This feature is part of Virtuoso
The sign of a good goalkeeper is they save the shots they’re supposed to save. The sign of a great goalkeeper, however, is when they save the shots they are not supposed to save – that nobody is supposed to save. The best goalkeepers ride the wave of momentum, every save raising the tide in which his team floats. If finishing is a delicate art, goalkeeping is an alchemy reserved for the boldest of the bold. The best goalkeepers are the ones that live the heads of the opposition, forcing them to take shots they don’t want to take.
The year is 2002 and the theatre of the world’s game is taking place in Japan and South Korea, two proud footballing nations in their own right, co-hosting the World Cup. The world watches on 21 June as two very different types of teams take the pitch. The underdogs are the United States, whose form at this World Cup has been explosive, surprising, full of endeavour and oddly entertaining, seeing off Mexico and Portugal en route to the quarter-finals.
Their opponents are the proud powerhouse of international football, Germany, whose tradition in tournament play is to advance regardless of how they play. If luck favours the bold and one can accept that ‘football luck’ is different, then a universal truth is Germany need only a sniff to stifle a game. And so it goes – luck didn’t favour the bold Americans because football luck, of course, favours the Germans.
Football is not fair and games most certainly have harsh consequences that can defy logic and repeatedly laugh in the face of expectation during the run of play over 90 minutes. An entire game can change with a single pass, a spontaneous shot, a moment of magic. And one knows that games can be saved, figuratively and quite literally, and pulled from the brink of disaster by resolution, consistency, and a reliable pair of mitts belonging to a man with a lion-like ferocity between the posts. The German machine is ruthlessly reliable and on that June evening in South Korea, the anchor of that efficiency was Oliver Kahn.
The enigmatic and energetic German goalkeeper embodied both consistency and efficiency in his net-minding duties throughout his career for Die Mannschaft and Bayern Munich. Kahn provided the heavy-handed fierceness that made strikers think twice before entering his space. His command of the box even put his own defenders on notice as to who actually owned the area they found themselves in. Kahn had no issue laying claim to any and every ball that sailed through the air and both attacker and defender alike knew he was there, lurking, ready to pounce on any loose ball.
Kahn was dominant and domineering in personality and his play. A complete goalkeeper whose play laid the foundation for many of Germany’s modern goalkeeping products in terms of shot-stopping, cutting down angles, distribution and snatching crosses off the foreheads of strikers and punching through anyone and anything in his way. Kahn set a different standard for goalkeeping at a time when German football was caught between an illustrious past and the dawn of an exciting future.
Americans and perhaps every neutral will remember their team’s exit from the World Cup 2002 in Ulsan, South Korea, for a Torsten Frings handball that denied an American team full of fight – the kind of piss and vinegar Germany, much like Portugal and Mexico before them had not expected – the possibility to equalise against a lacklustre and, at times, rather feckless Germany team. Germans will remember advancing after being out-played, out-passed and out-run most of the game save not for the epitome of consistency in goal from Kahn and a towering header from Michael Ballack.
Time and again, Kahn kept the Germans in the game, parrying away and stymying a resurgent and persistent American onslaught for long stretches of the match. The Americans unleashed a youthful Landon Donovan who, at the time, was only known to Germans by his failure to perform for a rather loaded Bayer Leverkusen side. Donovan’s runs from the wing, or playing off Brian McBride and Clint Mathis, forced Kahn into action repeatedly.
Playmakers in the American midfield like John O’Brien from Ajax and Sunderland’s Claudio Reyna pull the strings against a formidable German midfield with the likes of Dietmar Hamann, Bernd Schneider and Michael Ballack, but it was Kahn who read the American attack like a book and commanded his back line to hurry the Americans into shooting early or off-balance. It was Kahn who rushed off his line to bark at his defenders. It was Kahn who owned the game.
What is often lost in the narrative and recanting of the game’s action, which rightly focuses on the outstanding play of the United States, is his performance. After all, the game was rife with moments that defined the game’s outcome. A stunning and powerful header by Ballack surging through the American box to meet the ball was enough to get the Germans the goal they needed to win. Scottish referee Hugh Dallas no doubt swallowed his whistle and bottled it when Frings appeared to handle the ball on his own goal line while pinned against the post, denying the Americans a penalty that may have proved decisive. The world will never know what may have happened if the Americans equalised.
What the world does know is that Oliver Kahn directed his defence, comprised of Thomas Linke, Sebastian Kehl and Christoph Metzelder, to stifle the American attack led by McBride, Mathis,and a free-roaming Donovan, whose incisive runs tore through the German lines with relative ease. His finishing, however, was simply no match for Kahn.
The lone German goal was off a perfectly worked set-piece whipped in from the right wing. The header was powerful and clinical. For every opportunity the Americans squandered, their defence, however, was up to the task to keep the Germans from doubling their lead and were, too, granted a bit of luck when Miroslav Klose struck his header off the right post.
Where the Americans were relentless the Germans were reactive, as though they never could get out of first or second gear. But that’s the beauty and cruelty of the game at the highest level. Germany did not need to play well to win the game.
What Germany needed was Kahn and the variety of goalkeeping skills he showed that saw them through and ensured the team’s result passed the acid test. His individual performance was a testament to how intelligent a player he was, showing glimpses of what future goalkeepers would add as staples to their games with aggressive starting positions.
After the game, German legend Franz Beckenbauer delivered one of the most vicious critiques of the team performance with a dose of praise for Kahn: “We should change everyone in the side apart from Kahn. If you put all the players in a sack and punched it, whichever player you hit would deserve it.”
Kahn’s post-match interview was candid as he, too, knew he saved more than the onslaught of American attacking movements. “Yes, we were lucky to win. They almost fought us into the ground and I was amazed at their power. We tried everything we could but in two days no one will be dissatisfied with our performance. We are in the last four, which means we are in the top four in the world.”
Oliver Kahn’s assertion and humility were spot-on. There is no place for what might have been in tournament football. There is only the result.
By Jon Townsend @jon_townsend3
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp