextricably linked, it is no coincidence.

As well as the increased importance of penalty corners, the new shootout format has allowed plenty of goalkeepers to come to the fore when it matters most. Joyce Sombroek, the Dutch goalkeeper made three saves in the shootout of the Olympic semifinal against New Zealand to secure a safe passage to the gold medal match, which they of course won. More recently, England’s Maddie Hinch, renowned for her speed across the ground, her excellent footwork and her outstanding agility has proved to be the difference in some
massive games. Hinch saved four times in the semifinal of the Eurohockey Championships against the Netherlands and then twice in the World League Finals against Argentina to secure her side a bronze medal. Hinch and Sombroek are two great examples of goalkeepers using their strengths as a deciding factor for their teams.

Goalkeepers are a different breed to other players. Unlike the other positions on the field there is no safety net for a goalkeeper. There is no margin for error. A mistake will more often than not result in a goal. Not everyone can handle the burden of such pressure which means it is not just the ability of the goalkeeper in question that is important, it is also their TriFinance EuroHockey Championship 2013mentality which is crucial. If your goalkeeper does make a mistake or concedes a soft goal, are they mentally equipped to bounce back, put it out of their mind and ensure they are ready for the next shot at goal, or will their performance suffer and lead to more problems for the remainder of the game? We’ve all seen games where a goalkeeper has a bad day and we’ve all seen how that quickly spreads to the rest of the team. A calm, assured goalkeeper who is in control instils those feelings in the defence. A hesitant, panicked goalkeeper will soon make the rest of the team exactly the same. A great example of this comes from Kim Platten, the German goalkeeper. In the EuroHockey Championship Final against England she conceded two soft goals in the first half. A lesser goalkeeper would have hidden and their performance diminished considerably. Instead, Platten recovered and turned in an outstanding display with a string of top class saves and vital stops in the shootout to give her side the win and the trophy.

It’s not just their mentality that counts. A good goalkeeper needs to be fearless, agile, quick and dominant in and around their D. Flexibility counts for a lot too, in a literal and figurative sense. With the game evolving all the time a good goalkeeper needs to come up with new and inventive ways to keep the ball out of the net at all costs.

Investec World League Semi Final - LondonThe keepers named in each squad for a big tournament often give a clear indication of a team’s chances of progressing to the latter stages and competing for the top honours. Take the lineups for the London Olympics as an example. Teams were only allowed squads of 16, so most opted for just one goalkeeper and then a backup goalkeeper in their two reserve players. The teams who named two goalkeepers in their final 16 seemed to be the ones who either did not know who their first choice was, or worse still, did not have faith in the current incumbent of the No1 jersey. India, who finished dead last in the tournament had skipper Bharat Chetri between the posts, but they named Sreejesh Parattu Raveendran in the squad, too. Sreejesh actually came into the side for the third game, only to be replaced in the 54th minute of a 5-2 defeat to Germany. They then chopped and changed for the remainder of the tournament, hardly a glowing endorsement of either player’s credentials and hardly a confidence boost for either keeper, or for the defence in front of them. Chetri, though not alone, had endured a nightmare tournament and seemingly took the brunt of the blame, falling out of favour with the selectors and losing not only the captaincy but his place in the team.

Another side who named two goalkeepers in their 16 was that of Argentina’s ladies. Whilst they did indeed collect a silver medal, the subject of their first choice goalkeeper caused them great consternation in the lead up to the games. Their best goalkeeper, Belen Succi, announced she would miss the competition due to falling pregnant, prompting a less than impressed Luciana Aymar to say: “She could have waited three months. It’s a tough blow. I wish her the best as a mother-to-be, but for us as a team it is hard. As a goalie, she is huge, and the truth is she’s left us in a tight spot.” When the multiple time World Player of the Year is compelled to make such statements, you know she is talking about a pretty important player. It is hard to say whether Succi would have made a winning difference in the final against the Dutch but given she has walked straight back into the side since returning to playing you can draw your own conclusions about the quality of her replacements.

Obviously, as is always the case, the headlines in this summer’s tournaments will be taken by the goal scorers who fire their team to glory. However, answer me this: Would you have more chance of winning the World Cup with a below par striker, or a below par goalkeeper? The answer to those in the know is very clear. They might not get the credit they deserve, but goalkeepers are the difference between success and failure.

This article originally appeared in the latest issue of Push Hockey Magazine. If you would like to see more of their content or you would like to subscribe, why not visit their website?

About thetopofthed

Columnist for The Hockey Paper and the man behind The Top of the D. Writer, podcaster, goalkeeper and BBC Sport man. Used to work for Great Britain Hockey and have covered the sport at every major tournament.
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