Are Goalkeepers Overprotected?

In light of the recent fixture between England and Spain at Wembley, there have been continued questions regarding the levels of protection goalkeepers are afforded in the modern game, more specifically when it comes to coming and claiming crosses and catches. This is a debate that has rumbled on for many years, one that appears to have no imminent conclusion. In the 97th minute of the opening game in the UEFA Nations League clash, a ball into the box was sliced up into the air by Spanish centre back Sergio Ramos, landing around the edge of the 6-yard box. Danny Welbeck was challenging for the ball and David De Gea fumbled the looping clearance, dropping the ball on his way down to the floor and leaving Welbeck with a swivel and tap in to draw the game level. That was until the referee intervened, ruling the goal out for a foul on the Spanish keeper and allowing La Furia Roja to take all three points. This incident led me to question whether goalkeepers are given far too much protection or whether they should be on a similar footing to other players on the pitch.  

From a historical perspective, the most famous instance of unjust decisions regarding goalkeepers may well be Nat Lofthouse’s second goal for hometown club Bolton in the 1958 FA Cup Final against Manchester United. Shortly after halftime, United goalkeeper Harry Gregg parried a shot into the air and whilst trying to grasp the rebound was shoulder barged into the net by Lofthouse. It seems to a goal that gets pulled out of the archives any time there is a controversy surrounding goalkeeping! Since then, goalkeepers tend to be given preferential treatment. Moving on around a quarter of a century, in Sevilla’s Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán during the 1982 FIFA World Cup in Spain – West German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher’s horrendous challenge on French player Patrick Battison left the Frenchman severely injured and the West German goalkeeper with absolutely no reprisals.

Even 36 years later, the challenge again is regularly cited in debates about goalkeeper protection and within that narrative. On a similar theme of over exuberant German goalkeepers, Manuel Neuer decided that he was going to take absolutely everything (in football terms) in the penalty area during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Final at the Maracanã in Rio during a clash with Argentinian striker Gonzalo Higuaín. Despite winning the ball, Neuer’s knee connected with Higuain’s neck which looked out of control and wreckless and therefore should have awarded the Argentinians a chance to score from the spot and a possible red card for Neuer.

The last several years have altered very little. Goalkeepers seem to receive special treatment on the field, often being perceived to receive fouls in their favour when no foul has been committed on them. The sight of an opposing player standing in front of the goalkeeper from a corner for example, with the striker standing his ground and not physically challenging him is often rewarded as a free kick in the goalkeeper’s favour.

There seems to be a common perception amongst referees that the goalkeeper should have the automatic right to come and try to catch or punch a ball in his area, regardless who is in his way and that there should be no challenge upon him whatsoever or it shall result in a foul. I find this complete nonsense, how then should this be any different for a goalkeeper?

I vividly remember watching one of the Premier League games back in August, seeing a goalkeeper rush off his line, go through one opposition player and then clatter into and punch another on his follow through. In my eyes, either of those should be fouls by the goalkeeper. I also remember watching a game recently in the Championship where a goalkeeper attempted to catch a ball that was a yard the other side of an attacker by jumping over him and then fell to the floor feigning injury because he hadn’t successfully retrieved the situation. This is a ball he had no divine right to come for, where he has essentially gained a foul because he missed it through his own poor decision making. These situations seem to happen every week, yet inexplicably get given almost without fail with preference to the goalkeeper.

Going back to the original incident mentioned with De Gea and Welbeck, there was no foul. De Gea came for a ball he was unsure of winning, managed to get hold of it but couldn’t keep hold of it on the way down – presenting Welbeck with an open net in doing so to pass the ball into. I am all for a goalkeeper gaining an advantage when an opposing player jumps into him whilst challenging for the ball, but not when they jump into the opposition and cry foul. It remains to be seen whether anything will change in the next few years, though with VAR becoming more regular, hopefully it will extend to providing a fair amount of protection to goalkeepers rather than the current level which is over the top.

By Mark Salkeld with artwork by Marcus Marritt

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