Soccer is the ultimate team sport, but goalkeeper is the loneliest position.
On Day 6 of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, we saw one of the all-time great goalkeeping performances in tournament history. Less than two hours later, another goalkeeper became the butt of countless internet jokes.
Let’s take a closer look at what we learned from Tuesday’s World Cup action.
Belgium: No great pretenders
Belgium’s Red Devils are the soccer hipsters’ pick to go far at the 2014 World Cup. Their squad includes a number of young players who play their trades with Premier League clubs, and their name recognition makes Belgium a “dark-horse” candidate (in the popular imagination) to challenge established powers for the world championship.
Belgium almost disappointed prognosticators everywhere in its Group H opener against Algeria. Belgium conceded first — a 25th minute penalty kick — and struggled to to unlock Algeria’s defense for the next 45 minutes until second-half substitutes Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens overturned the deficit with a pair of late goals.
Almost every team performs poorly at some point in the World Cup, and it’s always good to do it early on. Belgium started slowly, then showed that it had character and a higher gear against Algeria. It should start at that high level and improve from there, going forward. It’s easier that way.
Goalkeeping greats, gaffes
Back to goalkeepers.
Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, 28, made a string of world-class saves — including this one — in Mexico’s goalless draw against Brazil. Ochoa was the undisputed “man of the match” and became the first goalkeeper to ever shut out Brazil on home soil at a World Cup.
As good as Ochoa’s performance was, it came on the strength of a fine display from the 10 players in front of him, who pressed and harried Brazil for most of the game. It was an impressive team showing by “El Tri,” but Ochoa is being showered with most of the credit.
We then saw the dark side of the goalkeeper’s life In Russia’s 1-1 draw with South Korea. Russia goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev bobbled Lee Keun-ho’s innocent shot right into his own goal. Russia was playing well before Akinfeev’s error turned the game. Luckily, Russia scored six minutes later, sparing Akinfeev from further humiliation and criticism.
Akinfeev, 28, is Russia’s longtime starter and a leader in the dressing room. Some of Europe’s top clubs have tried, and failed, to buy him from CSKA Moscow because of his exalted status at his club and national team. Yet, his reputation will suffer because of the high-profile error against South Korea. New transfer bids might follow.
Ochoa, a free agent, will have no shortage of suitors following his standout performance against Brazil. While his ability warrants the interest, Tuesday’s heroics will turn a slow courtship into a mad dash for his signature. That’s the nature of the goalkeeping business.