For all the great goals this has also been a World Cup of wonderful goalkeepers, with Germany’s the very finest
This festival laden with so many goals, such memorable moments of attacking intent and finesse, will also be remembered as a World Cup for goalkeepers. The the blockers, the smotherers, just keep on excelling. As much as we will store for posterity the beauty of the maestro strikes – the mastery of James Rodríguez, the leap of Robin van Persie, the thrill of Tim Cahill, the zorro sword of Lionel Messi – the goalkeeping has at times been as breathtaking. And as decisive.
The wafer-thin margins that so often decide these intense knockout ties can come down to an instinct, a stretched limb, a burning muscle, a gamble. Germany held the upper hand after Mats Hummels gave them an early leg-up, but those sudden spaces that open up around their defence were a persistent issue in the back of German minds. And there it was, in the 33rd minute, the moment when Germany’s progress was put at high risk: Antoine Griezmann whizzed forward and floated the ball across to his accomplice Mathieu Valbuena. France’s stocky No8, their go-to man when in need of guile, drove an angled shot that was crisp and true.
Manuel Neuer is huge. He has immense presence – both physical and charismatic – which can be intimidating for any forward. He would be perfect material for a cartoonist creating some kind of footballing comic hero. The Super Sweeper Keeper. It barely seems fair to any opponent that he also possesses agility and sharp reading of situations on top of that. Neuer flung out his left arm with enough power to deflect Valbuena’s shot. When Hummels made sure Karim Benzema could not gobble up the rebound, Neuer calmly jumped arms outstretched as if he fancied swinging on the crossbar. He looked audaciously calm and relaxed in the searing Maracanã pressure cooker.
In a style reminiscent of a fabled predecessor in the German goal, Oliver Kahn (the only goalkeeper to win the golden ball, the prize awarded to a World Cup’s greatest performer), Neuer emits the attitude of a man overloaded on confidence. Not over-confidence, mind you, just pure bloody-minded self-belief. While there has been a certain amount of German fretting about vulnerability in their backline, which has a tendency to drift up and leave an inviting pocket of space for the opposition to aim at, Neuer’s habit of channelling his inner Franz Beckenbauer to sweep up is an impressive sight.
Having excelled with an unusual performance against Algeria in the previous round, there had been much discussion about how Neuer has this intriguing role as an auxiliary defender, dashing out to tackle. Joachim Löw wondered aloud whether he could play in midfield. “He can play behind the defenders and basically pass like an outfield player,” he said.
Against France he barely needed to show those qualities. He kept it more traditional. He stayed close to his line and dealt with the scraps that France could muster. This was a day when Didier Deschamps’ team strained to muster enough passing lustre. The midfield trio of Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and Yohan Cabaye were predominantly occupied with trying to contain the Germans, so found enterprise of their own difficult to build. France struggled for conviction. Sami Khedira was influential alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger in ensuring the heartland belonged to them on this occasion.
When Germany were in possession, Neuer just prowled around his box. He was like a big cat, dominating his territory. In the second half he made a semi-threatening header from Raphaël Varane look like a comfortable catch out in the back garden with the kids.
Neuer will be critical the further Germany go on in this competition. His desire has been fundamental for club and country. He was in goal when Bayern Munich lost the Champions League final on home turf to Chelsea in 2012. He took a penalty (scored) as well as repelling one from Juan Mata. It turned out not to be enough. But typically, that experience served only to drive him. Neuer was superb throughout the subsequent Champions League season, a man on a mission in the final, and Bayern were winners.
In terms of personality, in showing how a goalkeeper, playing in that most exposed of positions, has to somehow get back up after a heavyweight punch, that was again reminiscent of Kahn, who with Bayern felt the devastating force of losing the 1999 Champions League final to Manchester United, then responded with a thou-shalt-not-pass display to win the trophy two years later.
Stoppage time in the Maracanã. France seized one last moment to thread a path through. Benzema exchanged passes with Olivier Giroud and flashed a venomous shot. Neuer extended an arm and possessed such strength to beat away what could have been, for Germany, a maddeningly late equaliser. He took it in that immense stride of his.
There have been a string of sensational goalkeeping performances in Brazil. Guillermo Ochoa for Mexico, Keylor Navas for Costa Rica and Tim Howard for the USA all spring readily to mind. Neuer intends to keep his own high standards going, to underpin Germany’s challenge, until the semi-finals at least.