Goalkeeping – A Great German Talent
In English schools it is the fat boy who gets to be goalkeeper: the assumption is that his sheer bulk will block the ball. In Germany, the position goes to one of the fittest, the best jumper, the brightest mind, the strongest kicker. The country, in short, takes goalkeeping seriously. For years it even made its keeper, Olli Kahn, captain of the national team – unthinkable in most countries where the captain is expected to lead from the mid-field.
The fact is goalkeeping is a great German talent. In the top 30 keepers of all time, there are four Germans – Kahn at number 4, followed by Andreas Köpke (nowadays the national goalkeeping coach), Bodo Illgner and Jens Lehmann (the national keeper in the 2006 World Cup). Now, you may be thinking: football talk and the Goethe-Institut, it doesn’t fit together. But in fact the German competence in stopping footballs entering the net does say something about the national character. The English complain that if a game with Germany is decided by a penalty shoot-out, then the English will always lose – thanks to the supposedly magical powers of German keepers. It has never been as simple as that however. The Germans have thought long and heavily about the existential duel between goalkeeper and the man who shoots a penalty. The writer Peter Handke has brilliantly described the solitary moment when the goalkeeper stares out at the penalty shooter, barely 11 metres away. Should he jump left or right or stand still? A decision to be made in a split second. The England trainers tell their keepers: use your intuition. And give them barely any training. But the Germans take the situations very seriously, acknowledge the isolation of the goalkeeper, scientifically research the possibilities and make him part of a system, of the team. That, dare I say it, is typisch deutsch.
The German-ness of it all, the effectiveness, came out most clearly in the 2006 Wold Cup. Jens Lehmann faced a penalty shoot-out (Elfmeterschießen) against the Argentine side. Would Germany be knocked out? At a crucial moment Lehmann could be seen in the goalmouth studying a small piece of paper, what school kids call a “Spickzettel”, a cheat-card. It represented the sum of German research on the penalty kicking behaviour of the Argentines and it had been stuffed in Lehmann’s sock. In a new book (Der Wahnsinn liegt auf dem Platz, Kiepenheuer & Witsch), Lehmann explains how it came about. Maikel Stevens, the son of his former Schalke-trainer Huub Stevens had been number crunching. “Er hatte eine riesige Datenbank mit Elfmeterschützen, von denen er uns vier oder fünf Seiten mit argentinischen Spielern zur Verfügung stellte” („He had put together a huge data bank of penalty shooters, four or five pages of which were devoted to Argentine players, and made it available to us”). The veteran Andreas Köpke then distilled this knowledge on to a single piece of note paper that Lehmann could carry onto the field.
The German system
And there we have it: the German system. A combination that draws on decades of experience (Andreas Köpke, Huub Stevens), high-tech, youthful enthusiasm and analysis. Does any other country do it like that? No. I think the same combination has helped German companies capture niches in the global export market. The respect for past experience can be seen in other societies – above all in Asia –but the Germans have found ways of adapting the old lessons and grasping quicker than others what is changing. At the Annual German Goalkeeping Congress – and what other country has one of these – Andreas Köpke declared: “No other position has changed so much in the past years as that of the goalkeeper” (“Die Position des Torhüters ist diejenige im Fußball, die sich am meisten verändert hat in den vergangenen Jahren”). Which of course explains, why mid-field player or strikers don’t have their very own annual congress. The Germans were the first to spot that goalkeepers had become more physically active players. In Köpke’s day – he was goalie when Germany won the European cup in 1996 – a goalkeeper would run between 3 or 4 kilometres during a match. Now, German goalkeepers run between seven and eight kilometres, moving forward and thus making the whole game more offensive. The modern goalkeeper has to direct the game up to and including the mid-field; he is no longer just the Lord of the penalty box (Strafraum). That is why you see German goalkeepers shouting a lot –- they are giving orders.
The goalkeeper problem
Jens Lehmann argues that a good goalkeeper has to be completely concentrated on the match; not just on the movement of the ball but also the tactical development of the opposing side (Gegenspieler). And that is why, he claims, German goalkeepers are better than the English. In Britain – and indeed in many other societies – the truly talented are taken out of school early and apprenticed to clubs. “But it is precisely there (in school) that one learns to concentrate for several hours” (“Genau dort aber lernt man sich mehrere Stunden zu konzentrieren”). German goal-keepers are on the whole better educated, more analytical.
But perhaps, just perhaps, the Germans take their goalkeeping – also typisch deutsch – a little too seriously? Again and again German tabloids shout that the country has a Torwartproblem, a goalkeeper problem. In 2006 it was: should Olli Kahn (much-loved and much-hated) be replaced by Jens Lehmann? At the time it seemed as if the whole male population of Germany was split into Kahn and Lehmann fractions. Ahead of the 2010 World Cup, the question is less emotional. Tim Wiese, Manuel Neuer or Jörg Butt, youth or experience? The suicide of one of Germany’s top candidates, Robert Enke – he was clinically depressed and buckled under the pressure – and the injury of another leading player René Adler, have narrowed the choice. But ultimately Germany’s “Torwartproblem” actually just boils down to which of several excellent candidates should be given a chance. Other countries, scrambling to find a suitable national keeper would like to have this kind of problem. Germany, it need hardly be said, is one of the favourites for this year’s World cup in South Africa.
is Germany correspondent for the London daily newspaper "The Times". He has been living in Germany for twenty years and is author of the column "My Berlin" in the "Tagesspiegel". In his book "My dear Krauts" he describes the peculiarities of everyday life in Germany with typical British humour.
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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