by Richard Brook

There is a maxim, amongst journalists, aimed at those starting out as writers that one ‘has to earn the right to have an opinion’. I am under no illusions: I have not earned that right. Paul Gardner is a writer who most definitely has, over a long and enviable career, and I have always regarded reading his pieces in World Soccer as a pleasure. As such the starting point for the words that follow is that I should not be writing them at all.

In a recent issue of World Soccer, Gardner bemoaned the “cosy relationship” between the referee and the goalkeeper. I have all the time in the world, for the assertion that goalkeepers are a “highly protected species”. It currently seems that if there is any contact whatsoever on the goalkeeper as he tries to catch or punch the ball, that a foul will be called in the keeper’s favour. This is not the case anywhere else on the pitch, where players frequently jump shoulder to shoulder, or have their arms on each other when challenging for the ball. To my mind goalkeepers should expect to tolerate the same level of physical contact as any other player jumping for a ball. The player challenging should be looking at, and trying to play the ball and should not be backing in, barging, holding or otherwise obstructing. A level of fair contact ought to be permissible.

Notwithstanding my admiration of Gardner mentioned above, I hold a differing opinion from his own when he continued that the goalkeeper’s relationship with the referee now extends beyond over-protection as regards fouls on the goalkeeper. Gardner asserted that keepers had been given a “licence to inflict harm” by referees turning a blind eye to what he regards as blatant fouls. Some of the examples quoted are impossible to argue with, especially West Germany goalkeeper Toni Schumacher’s notorious challenge on France defender Patrick Battiston during the 1982 World Cup semi-final.

Michel Platini sent a beautifully weighted pass behind the defence for Battiston to chase. Battiston arrived ahead of the goalkeeper and knocked it just wide. Schumacher has always maintained he was going for the ball, but each time the incident is viewed, it looks worse. There is no apparent effort to slow down or change course upon being beaten to the ball. The challenge is so late, and features what appears to be movement towards Battiston that Schumacher’s defence might be troublesome to a neutral observer. Battiston was left, unconscious, missing two teeth and with damaged vertebrae.

Gardner states that the incident is the closest most fans have come to seeing a player killed by an opponent. It was undoubtedly a horrific attempt to win the ball, it was arguably malicious but my argument is not that a goalkeeper has never made a bad or a malicious challenge. Poor and occasionally malicious tackles occur all over the field In the particular instance it is odd that there was no penalty or red card awarded, although officials letting occasions less important than World Cup semi-finals get the better of their judgment is not particularly unusual.

The vast majority of goalkeeping challenges that  threaten or result in injury arise in situations where the intention of the keeper is less questionable – just like challenges, made from any position, that result in an injured player. Sheffield Wednesday fans will remember another incident that came within a whisker of a tragic ending, but for the lightning actions of physio Alan Smith. In 1992 in a UEFA Cup match with Spora Luxembourg, Paul Warhurst sought to get on the end of a raking left wing cross deep into the penalty area. Spora’s keeper, Fernand Felten, also had eyes only for the ball but Warhurst won the race to nod home Wednesday’s seventh of eight. A split second later Felten arrived with his fist. Warhurst was left unconscious, having swallowed his tongue, and had to have a brain scan. In the words of the Wednesday’s player-manager at the time, Trevor Francis, “He nearly died.”

The article calls into question the age old goalkeeper’s defence of ‘I had to go for it’. A keeper is under pressure to go for the ball as while an outfield player might let a ball run under his foot several times in a season, the goalkeeper is in the lonely position of knowing that if he makes such a mistake once is reputation will be irrevocably tarnished. Gardner posits that the keeper does not have the right to go for the ball in a manner which endangers the safety of opponents. While this is true, the only way of removing all risk is to stop playing the game altogether, and if we end football due to the risk of head injury from punching, boxing is going to need to go first. Many of the moments of most excitement in a football match carry a significant risk of injury, such as a striker stretching at the far post to convert a low cross, while a defender flies in to try and get a block in. It is worth noting that few cards or fouls are awarded in this situation.

Gardner states that other players would not get away with jumping into opponents with heavy contact from fists and knees. While this is true, other players cannot play the ball with their fists, and it is hard to imagine that there would be any kind of call for the outlawing of heading because it might lead to a clash of heads between players. As regards knees, goalkeepers jump with a raised knee for protection. Goalkeepers time their jump differently to outfield players. A keeper will be trying to catch the ball above head height at the highest point they can manage, an outfield header will be looking to play the ball at head height. The result of this is that the outfield players are likely to be jumping slightly after the goalkeeper and the keeper might well catch a shoulder in the stomach, or a more tender area still. A raised knee combats this.

The article suggests that six-yard box should become an area where the goalkeeper is immune from challenge. I do not think this is necessary. There are not so many nasty accidents, or malicious goalkeepers, or indeed forwards to warrant a change to the rules. Even if there were I would not consider this the answer as it would merely result in free-kick’s being given, and play no part in player safety. A keeper and forward competing for an aerial ball are going to have their eyes on the ball in the air, not on the white lines on the ground – it would not therefore reduce the number of related collisions.

I would never be so ignorant as to say that Paul Gardner’s piece was anything other than balanced, well informed and brilliantly written. My only intention is to offer an extension of the possible counter arguments hinted at within the piece. Schumacher’s foul that never was, was unquestionably a terrible incident, but the vast majority of other instances of mistimed challenges, from goalkeepers, that we see are more clearly honest attempts to defend their goal.  It seems incorrect to lambast goalkeepers for the fact that their fists occasionally make contact with player instead of ball, as it frequently happens, with the parts of the body that may legally be used to play the ball. There does not appear to be a problem that is prevalent enough to warrant serious consideration of change of the rules.