The GOATs of Soccer: Goalkeepers

By Lucien Betancourt

In this new series, we will be rating the greatest players at every position in soccer history, which is a pretty tall task. Most people claim that the GOAT is a singular player, like Messi, Ronaldo, or Pele. But soccer is a team game, and therefore we should try and name the dream team, rather than just crowning one individual as the best.

There are 18 main positions in soccer so I’ll be awarding 36 spots– one starter and backup per position– to make the greatest team of all time. 

all possible soccer positions

Above is every football position. In this series, however, we will focus on the main ones, which are as follows: goalkeeper, sweeper (a central defender, usually positioned in front of the goalkeeper), left, center, and right back, left and right wing back, center defensive midfielder, left, center, and right midfielder, attacking center midfielder, left and right wing, left, center, and right forward, and a pair of strikers.

The criteria here are simple: trophies, skills, and overall impact on a team and the sport at large. But doing this all at once would be a lot to take in, so let’s start with just the goalkeeper.

Goalkeeper is probably the most important position in the game of soccer. They are often the one administering directions, controlling practically every player, and are also usually team captain.

Four goalkeepers stand out above the rest, so let’s discuss them here. None of these goalkeepers are in particular order, as each one is an incredible innovator and has a serious case for the top spot. 

First off is Gyula Grosics, the unstoppable wall of Hungary’s “Mighty Magyars,” the country’s golden generation of players during the 1950s. He was goalkeeper for Hungary from 1947 to 1962 and dominated during that time. He won the Hungarian League 4 times with Budapest Honved, as well as international trophies through the Balkan Cup, an Olympic gold medal, and the Central European Championship; he even made the World Cup final. During his time with the Hungarian national team, he also went on an unbeaten run from 1948 to 1954, the longest unbeaten run in football history– which was cut short by the aforementioned Cup final. 

Grosics was known for being aggressive with and without the ball. He was credited with being the first true goalkeeper to pass the ball and roll it to his defenders instead of punting it. When the opponent advanced on net, he rushed out and tackled the ball and the player, drawing a foul and gaining an advantage. This style of goalkeeping is known as the “sweeper-keeper.” This pioneering style was used by the likes of Rene Higuita in the 1980s, and even Manuel Neuer of German national team fame nowadays. 

Another goalkeeper that used this style was Lev Yashin, also known as the Black Spider or Black Panther. He played for the Soviet Union national team, winning the inaugural season of the European Championship, as well as the Olympic gold medal. In club play, he won 5 league championships and 3 additional cups with Dynamo Moscow. In 1963, he won the Ballon D’Or, soccer’s equivalent of an international “Most Valuable Player” award. To date, he is the only goalkeeper to win the prestigious award. He saved 151 penalty kicks, the most out of any goalkeeper, and didn’t allow a single goal 270 times out of his 400 career games, making for the highest ratio in history. Yashin also invented the art of throwing the ball rather than punting it, which made for more accurate passes. He also popularized punching the ball when crosses came into the box. Both of these are now goalkeeping 101. For this and his Ballon D’Or alone, Yashin is considered by many to be the greatest ever. He was even awarded the Order of Lenin, the highest civilian award in USSR history, for his career as a goalkeeper. 

Another great goalkeeper is Jan Jongbloed, a unique sweeper-keeper in the 1970s, most notable for his contributions to the Dutch national team, for which he helped get to 2 World Cup finals and a European championship final in just 4 years. Although he didn’t have any flashy records or trophies, his play style made him stand out from the pack. He was tall and skinny, but much faster than average, built more like a midfielder than a goalkeeper. He was skilled in precision passing over long and short distances, and was also known for great positioning when one-on-one with the opponent, and tackling outside the box. Rinus Michels, the coach for the Ajax team of the early 1970s and Dutch National Team coach of the mid- 1970s, knew Jongbloed’s skill. While he was no Grosics or Yashin, he knew how to play the ball long and accurately. When you have an attacking force of the 1970 Dutch national team’s caliber (more on them later), it’s vital to get the ball far up the field as quickly as possible. That’s where Jongbloed stepped in, and it worked wonders. 

The last goalkeeper worth a mention is Gordon Banks, probably one of the best shot stopping goalkeepers of all time. He was part of the England World Cup winning team in 1966. He played a big part in the final, saving 3 shots in overtime to secure the only win to date. He was known for his shot stopping ability, awareness, athleticism, handling, quick reflexes, and composure. He never won a Ballon D’Or, but did win FIFA Goalkeeper of the Year six consecutive times from 1966 to 1971. He was regarded as the first shot-stopping goalkeeper, staying on his line and making quick decisions. He was also the first truly vocal goalkeeper, emphasizing a system of giving commands to the defense and midfield. He also captained England in two World Cup games.

Stay tuned for next time, where we’ll be covering the last line of defense before the goalkeeper- the defenders.

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