Are goalkeepers too protected by footballing law?

Words by Joe Boulter Illustration by Philippe Fenner
November 29, 2018

It is 57 minutes in to the 1982 World Cup semi-final and Patrick Battiston is lying on the ground, motionless. As the French players realise the extent of Battiston’s injuries, Germany’s Harald Schumacher waits to take a goal kick, raising a dismissive arm in the direction of the commotion. The very same arm that just moments before had been used to inflict maximum damage to Battiston’s face, in the notorious incident now commonly known as the Tragedy of Seville.

No foul was called, no card was given. And even though, in the decades that followed, the overwhelming majority have lambasted Schumacher, we still witness challenges that echo that moment of brutality all too frequently. Why does our modern game, which looks back on past decades in disbelief that such levels of physicality were accepted, still tolerate goalkeeper physicality reminiscent of that bygone era?

Let me stress that this is not a tirade against the goalkeeping community. Equally, the intention is not to put all goalkeepers in the same camp as Schumacher; the majority make genuine attempts for the ball and are contrite if their actions have resulted in injury.

What’s more, goalkeeping by its very nature requires the player to place their body under unique risk, a fact for which Petr Cech’s headguard serves as an ever-present reminder. The classic case is that of a goalkeeper coming out to claim the ball from a cross. As they fly through the air, even the slightest knock from an outfield player will result in a potentially dangerous fall. In many ways this can be likened to rugby union, where a contest in mid-air to claim the ball creates a scenario where the jumper can flip and drop from a considerable height.

Therefore everybody – me, you, referees, coaches – are aware of the need to give the goalkeeper some extra protection. But now the scales have tipped too far in favour of the person with the gloves. We have reached a point where goalkeepers are over-protected. Where the safety of two players has come at the expense of the safety of the other twenty.

To illustrate, let us return to the example outlined above. In a bid to mitigate the potential hazards associated with jumping into a crowd, goalkeeping coaches are specifically teaching their keepers to raise their knee as they jump as a way of defending themselves from nearby players.

This technique achieves its aim, but at a cost. Tuning in to Match of the Day, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the football stadium for a bowling alley, watching keepers roll out of their goal, leaving a scattering of human skittles in their wake. And as the skittles lie there re-evaluating their chosen position in the starting eleven, the goalkeeper suffers no repercussions.

What if an outfielder had committed a similar offence – would the referee still have kept his whistle from his lips? Probably not; the reason being that referees simply treat goalkeepers differently.

Let me point you to the 2014 World Cup Final. As Gonzalo Higuain is chasing a ball down the channel, Manuel Neuer charges out of his net and punches the ball to safety, taking out Higuain in the process. The challenge was reckless and according to Law 12, warranted a penalty and a yellow card for Neuer. No penalty was awarded. A decision endorsed by triple yellow specialist Graham Poll who stated that Neuer had ‘every right to go for the ball’ and ‘there was no case for a penalty.’ I wonder, if it was Mats Hummels who was as physical when challenging for the ball in the area, would Poll’s verdict have remained the same?

Question yourself even, would your reaction have been the same? I know mine wouldn’t have been. It seems that the outrage we so readily reserve for most controversial challenges is somewhat lacking when it comes to those involving the goalkeeper. We all know it probably should be a foul, but the preferential treatment of goalkeepers by referees has become so normalised that we just shrug our shoulders, accepting that ‘it’s just how it is.’

So now put yourself in the mind of an up-and-coming goalkeeper. Your coach is telling you from an early age to vehemently defend yourself, referees refuse to penalise you, and fans and pundits are seemingly indifferent. Throw in the enduring mantra of aggression and penalty-box domination and you have yourself a host of goalkeepers entering the game who feel they have a licence to be as rough as they please.

Not only that, you have to consider the physiological makeup of goalkeepers: they’re generally the heaviest player on the pitch. A study of Bundesliga players in 2013 found that goalkeepers weighed on average nearly four kilograms more than the next heaviest player (a central defender) and were around ten kilograms heavier than the average midfielder. Even those with only a very basic knowledge of Newton’s second law of motion will appreciate the damage that could be caused by a ninety-kilogram mass accelerating at speed.

And this is why we should be concerned. A player is going to get seriously injured. Scratch that, players do get seriously injured. Just look at the incident between Denys Bokyo and Oleg Gusev in a Ukrainian Premier League match between Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and Dynamo Kiev in March 2014. Dnipro’s goalkeeper Bokyo slammed his knee in to Gusev’s face as he jumped up to catch the ball in his six-yard box, immediately knocking Gusev unconscious. Gusev had seizures and swallowed his tongue, relying on a Dnipro player to save his life by preventing it from blocking his airways. According to the Dynamo team doctor, Gusev was fortunate to come away with just a medium concussion and several bruises. The next player may not be so lucky.

We need to rebalance the scales of safety and protection. A good start would be to remove the keeper’s shield of complete immunity. Boyko was not penalised. Nor was Neuer, who laughably won a free-kick, an inevitable by-product of such unchecked over-protection.

Really though, there needs to be a fundamental change in the way challenges between goalkeepers and outfield players are interpreted. The blueprint for this can be found at the start of the decade when dangerous tackles were dealt with. Seen by many as part of the game, they placed players at an excessively high risk of injury. There also existed a grey area where the line separating fair and dangerous was unclear. Doesn’t this sound familiar?

The initial step was to simply acknowledge that such a change was necessary – this article is testament to how far we have to go, even in this preliminary area. Following that, change was achieved by a ruling that all two-footed challenges were dangerous and worthy of a red-card. Of course, this is pretty black and white. Excessive goalkeeper physicality on the other hand will require a more nuanced approach. We can’t, for example, outright ban goalkeepers from raising their knee as they jump; this would only serve to swing the scales in the opposite direction, rather than equalise them.

Seven years on from the directive, some players still insist on flying in with two feet off the ground, but these instances are rare, and the tackler in question now knows the consequences of their actions. This demonstrates that when the footballing powers-that-be make a concerted effort to stamp out an undesirable aspect of the game, they are usually successful. There’s no reason why in another seven years we won’t be able to achieve the same thing with dangerous goalkeeper physicality, allowing it to join Schumacher in the history books where it belongs.

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