Joe Hart was on top of the world in the months, weeks and days leading up to July 24, 2012.
He had helped Manchester City dramatically secure the Premier League title just two months prior and the confident, young goalkeeper hoped to do the same for England at Euro 2012.
After 120 goalless minutes of open play and two rounds of the penalty shootout, England led Italy 2-1. Italy’s Andrea Pirlo stepped up, stared down Hart, ran toward the ball and coolly chipped it past him. Pirlo’s “panenka” swung the shootout in Italy’s favor, and the Italians beat England to advance to the semifinal.
Hart was considered to be one of the best goalkeepers in the world before that fateful night in Kiev, Ukraine. He hasn’t approached those lofty heights ever since.
He has come under intense scrutiny and faced a barrage of criticism after committing a number of errors in high-profile games (for club and country) in the last 15 months. Former City manager Roberto Mancini criticized him after a September 2012 loss to Real Madrid. Within months, many fans and the media joined Mancini in Hart’s chorus of detractors, concluding that a lack of serious competition was the reason for his apparent decline. Those voices grew louder this week after Bayern Munich beat City 3-1 in the UEFA Champions League, and Hart was at fault in the first and third goals.
While the competition argument carries great weight, it’s also important to remember that Hart, 26, is still relatively young for an elite goalkeeper. Most goalkeepers enjoy the best years of their careers after age 30, so he is still learning on the job. It’s common for goalkeepers, both young and old, to suffer dips in form, but the weight of expectation cast Hart’s struggles in a different light.
By age 23, he had beaten Premier League veteran Shay Given for the job as City’s starting goalkeeper (ahead of the 2010-11 season). City won the FA Cup in Hart’s first season as its starter. He would make England’s No. 1 shirt his own during the next campaign and become a Premier League champion at its conclusion. Competing with, and ultimately beating, Given saw Hart’s sharpness and confidence surge in the two seasons leading up to Euro 2012.
Critics judge him against the high bar he set so early in his career. Some might consider that unfair, but Hart accepts it as a fact of life, according to Sky Sports.
“Am I a victim of standards? I’m definitely not a victim,” he said in March. “I love playing, I love training hard, I love playing hard and I love winning. I have to accept when I’m playing that there’s going to be another side and you have to take that sometimes.”
“People are free to criticize or praise. I’m never going to tell anyone what to say or do about me but at the same time I don’t have to listen. I’m pretty strong with how I feel about what I should and shouldn’t have done. That’s the beauty of football and that’s why it’s such a big industry and that’s why it gets so many people involved. People are allowed their opinions.”
Hart’s level-headed approach serves him well during tough times. So far, he has managed to retained his starting position for City and England, and at this point, the real question isn’t “what’s wrong with Hart?” It’s “how can he recover his best form and fulfill his vast potential.”
To do so, Hart must meet and conquer new challenges in quick succession. First, he must convince first-year City manager Manuel Pellegrini and new goalkeeper coach Xabier Mancisidor that City can win major trophies with him in goal. Some are calling on Pellegrini to bench Hart now, but a tough stretch of games over the next month makes that impractical. Backups Costel Pantilimon and Richard Wright may not offer the competition Hart needs to excel, but that doesn’t mean City won’t look for a solution in the transfer market. Pellegrini could raid his former club Malaga for Argentine stopper Willy Caballero, who has talent, Champions League experience and the trust of the new City regime.
Winning an internal competition at City may not end Hart’s crisis, and therein lies another problem. He has few, if any, genuine rivals for his place on the national team. England manager Roy Hodgson included Fraser Forster and John Ruddy in the latest England squad, but he says Hart will start upcoming FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Montenegro and Poland. It’s a safe bet that Hart will be England’s starter at the 2014 World Cup (should England qualify).
Perhaps we should look to the experiences of other top to help Hart plot his road to recovery. Since winning the Premier League in May 2012, Hart has suffered defeats against teams featuring three genuine contenders for the title of “world’s greatest goalkeeper”: Iker Casillas (Real Madrid and Spain), Gigi Buffon (Juventus and Italy) and Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich and Germany). The three are at different points in their careers, but they have all overcome traumatic moments along the way, which have contributed to their enduring quality.
Buffon’s Juventus was relegated in 2006 after Italy’s triumphant World Cup and the calciopoli scandal that followed. Many stars departed, but Buffon stayed to help the club win promotion and ultimately return to the Italian soccer summit in 2012. He held onto his position as Italy’s starting goalkeeper throughout Juventus’ wilderness years.
By age 21, Casillas was a two-time Champions League winner with Real Madrid. The Spanish giant hasn’t won Europe’s most prestigious trophy since 2002, but Casillas has manned the goal almost exclusively, as Real Madrid relentlessly pursues the coveted “decima,” or tenth European Cup in its history. Spain has been a main beneficiary of the spillover effects, as Casillas captained the national team to titles at the UEFA European Championships in 2008 and 2012 as well as the 2010 World Cup.
After helping Germany achieve a fourth-place finish at the 2010 World Cup, Neuer left FC Schalke 04 for rivals Bayern a year later. Bayern fans greeted him with intense hostility, especially after blunders marred his debut. While he eventually earned their respect as the starting goalkeeper on Bayern’s greatest-ever team, they could easily turn on him if his performance levels dip.
Hart’s situation mirrors that of the trio of greats goalkeepers. Their clubs intend to compete for major trophies every year, and they also start in goal for leading national teams. While Hart hasn’t experienced such trauma in his career, he should take comfort in the fact that conquering adversity makes most players stronger.
Hart should challenge himself to reach the level of Casillas, Neuer and Buffon — players who forged and cemented their reputations in those big European and international games. Hart has stumbled on those occasions, but he will have other opportunities to prove himself.
One day in the future, Hart will stand in goal, see Casillas, Neuer, Buffon or someone else and think, “there is one of the world’s best goalkeepers.” Should Hart meet this latest challenge and those to come, the opponent might think the same thing. The world will know Hart has arrived when he and his teammates seize the opportunity and beat those top teams and their great goalkeepers.
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