What's it like being a goalkeeper at the World Cup?
Shaka Hislop and Kasey Keller go way back. Long before the two World Cup-bound ESPN analysts began their television careers, they crossed paths as standout goalkeepers -- first in American college soccer in the late 1980s, then in a fledgling circuit called the English Premier League, and finally in international matches between their respective national teams: Hislop's Trinidad and Tobago and Keller's United States.
Both also left their mark on the planet's biggest sporting event. Keller was a member of four U.S. World Cup squads between 1990 and 2006, backstopping the Yanks in two tournaments. Hislop spent most those 16 years trying to overcome the heartbreak of watching Keller's American squad shock T&T on home soil to book a berth at Italia '90 -- a result that put the U.S. back on the global stage for the first time in 40 years -- but he finally made his Cup debut at Germany '06, where he memorably kept a clean sheet against Sweden in the Soca Warriors' first game.
What's it like being the last line of defense at the sport's highest level? On the eve of Brazil 2014, we sat down with the pair to find out.
The World Cup is the grandest stage in sports. Is there anything different about the way you approached those games?
Kasey Keller: I think the thing I realized in the first game I actually played in -- as opposed to being on the bench -- is that it really is just another game. It was against Germany in 1998, in Paris. You think it's going to be different because of the long process in getting to the World Cup; I think it took 18 games for us to qualify.
But after about 20 minutes you realize that it's just another match that you're playing. Sure, there's so much meaning -- it's the World Cup! -- but you're still trying to keep the ball out of the back of the net. That way, it's no different. And I think that's the part that sinks in after a while. It doesn't change how you play. You can't all of a sudden be someone you're not. For me, I was on the 1990 squad when I was 20 years old. In hindsight, in some ways I'm kind of glad that I didn't play because there's no way I was ready.
Shaka Hislop: It's hard to hear Kasey talk about Italia '90 and the USA's appearance in that World Cup because, of course, they had to beat Trinidad, in Trinidad, in the final qualifying game to get there. We lost. Like Kasey, I was still in college at the time, and I remember being heartbroken. Everybody thought that we were going, and then we lost at home. It took us 16 years to get back.
When we started the qualification campaign for 2006, I was playing, but I was having some problems with Portsmouth, my club at the time. I wasn't playing there, so when I came in with the national team, I had absolutely no confidence. I lost my place, first to Clayton Ince and then to Kelvin Jack, but I still made the squad for Germany 2006. In the final warm-up game before the tournament, Kelvin strained a calf muscle. Even if he was ruled out, I wasn't sure to play -- our coach, Leo Beenhakker, actually told me Clayton would play if Kelvin Jack wasn't fit.
So I had a great night's sleep, woke up the morning of the game and probably had far too big a breakfast. Then Kelvin came out, warmed up and realized he couldn't go. He told me before he told the coach. When he went over to Beenhakker, I was just kind of staring at him to see what he would do, and he gave me the nod.
Here I am at 37 years old, and I had 10 minutes to get ready for my first World Cup game. I got thrown into the deep end, which, as it turned out, was perfect.
You both played for teams that, realistically, where not expected to compete for the title. Does that put more pressure on a goalkeeper?
KK: I think we both probably understood that at times our teams were going to struggle to score. If you concede a goal or two, your odds of getting a result are long. But I think you get yourself in trouble as a goalkeeper if you start thinking, "I need to do something different" and start chasing down crosses or whatever. You have to play the way you play, and hope they put the ball somewhere you can save it.
If someone smashes the ball into the upper corner, there's nothing you can do. Unfortunately in the World Cup games I played in, we just had trouble scoring. Sometimes you need a little luck. But in any game at any level, you do everything you can to not to concede a goal. The World Cup doesn't change that. SH: Early in my career, I remember a conversation with Nigel Martyn about international football and what he said stayed with me: The difference between international football and club football is that as a goalkeeper, you have lot less to do at the international level. Not many people take shots from distance. The game is a lot slower, it's a lot more methodical, and the opposition tries to work to get the ball until they get it as close as possible to you. Sometimes all you do over 90 minutes is take a couple of goal kicks and concede two goals that come from six or seven yards out.
So I went into the World Cup with that in mind. I wanted to just be prepared for what comes and not try to chase things, as Kasey put it -- especially knowing my limitations as a 37-year-old. You just hope you get in the right place at the right time and that things hit you.
What's the lasting World Cup memory for each of you?
SH: For me, it's easy: It was hearing the national anthem played before the Sweden game. Of course, at that point nobody had any idea what was going to unfold over the next 90 minutes. As I said, I suffered heartbreak in 1989 when we didn't qualify. I'd been a football fan since I was a kid. So to stand there and hear the national anthem played at a World Cup -- that for me will always be my greatest takeaway.
KK: For me, it's tricky. In 1990 I went in as a kid who really had no right to be there -- so many of us on that squad had no right to be there -- but I guess you have to start at some point. So I think what was great was to learn. Then in '98, obviously I got my chance, but it was just a huge disappointment the way everything worked out. Not because of the results; just the whole approach wasn't right. I was really frustrated that we didn't give ourselves an opportunity to win games.
