Friday 26 February 2021

In Between the Sticks

In my younger years I used to play football competitively. I was a goalkeeper, in fact. Being a goalkeeper is an unenviable and oft berated position that nevertheless felt very natural and comfortable to me.
It wasn't until recently that I noticed the similarities between the goalkeeper's place in the game of football and my current position in relationship to art and its institutions.
A goalkeeper is a special kind of player, an outlier with an individual mentality, nested firmly in a team sport. Goalkeepers are allowed to do things the other players aren't allowed to do, but these special abilities confine them to a position that somewhat excludes them from the rest of the game.
The position they occupy nevertheless allows them great insight into the game as it unfolds in front of their eyes and it is worth noting that this game would be very different if the goalkeeper didn't hold this particular position. Without goalkeepers there would be no tactics, no depth, in football. A goalkeeper is the only thing that prevents the degenerate strategy of hucking the ball in the direction of the goal as soon as play commences. Many of the other rules in football are a consequence of this simple requirement and it is the clever manipulation of those rules that gives the game any kind of sophistication.

Although a goalkeeper is the only player whose presence is required in the rules of football, for most of the game they have little active participation in it. A goalkeeper spends much of his time waiting and watching the other players. As a goalkeeper you have to carefully observe how the others are playing, what decisions they make and how that affects the bigger game surrounding them.
Although you're reliant on yourself and yourself alone for much of the time, you can't afford to let your concentration slip and stop paying attention, because from one second to the next you can be asked to respond to an attack that is suddenly coming towards you.

When an attack is mounting, the odds are firmly stacked against you. There is nobody else defending the goal and you are solely responsible for keeping the ball out of a rectangle that at 2.44 meters is much taller than you are and at 7.32 meters is much more wide than you can jump.
Only by anticipating the actions of others can you provide any kind of defence. Based on your observations you can give your teammates directions on where they could be aiding the defence. It's therefore important that your judgement is always sound, as only a team that trusts and respects your assessment of the situation will follow those instructions.
Yet sometimes all the insight and anticipation in the world is not enough to prevent an opponent coming straight at you with the intention to kick the ball as hard as possible in your direction. As a goalkeeper your best chance of stopping this course of action is to move forward, straight into the path of your opponent. The fear of such a direct and forceful confrontation is something you will get used to, although it will never completely go away. It's unnatural to put yourself in harms way of a ball that's about to be launched at maximum force and at times this ball is directly followed by the full mass of the person kicking it. 
Pain is unavoidable for a goalkeeper and there is zero room for theatrics, because every moment you aren't upright and ready for action is an opportunity for the other team to score.
It requires courage to overcome the natural fear of such physical confrontations and it takes skill and precision to do so repeatedly without injury.

The physical skills required for goalkeeping are indeed manifold. You don't only need to catch and throw a ball, a goalkeeper also needs all the other skills a competent football player possesses. I would think that any good goalkeeper is automatically an above average football player, while a good football player doesn't necessarily have any talent as goalkeeper. 
A goalkeeper gets to use their hands to exert fine control over the ball, in contrast to the somewhat coarse but high-powered movements of a leg. This tactility tends to give goalkeepers a greater feeling for material aspects. Goalkeepers can obsess over their gloves, the ball, the condition of the pitch, the angle of the sun, the temperature of the air. All these things have influence on how a ball behaves on the field, so it's important to be in tune with the way those factors interact with each other. 
Even with the attention focussed on the more delicate movements, physical power is just as essential in goalkeeping and you need strong legs to quickly move your body to where it needs to be. I personally took great pride in being the fastest sprinter of my team during training sessions and if all you can do is dive towards the ball at the last possible instant, you're not going to last long as a goalkeeper.
While a goalkeeper trains to have the upper hand in a direct confrontation, it's always better to appease the situation before it becomes dangerous. That is a mental aspect to goalkeeping that presents itself in an odd duality. Goalkeeping simultaneously requires the ability to dominate others and claim a large space for yourself with your presence, yet also asks of you to make yourself subordinate to the bigger game. You have to be respected for your calm and integrity by your own team and feared for your uncompromising nature by your opponents. Because of your inability to actively influence a positive outcome of a game, you are also both the least and most crucial member of the team. 
Despite the many different skills and talents one must master, there is a Sisyphean aspect to goalkeeping. There is no such thing as winning for a goalkeeper and the best one can do is not to lose.
If you are faced with the impossible task of defending a penalty kick and by some extraordinary feat you managed to keep the ball out of the goal, all you have achieved is that you have kept the score from changing. 
At least for the moment, anyway.