The fall of Aleksandr Filimonov, the man once considered Russia’s best goalkeeper in a generation

The fall of Aleksandr Filimonov, the man once considered Russia’s best goalkeeper in a generation

No goalkeeper is ever more than a moment away from disaster. A missed cross, a lapse in concentration or a split second of poor positioning can be the difference between victory and defeat, glory and infamy. The list of those who fell foul of the goalkeeping gods spans the history of the game itself. From Brazil’s Barbosa, whose error against Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final led to lifelong ostracism and despair, to Robert Green’s howler against the United States in 2010, calamity is a constant threat to those who guard the posts.

Few keepers in the world, however, are more closely associated with a single mistake than Russia’s Aleksandr Filimonov. A name unfamiliar to many outside of his native land, he is forever tied to one catastrophe in the minds of his fellow countrymen.

Let’s set the scene. It’s 1999, the eve of the new millennium, and Russia have been performing above expectations in a tough Euro 2000 qualifying group that includes world champions France. Among other impressive results, an unexpected victory Paris has lifted spirits back home and cemented Filimonov’s position as Russia’s number one. Up until now, the young shot-stopper has been impervious in front of goal, making a string of excellent saves and safeguarding Russian hopes of advancement.

All that stands between Russia and a place in the tournament now is a single game against neighbours and rivals Ukraine, led by the twin talents of Serhiy Rebrov and Andriy Shevchenko. The importance of the match, coupled with the tension of a post-Soviet clash between the countries, has drawn a sell-out crowd to the Luzhniki, including Russia’s young prime minister and presidential heir-apparent, Vladimir Putin.

The stakes are simple. A victory will see Russia through; anything less will allow Ukraine to advance in their place. It’s all or nothing in Moscow.

Unsurprisingly, it’s a cagey affair from kick-off. The Russians press forward while Ukraine puts men behind the ball. In the Russian goal, Filimonov is largely untested as most of the action is happening at the other end of the pitch. Then, in the 75th minute, a fierce free-kick from Russia’s Valery Karpin finds the back of the net. All of Russia celebrates; they’re 15 minutes away from qualification and look set to eliminate their closest rivals in the process.

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The Ukrainians need to search for an equaliser. But the clock is counting down and Russia’s back line is experienced, focused and stubborn. They kept Zinedine Zidane’s France at bay on home turf and, if all else fails, they have the in-form Aleksandr Filimonov as a last line of defence. 

A foul outside the area in the 88th minute offers Ukraine one last glimmer of hope. Russia switches to defensive mode and their keeper readies himself for his first real test of the match. Throughout the game, Filimonov has appeared his usual, resolute self. Right up to the point where Shevchenko places the ball just outside the penalty box.

Ukraine’s talismanic striker takes the kick and the ball drifts towards the goal, but it looks more hopeful than threatening. It doesn’t have enough pace, power or curve to challenge the Russian keeper. It’s a shot in the dark, a last roll of the dice, a speculative effort with no real chance of finding its mark.

Then, as the camera pans towards where Filimonov is, the Russian keeper is revealed to be too far off his line. Shevchenko’s strike is drifting over his head. He tries to recover, back-pedalling towards the goal, and, in a final act of desperation, grasping at the ball with both hands. But it’s too late. He is already falling backwards, ball still clutched in his palms. As he tumbles, he releases it and it flies into the open net. Somehow the teams are level with two minutes left. Russia are facing elimination and the responsibility is squarely on their number one.

Face buried in his hands, Filimonov seems as unable as anyone else to grasp what has just happened. His anguished pose is already an iconic image of Russian sporting tragedy and his name is synonymous with national disaster. In the history of howlers, his folly is up there with the most spectacular in both image and impact. He’s left his mark on the game – but not in a way anyone would wish to.

There isn’t a chance for Russia to rally. The game ends one apiece and Ukraine head into the playoffs.

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That final whistle called time on more than just the match itself. Favoured above all other keepers in the country before the game, Filimonov would only play for Russia on four more occasions, all of them friendlies. His error was too entrenched, and costly, in the minds of supporters for him to ever be considered as a fixture for the national side again.

His club career faltered too. A mainstay at Spartak Moscow before the match, by 2001 he lost his starting position to Maksym Levytsky and was forced to seek opportunities elsewhere.

In something of an ironic twist, he was signed by Ukrainian side Dynamo Kyiv as cover for Oleksandr Shovkovsky, his counterpart that night at the Luzhniki. As recognisable for his error in Ukraine as he is in Russia, he featured little during his time there and soon returned to Russia, embarking on a succession of unremarkable spells at average clubs.

His descent occurred over a period of years, but, in truth, his career started its slide the moment the ball crossed the line at the Luzhniki. The decline of his own confidence and the faith others placed in him happened at an alarming speed, leaving the once-promising keeper with nowhere to go but down.

So what, if anything, can be learned from Filimonov’s fumble and subsequent fall from grace? No keeper, however gifted, can hope to be immune from such mishaps. There is no way of knowing when these follies will take place or what disastrous consequences they bring about. On the pitch, at least, little can be done to help other goalkeepers avoid such a fate.

Off the pitch, however, and nearly two decades later, we can see that other circumstances compounded his mistake and meant the fallout from it was greater than usual.

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In 1999, Russia was emerging from a trying, if not traumatic, era. National morale, as well as wages and pensions, was still recovering from the post-Soviet collapse. The need to see Russia succeed, especially against a fellow former Soviet state, was greater and its meaning deeper than it would be today. Filimonov simply dropped the ball in the wrong game at the wrong time.

History, as well as circumstance, has been unkind to the keeper. That game in 1999 was the last time Russia and Ukraine faced each other on a football pitch. International discord and border disputes seem certain to ensure that it remains their last meeting for some time to come. While it does, Filimonov’s mistake remains the only major event to occur in clashes between the two nations, whose present animosity will keep its memory alive for generations to come.

There was something in the way of redemption at the tail end of the unfortunate keeper’s career. After leaving the grass game behind and switching to beach football, Filimonov enjoyed notable successes for both club and country on the sand – the highlight being a winners medal at the 2011 Beach Soccer World Cup.

He even made a surprise return to the Russian Premier League in 2014 with Arsenal Tula at the advanced age of 41. While he only managed to play the first half of the season, it was still a notable achievement for a player of his years and a way for him to leave the game on his own terms.

More than anything, his story reminds us of the fragility of his position. The line between glory and failure is always thin in sports, but nowhere is it thinner than between the goalkeeper’s posts. An error like his can define a career and render all other achievements meaningless – and the switch in fortune only takes a second.

Aleksandr Filimonov’s tragedy and his ability to continue in its aftermath are acknowledgements of the inner resilience required to put on those gloves, lace up those boots, and go out there week after week. While it won’t wipe away the memory of his mistake, or the number of times it’s viewed on YouTube, his willingness to continue playing is a powerful testament to the tenacity of Russia’s most infamous goalkeeper.

By John Torrie @johnltorrie

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