Land of the giants: Germany’s history of great keepers

When Hugo Lloris injured his wrist he did more than delay his own start to the season – he threw a spanner into the works of the goalkeeper merry-go-round. If reports were true, the France and Tottenham number 1 had been lined up by Louis van Gaal to replace Bernabeau bound David De Gea, with Victor Valdes seemingly on his way. However, Lloris’ injury may have put pay to his move – at least for this summer – and subsequently slammed the door on De Gea’s switch to Madrid. As it turns out, Van Gaal has picked up Sergio Romero on a free transfer, although whether the Argentine will be a replacement, competition or back-up for David de Gea is still unclear.

The fact is that finding a good goalkeeper is never easy – just look at the problems a post-Schmeichel Manchester United had before Edwin van der Saar moved from Fulham. Arsenal have recently profited from Chelsea’s envious position of having two world-class stoppers, but such embarrassment of goalkeeping riches is rare.

Should David de Gea make his switch to Los Blancos – either this summer or the next – United and other teams should look to the Bundesliga, because the pickings appear to be very rich indeed.

The World Cup and the Champion’s League, widely acknowledged as the two biggest football tournaments, were both won by teams with German goalkeepers – ok, one of the teams was Germany. Nevertheless, just having two keepers able to play at this level would be a dream for many national managers at the moment.

The two German stoppers in question, Manuel Neuer and Marc-André ter Stegen weren’t just in the teams that won arguably the two most sought-after trophies in world football – but they were influential in their teams’ success. Ter Stegen may have only been Barcelona’s cup goalkeeper under Luis Enrique, but that still saw him play over 20 games, winning both cups he played in. And while Manuel Neuer’s status as one of Europe’s top keepers is unquestioned, ter Stegen is just one of many bred in the Bundesliga with the potential to challenge Bayern Munich’s keeper for the national jersey.

On the back of a treble with Barcelona, ter Stegen was in action for Germany at the Under 21 World Cup, in the Czech Republic. In light of recent debate concerning England’s failings at the same tournament, if anyone could have been forgiven for thinking he’d paid his dues and was ready for the step up, then surely a treble winner from Barcelona. The truth is, he may have felt his way. But he will also be aware of how the culture of the national team works in Germany. Logically, if not always obviously, the under-21 team is seen as the finishing school for the main team. Nobody expects to graduate straight to a first team place for the obvious reason that there is no age limit for the national side. The older players don’t have to make way as soon as the latest crop turn 22. And among these players looking for caps in the youth setups, there are a number of very good goalkeepers.

First of all, Ter Stegen is currently not featured in the main squad, where the goalkeepers are Neuer, Roman Weidenfeller of Borussia Dortmund, and Ron-Robert Zieler from Hannover 96, and ex-Manchester United. First and foremost, Ter Stegen’s status – or lack thereof – in the national setup shows the enviable quality Jogi Löw has to choose from. I mean, do we even know who England’s fourth-choice keeper is?

Germany has always been a nation of great goalkeepers. No more than a cursory glance back through football history would throw up club legend after club legend. In fact, post-World War II you could draw an almost unbroken timeline of great German keepers. Interestingly enough, you would probably have to start in England, with Bernd Trautmann, ex Luftwaffe and prisoner-of-war turned Manchester City legend. Despite the initial discontent of some fans at the idea of signing a German ex-serviceman with the war still very fresh in the memory, Trautmann soon won them over, playing more than 500 games over 15 years. Despite being mostly remembered for playing on with a broken neck in the 1956 FA Cup Final, Trautmann was also an early example of a forward-thinking keeper and often looked to start attacks with accurate throws – often to the wide players – as opposed to the general practice of kicking the ball as high and far as possible. One thing that sets Trautmann apart from other great German goalies – aside from adopting England as his home – is his lack of international caps. Trautmann never played for his country, a consequence of logistics and politics rather than sporting acumen.

Arguably Germany’s greatest national keeper, and the most-capped to date is Sepp Maier. The Bayern Munich legend, nicknamed Die Katze von Anzing won 94 caps for Germany, winning the European Championship in 1972 and the World Cup in 1974, and played almost 700 games for Bayern. Maier’s place in the German goal was passed on to Toni Schumacher, who wore the number 1 jersey until the mid-1980s, winning 76 caps and finishing runner up twice in the World Cups of 1982 and 1986. As is the case with every institutionalized number 1, Schumacher was a club legend at FC Köln, where he later worked as co-trainer.

Incidentally, as Schumacher was coming to the end of his career at FC Köln a young 18-year old was waiting in the wings. In a match against Bayern in February 1986, in the Olympiastadion. Schumacher gave away a penalty in the 75th minute and was sent off. In his place came Bodo Illgner. Despite impressing, the young keeper still had to bide his time in trying to unseat Schumacher. The latter then did him a favour by publishing his controversial book Anpfiff (kickoff), which makes Roy Keane’s literary efforts look more like a summery Enid Blyton jaunt. The book rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way, and Schumacher was suspended by both club and country – paving the way for Illgner to become the new number 1 – immediately so in Cologne and soon after in the national team where he played over 50 times. And it was Illgner who saved Stuart Pearce’s penalty and watched Chris Waddle’s sail into the Turin sky in Italia 90. Illgner followed in Schumacher’s footsteps at club level, keeping goal for the best part of a decade before moving on to Real Madrid where he won two league titles and two Champion’s Leagues, making him the most successful German to date to have ever played at the Bernabeau. Incidentally, Illgner suffered a similar fate to Schumacher, losing his place to a talented young keeper – a certain Iker Casillas.

