Monday, 14 June 2010

Expiating The Sins Of Others

I was less the keeper of a soccer goal than the keeper of a secret . . . a fabulous exotic being in an English footballer’s disguise, composing verse in a tongue nobody understood about a remote country nobody knew. Small wonder I was not very popular with my team-mates.

The England goalkeeper occupies the same territory that made a turnip of Graham Taylor and saw an effigy of David Beckham swing from a lamp-post after his sending-off against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. Their crimes? To err in sport. So one Sunday newspaper bookended its coverage of Robert Green’s blunder with the banner headlines 'Hand of Clod’ on the front page and 'Stars and Tripe’ on the back, notes the Telegraph's Kevin Garside, a double kicking just to make sure the poor sod stayed down. This summary justice takes no account of the devastation it causes over and above the shame and humiliation felt by the player himself. It is the response of the mob mired in a blame culture that seeks to lump the failings of the team on the shoulders of one individual.

Yes Green’s fumble was a monumental howler that gifted the United States their goal, acknowledges Garside, but was he any more culpable than Emile Heskey, who has not scored in any competition since February and who missed in Rustenburg a chance that would have given England the lead with only the goalkeeper to beat? And what about Steven Gerrard, who was turned inside out by Clint Dempsey to create the space to shoot at Green’s goal? Gerrard, whose strike in the fourth minute embellished a fine personal performance, largely escaped censure in the Green calamity. Had he done a better job of screening Dempsey, Green would not have been exposed. That is not to excuse Green’s error but to highlight the difference in the reaction.

Goalkeepers, of course, can only get it wrong since they are expected to save every shot that comes their way. Neither Heskey, who received high praise from Fabio Capello, nor Gerrard, England’s man of the match, was called in by the England management yesterday to have his psychological state assessed. That's just the way it is. It’s all your fault and that is what goalkeeping is all about, observes Simon Barnes in today's Times. As an English spectator, a human being and a paid-up member of the Lapsed Goalkeepers’ Union, he writes, I feel tremendously sorry for Robert Green. Who would not? But I am equally — and rightly — inclined to blame him.

Green’s goalkeeping error wasn’t just one of those things, but rather a fundamental error of technique. Keeping your eye on the ball is the basis of all ball games, notes Barnes. I don’t suppose he would have made such a mistake on any other occasion — apart from his first match at the World Cup. That’s one of the reasons we watch big-time sport: because big occasions reveal, as nothing else, the flaws of those that take part. And that’s why you’re a goalkeeper, because you are prepared to accept blame. A goalkeeper makes a contract with the game. Glory: very, very seldom. Blame: every game.

And that’s why goalkeepers are different, that’s why goalkeepers are crazy, that’s why goalkeepers are singular fellows, states Barnes. Don’t ask me, ask the great goalkeepers of history, people such as Albert Camus, Vladimir Nabokov, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Julio Iglesias, Pope John Paul II, Che Guevara. Singular fellows all. Goalkeeping is not just about a talent for handball, a liking for diving about and a taste for being in a team yet wearing a different outfit. It’s the taste for blame. And the higher you rise, the greater the blame. You will be blamed when it’s your fault, you will be blamed when it isn’t.

Alas, poor Green, he earned every scrap, but what about Paul Robinson? asks Barnes. He was goalkeeper when England lost to Croatia a couple of years ago. He missed a back pass and the resulting blame has affected him since. But the ball hit a bobble and hopped over his foot. It happens to outfielders all the time, and no one blames them. But Robinson’s misfortune led to a goal, for which he was blamed. That’s what goalkeeping means. In another match against Croatia, Scott Carson fumbled a ball to give Croatia the win and end Steve McClaren’s period as England coach. And that really was his fault, though it can be argued that good things came from it. But poor Carson hasn’t been the same since.

David Seaman is blamed for England’s defeat at the World Cup of 2002. He let Ronaldinho’s free kick float over his head as England lost to Brazil in the quarter-finals. Seaman was a safe keeper, one of immense competence. But he was always short on imagination and was beaten by a piece of brilliance he could never have imagined. Not his fault, it’s just that his limitations were exposed. But he will always bear the blame.

Naturally, then, Green's private agonies were not spared in the deeper recesses of the Royal Bafokeng Stadium late on Saturday night. The plasma television screens that the players proceeded past out of the ground had a video of past World Cup goalkeeping bloopers on a loop. As he was offering his mea culpa, England’s blunderer had not even left the scene of the crime but already he was immortalised along with the Peruvian, Ramón “El Loco” Quiroga, (for rugby-tackling an opponent over the halfway line in 1978), René Higuita for trying to dribble round Roger Milla in 1990 and David Seaman in 2002 for stumbling backwards.

Tim Howard, whose commanding performance will have made Green's error all the more unbearable to take, probably found the best advice for him when asked how might Green get over the 40th-minute error which will always live with him. "A lot of alcohol," Howard said. "There is nothing that dulls that pain. All you can do is spend time on the training ground and put in a string of good performances. It is horrible. It sucks. I don't know if there is a psychological effort."

John Terry's account of the scene in England's dressing room at half-time suggests that Fabio Capello did not indulge Green in any way and that his response to the error did not include an arm around the shoulder. "The manager came in and spoke, saying, 'Forget it'," Terry said. "'Pick yourself up, forget it, it's been and gone.' Then the manager left the room." It was left to the players to pick up the confidence of a shattered individual as best they could. Frank Lampard was one of the first to motion "chin up" to him. "Green was mortified and the lads were saying at half-time that the only way he could repay us was to make important saves," Terry said. "He did that in the second half."

