So what do you do when you are Robert Green, the English goalkeeper who fumbled the ball in the most disastrous fashion to allow the US equalizer today? One of my friends called it “the worst goalie mistake in 20 years of professional football,” and it’s hard to argue with that. The twitterverse suspects that Green was paid by BP to make up for the “spill” (in case you didn’t know, there’s nothing more political than soccer), and a US blogger even posted a YouTube video showing her son and his uncle reenacting the goal shortly after the incident.
And an incident it was. It fit perfectly into the series of serious blunders by English goalkeepers – from David Seaman at the 2002 World Cup and Scott Carson in a Euro 2008 qualifier to several recent gaffes by David (“Calamity”) James, England’s current number 2. It also evoked the good old cliché of the goalkeeper as the lonely warrior who can only lose. Goalies are used to brutal scrutiny, for in every game the full extent of their professional reputation is, quite literally, on the line. It comes as no surprise that Oliver Kahn, the “Teutonian” goalie legend, once admitted that “one has to be crazy to become a goalie.” Moritz Volz wrote in the Times, “You basically have to be prepared to stick your head where everyone puts their feet and for that you have either to be pretty brave or completely mental.” Many of the best goalies indeed exhibit a distinct tick. Gabor Kiraly, the Hungarian national goalkeeper, has been wearing the same grey, dirty (and unwashed) sweat pants every game for almost a decade out of superstition. Paraguayan goalie Jose Luis Felix Chilavert, now retired, expressed his ability as a frustrated outfield player by insisting on taking all the free kicks and penalties for the clubs that he played for. And Kahn, known as the “angry German,” was notorious for lashing out, often like a karate kicker, at his opponents.
Robert Green didn’t exhibit any of these eccentric traits tonight. He seemed rather mellow, and then, after the pivotal moment, he became the saddest person on earth. He instantly knew that there will be absolutely nothing he can do to keep this one split-second failure from eclipsing the remainder of his professional career. Worse even, he will live the rest of his life in replay mode - a long and inescapable remorse in slow motion. In the innovation arena, we know that failure is part of the process, in fact, a critical ingredient that often propels game-changing ideas. But in soccer? Not so much. A recovery from a torment like Green’s is hard if not impossible, and you have to respect him for keeping his cool, after all, and performing somewhat solidly for the rest of the game (the UK’s Italian coach, Fabio Capello, did the right thing and kept him on the pitch after half-time to avoid completely breaking him after his confidence had been so publicly cracked).
In the end, though, the tragic figures – and they tend to be goalies – are the real protagonists of football. In a game so individualistic and so poetic, winning gets you trophies but not necessarily sympathies. A black-out, a failure in front of millions of spectators reminds us all of our own imperfection, of our being human. We may not all be Lionel Messis, but we’re all Robert Greens.