It was a very frustrating situation in 2002 between [Brad] Friedel and me and the way it all transpired. I had a couple of injuries before the tournament that kind of set me back. Brad was going to play the opener against Portugal, and I was supposed to play against South Korea. Then we won the game against Portugal, and Bruce [Arena, the U.S. coach] changed his mind. The team had tremendous success, and I was very proud to be part of a team that got to a quarterfinal. But there was the personal frustration of not being a part of it on the field.
Then in 2006, we overcome the disappointment of losing the opening game against Czech Republic and got a draw against the eventual champs. We were the only team to take points off of Italy -- and under unbelievable circumstances after having two guys sent off. Somehow we found a way to get a result to make the last game against Ghana mean something.
But like I said, you need some luck. Claudio Reyna had never been stripped in his life at the top of the box, but it happened and I wasn't able to come up with the one-on-one save. Like Shaka said, you're only going to have a couple opportunities. I had a one-on-one and then there was a phantom penalty call before halftime -- I didn't come up with the penalty save, either. It was frustrating. Overall, though, what I really remember from a personal side was being able to somehow get that result against Italy to keep us in the 2006 World Cup.
What are your earliest memories of the World Cup?
KK: I remember sneaking home for lunch when I was in high school to watch in 1986. That was really the first time I'd seen a World Cup game, and then four years later, I'm part of it. Everywhere else in the world, people remember watching the World Cup as a little kid. Here I am watching my very first one in high school and then going to the next one as a player. Obviously, it's totally different now. That's how much the game has progressed in this country. It was fun to be there at the start of soccer's momentum in America. SH: My first memory of a World Cup was 1978 in Argentina. I remember the spectacle, the ticker-tape, players like Mario Kempes and Ossie Ardiles ...
KK: I didn't even know where the World Cup was in '78. I didn't know the World Cup existed. That's scary.
SH: It is scary! I was immersed in it. That speaks to the difference in the footballing cultures at the time -- for you growing up in the States and me growing up in Trinidad. It remains one of my most cherished memories as a kid. I didn't watch goalkeepers in particular. It was more about the spectacle of the world's best players going head-to-head.
When's the first time you became aware of each other?
SH: We were both at the NCAA Final Four in 1988. I was with Howard University and Kasey was with Portland. Right?
KK: Right. The other two teams were Indiana, which had Juergen Sommer, and Virginia, who had Tony Meola.
SH: Correct. And three of us went on to play in England.
KK: It's so different now -- you'll never have a bunch of future national team goalkeepers for multiple countries playing at one time in college. These days, a top keeper might go to college for a year or two maximum before going to Europe or MLS. It just shows how much we've progressed -- even if we still have a long way to go.
Did you continue to keep tabs on each other as your careers progressed?
KK: I remember we beat Trinidad on the road on a goal by Joe-Max Moore on the way to '98.
SH: I didn't play in that game, but we obviously saw each other in England.
KK: No matter where I played, whether it was in England, Spain or Germany, what I found was if you came across someone who had the same kind of path as you, if they came from a smaller country or the same region or spoke English -- you always sort of sought each other out. You'd talk. SH: No question. There's always camaraderie between goalkeepers, as well. It's the nature of the position. And as Kasey said, when it's a goalkeeper with a similar background, you want to show respect. It's good to shake someone's hand and acknowledge someone who knows what you're going through.
You both played in the Premier League as it was coming of age in the mid-1990s. Kasey, you played in other top leagues, as well. Compared to those leagues, how high is the level of play at the World Cup?
SH: I maintain that the World Cup is the highest level of football there is. This argument always seems to come up during every Champions League final or during the Euros -- that those are better competitions than the World Cup. To be honest, I find it laughable.
When you're representing your country, I think that stokes a kind of emotion in a player that club football simply does not. I know some say otherwise -- I remember Jamie Carragher famously saying that it was more important for him playing for Liverpool than for England -- but I think that's the exception.
The challenge at the World Cup isn't just the three games and the finality of it. It's the different styles. Chances are you're going to face a European team, a South American team and the third team could be from anywhere else. So it's three totally different approaches, three totally different sets of beliefs and three different challenges to overcome. I don't think any other competition -- at club or international level -- presents that same challenge.
KK: What you find at the club level are great players that play for small countries are able to be in the spotlight. You don't find that in World Cups. If Sweden doesn't qualify then you don't have Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who's obviously a star in the Champions League. Players like George Weah from Liberia or Ryan Giggs with Wales played for countries that never qualified.
Now that the tournament is 32 teams, you're going to have teams that aren't as good as Barcelona. It's just the way it is. But when the big footballing countries who have star players playing for the top teams around the world get together and jell quickly -- and then you add that national pride -- it can definitely raise the level, no question about it.
Yes, sometimes club teams are better. But in the right situation on the biggest stage, national teams are the best.