Fabio Capello's review of the DVD of the game may persuade him that the save in question – from Jozy Altidore – was not quite as assured as it seemed on first viewing. The striker, who could have put England in serious trouble had he crossed to Clint Dempsey, instead fired straight at Green, who gloved the ball on the post when he might have palmed it around the corner into safety. But in Green's defence was the testimony of several players close to the ball when Dempsey beat Steve Gerrard to fire the fateful shot, who claimed that the adidas Jabulani ball deviated as it has done in training."When I hit the shot I knew it was going on target and at the last second it moved a little bit," Dempsey admitted. "I saw him reaching but I saw it go over the line." The consensus of the US team seemed to be that Dempsey was right. "Coming into the tournament, I knew there was going to be some crazy goals with the ball and I didn't want to be a part of any of them," Howard said. Lampard, too, agreed that "the ball moved about a bit" after Dempsey released his strike.

Capello is undecided about whether Green should be given another start in Cape Town against Algeria on Friday. Though leaving him out would be a vote of no confidence, which effectively means Green's participation in the tournament is over, he may also take into consideration that the player's last competitive match for him was in Ukraine, when he became the first England goalkeeper to be sent off and David James was needed on to replace him, in the 1-0 defeat in Dnipropetrovsk. But there appears to be something Capello is not happy about regarding James' preparations for this tournament.

James certainly looked bemused about Capello's decision to leave him out as he left the stadium late on Saturday. He rejected the England management's suggestions he is injured and asked if he felt he was the England No 1, he joked that, "I am the number one but I just didn't play" – an allusion to his squad number. "I am fit and well," James added. His interpretation of how Green could recover from this was a little less realistic than Howard's. Asked how long it would take, he said: "Two minutes. It should do. Things happen, but he's made a great save, he's back on blob. We'll do our warm-down, chat tomorrow. The spirit is fine." In his heart, Green will beg to differ.

So we are left wondering about the England manager who selected Green after a great deal of shilly shallying. What did he do in his post-match interview? He blamed the goalie, what else? The truth is England did not fail to beat the United States because of Green, but because they were not good enough in other parts of the pitch. Old failings returned; too little conviction, too little flair. For this Capello must share responsibility. The problem with beating up on Green is that it diverts attention from the real issues holding England back; parts that continue to yield less than their sum.

The answer therefore is not to peer into Green’s psyche but the team’s. It could be that we are all deluded in the belief that England are good enough to win the World Cup. A ranking of third favourites looked an impossible position to argue after watching Argentina lay down their intricate patterns against Nigeria at Ellis Park earlier in the day. It is said the Argentina can’t defend. Who cares if they can attack like that?

The hysterical reaction to Green’s mistake inflames the atmosphere in the England camp to such a degree that some commentators are suggesting that Capello has in his hands not only the fate of Green in the next game against Algeria in Cape Town on Friday but his career. One wrong move now, they say, could have fatal consequences for Green’s international future. This is the kind of disproportionate nonsense that did for Paul Robinson after his air shot against Croatia in Zagreb during qualifying for the 2008 European Championship. There was more than one Robinson advocate at the Rustenburg crime scene regretting the lynching of the Blackburn keeper that day.

Steve McClaren eventually settled on Scott Carson and saw the same thing happen after his blooper in the corresponding fixture at Wembley. The precedent for placing goalkeepers in the stocks goes all the way back to 1970, when Peter Bonetti copped the flak for the World Cup quarter-final defeat to Germany after England had led 2-0. Like Bonetti, Carson and Robinson, Green is technically no worse or better a keeper this morning than he was before the United States match. He retains the same qualities and flaws weighed by Capello when deciding on his no.1 for Rustenburg. It is for Capello to wrestle with his conscience before Friday and for the rest of us to take a breath before launching into unnecessary character assassinations that serve the interests of none.

So when you return to your schools and offices this morning remember the anger and rage heaped on Green by friends and colleagues alike expresses the disappointment of hopes dashed. They are essentially the cries of babies not men. The best way to ensure there is no repeat against Algeria is to support not condemn. In the meantime, courtesy of KUMB, via way of Eduardo Galeano, a brief reminder why Robert Green should remain England's number one...

They call him the doorman, goalie, bouncer or tender, but he could just as well be called martyr, pay-all, penitent or punch-bag. They say where he walks, the grass never grows.

He's alone, condemned to watch the game from afar. Never leaving the goal, his only company the three posts, he awaits his own execution by firing squad. He used to dress in black, like the referee. Now the referee doesn't have to dress like a crow and the goalkeeper can populate his solitude with colourful fantasies.

He doesn't score goals, he's there to keep them from being scored. The goal is football's fiesta: the striker sparks delight and the goalkeeper, a wet blanket, snuffs it out.

He wears the number one on his back. The first to be paid? No, the first to pay. It's always the keeper's fault. And if it isn't, he still gets blamed. When any player commits a foul, he's the one who gets punished: they leave him there to face his executioner alone. And when the team has a bad afternoon, he's the one who pays the bill, expiating the sins of others under a rain of flying balls.

The rest of the players can blow it once in a while, or often, then redeem themselves with a spectacular dribble, a masterful pass, a well-placed volley. Not him. The crowd never forgives the keeper. Was he drawn out by a fake? Left looking rediculous? Did the ball skid? Did his fingers of steel turn to silk? With a single slip-up the goalie can ruin a game or lose a championship, and the fans suddenly forget all his fears and condemn him to eternal disgrace. Damnation will follow him to the end of his days.

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