Despite success at club level, and although he won 54 caps for his country, Illgner retired from international football on the back of criticism following Germany’s exit from USA 94, aged 27. Andreas Köpke took over the shirt and kept goal in Germany’s triumphant Euro 96 team, where, again, there were some penalty saves against England involved. Köpke won 59 caps and remained the number 1 until Germany were knocked out of the France 98 World Cup by Croatia. Waiting in the wings this time was Oliver Kahn.

Having been third choice at USA 94 and number 2 at France 98, Kahn had paid his dues. Kahn took the captaincy in 2002 in time for the World Cup in Japan and South Korea, but didn’t get his hands on the trophy after his team lost 3-0 to Brazil. Nevertheless, with 8 league titles, multiple German Cups, 1 Champion’s League win with Bayern Munich, Kahn is one of the most decorated keepers to have played the game, and was voted UEFA goalkeeper of the year four times consecutively from 1999 – 2002, and World Goalkeeper in 1999, 2001 and 2002.

Every keeper’s time as undisputed number 1 comes to an end, or at least comes under threat. In Kahn’s case, the threat came from Jens Lehmann – and to a certain extent from Jürgen Klinsmann. After taking over from Rudi Völler in 2004, Klinsmann chose not to have a clear-cut number 1 and instead fostered the rivalry between Kahn and Lehmann, encouraging them to fight for the shirt. By the time the World Cup was held in Germany in 2006 it was Lehmann who got the nod. Kahn played in the third-place playoff against Portugal, but it was to be his last for Germany – after 86 caps, over half of which as captain, he retired from international football. Lehmann followed two years later, on the back of Germany’s European Championship final defeat to Spain in 2008, stating he wanted to clear the path for a younger keeper to be installed for South Africa and beyond. The keeper many had in mind was Rene Adler, then of Bayer Leverkusen. Other candidates included the late Robert Enke and Tim Wiese. After Enke’s tragic death, Wiese’s inconsistent form and Adler’s injury, Germany suddenly had something of a goalkeeping crisis. Up step Manuel Neuer. After stepping up to number 1 shortly before the World Cup, Neuer has been ever-present, and largely without major competition. Joachin Löw, who was assistant to Klinsmann before taking the hot seat, doesn’t seem to share his predecessor’s penchant for rotating the goalkeeper.

If the country’s uninterrupted history of great keepers is not proof enough that Germany is a haven for shot stoppers, then take a look at the Bundesliga. Of the 18 clubs that finished in the league last season 14 had German goalkeepers as their number one – a quite astounding number. Even more encouraging for Löw, and even his successor, is that the majority of them are relatively young – prime examples including Bernd Leno at Leverkusen, Timo Horn at FC Köln, and Loris Karius at Mainz 05. Alongside these youngsters – and the incumbent reserve keepers, Weidenfeller and Zieler – are talented keepers such as Oliver Baumann at Hoffenheim, Thomas Kraft at Hertha Berlin, Sven Ulreich at Bayern (recently of VfB Stuttgart) and Kevin Trapp, who has just signed for PSG. And that is not to mention Rene Adler, who, aside from Weidenfeller, is the eldest of those mentioned.

Compare this with the situation in England. Of the 20 teams that finished the Premier League this season, only six had an Englishman as their established number 1. Aside from Joe Hart at Manchester City, England’s stable of top-flight goalkeepers consisted of Fraser Forster at Southampton, Ben Foster at West Brom, Steve Harper at Hull, Tom Heaton at Burnley, and Rob Green at QPR. Six from 20 is not a great quota, especially when the last three were all relegated.

The goalkeeping future for Germany, it can safely be said, is bright. But where does Marc-Andre ter Stegen fit into things? It is not beyond the realms of possibility that he could kick on at Barca, establishing himself as the undisputed number one for Luis Enrique’s team, and go on to win multiple honours, even becoming one of the game’s most decorated keepers. At the moment far-fetched maybe; but not impossible. Where would this leave him in terms of the national set up?

As good as ter Stegen has been for Barcelona in the cup competitions, and despite the form at Borussia Mönchengladbach that earned him the move to the Nou Camp, his international career has suffered a stuttering start, having won only 4 senior caps in which he didn’t really cover himself in glory. Still, at 23, mistakes are to be expected, and his year in Spain, playing in a winning team and tasting glory will have done him good. If keepers really do peak nearer the age of 30, then he is well ahead of schedule.

As it good as he is, or may be, ter Stegen isn’t the first, or probably anywhere near the best, keeper who’s played for a top team but can’t get into the national team. For contemporary examples, look no further than Victor Valdes, Pepe Reina or David de Gea for Spain. Ter Stegen has the formidable figure of Manuel Neuer blocking his path to the number 1 shirt – the first goalkeeper to be nominated for the Ballon D’or since Gianluigi Buffon in 2006, and the first German in the final three since fellow Bayern Torwart Oliver Kahn, in 2002. Barring serious injury, or a prolonged loss of form, Neuer looks set to be Germany’s number 1 for the foreseeable future – at least until Euro 2020, by which time he’ll be (only) 34.

But of course, football is not that simple. After all, Manuel Neuer only got the nod for the national team in 2010 thanks to an injury to Rene Adler. It is feasible, however, that ter Stegen will rack up the trophies with Barca, but be limited to friendlies and dead rubbers with the national team – bad for him, but a real sign of power for his country.

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One Comment

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  1. Great article!
    Keep them coming!

    Like

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