Capello not afraid of dropping keepers
When Robert Green committed a goalkeeping calamity for a Fabio Capello team at the 2010 World Cup, he paid the price of an England career that never recovered. By the Monday that followed his Saturday night error, his private life was splashed across U.K. tabloids.
It's unlikely that Igor Akinfeev faces the latter fate, but he will probably be spending the rest of this World Cup on the sidelines. That this was not Akinfeev's only moment of doubt cannot have escaped his coach.
Three times before Lee Keun-ho's goal in Russia's 1-1 draw with South Korea in Cuiaba, Brazil, he had failed to smother long shots that ought to be meat and drink to a goalkeeper who once had such a big reputation. There could be no excuses about Akinfeev being confused about the flight of an unfamiliar ball; the Russian Premier League used the adidas Brazuca for the entire season just gone.
"It was a kid's mistake. I take full responsibility for the goal," admitted the goalkeeper afterward.
Green's error was widely blamed for slow-puncturing England's campaign just as Steven Gerrard had supplied a dream start. Akinfeev can only fear the same, even if his coach gave rich backing to him in the aftermath.
By Capello's logic, Akinfeev's fateful error to let in Lee's hardly howitzer shot served to pick his Russian team up from their slumber. "It was a wonderful reaction, and we developed a crescendo," said the Italian of a swift comeback that resulted in Aleksandr Kerzhakov's equaliser a mere six minutes later.
Green's error halted momentum, while Akinfeev's actually seemed to have the opposite effect; Capello was happy to take positives and heap praise on the stricken CSKA keeper.
"The goal was a difficult one but the reaction from the players was really important for me.
"I am very happy with Akinfeev because he is a great goalkeeper," continued Capello in the postmatch news conference. "There can be mistakes, of course -- some can get a penalty wrong and it's logical for a goalkeeper to make a mistake as well. We were able to make up for that and we can accept a mistake by a great keeper like Akinfeev."
Five years ago, Akinfeev was hailed as an heir to the lineage of great Russian goalkeepers that descends from Lev Yashin, the only goalkeeper to win the Ballon d'Or. Akinfeev was once seen as the true successor to Rinat Dasaev, the Spartak stopper who starred at the 1982, 1986 and 1990 World Cups and was widely seen as his continent's best around the time the old Soviet Union reached the final of the 1988 European championship.
When Manchester United were preparing to replace Edwin van der Sar, Akinfeev was at one point top of their shopping list, with talks taking place in 2009 between United and CSKA, before the Dutchman agreed to stay on for a further two years. By the time David de Gea was signed in the summer of 2011, Akinfeev had dropped down the list, due to a loss in form from which he is yet to recover.
At Euro 2012, under Dick Advocaat's leadership, Vyacheslav Malafeev was first choice for a disastrous campaign, only for the Zenit veteran's international retirement to let Akinfeev back into first-choice status.
It must be expected that the Italian coach may now repeat his decision to replace Green with David James after Rustenberg.
"Sometimes a forward misses a goal and sometimes the keeper makes a mistake, this is football," he said in the press room of the Royal Bafokeng stadium. "He made one mistake but then pulled off a great save in the second half. I was pleased for him."
These were markedly similar words to those delivered at the Arena Pantanal on Tuesday. By the Friday morning, the English press were reporting -- correctly -- that Green was being replaced by James, nearing his 40th birthday. Capello is likely to be making a choice between Yury Lodygin, Malafeev's replacement at Zenit, or Sergei Ryzhikov, the Rubin Kazan veteran.
As Green has admitted since about his South African nightmare, Akinfeev could be forgiven for having an utterly shattered confidence that is not worth testing further in the glare of a World Cup finals. The initial reaction to his mistake was to collapse between the goalposts for several aching moments of clear psychological pain, and it must have been a sincere regret for the Koreans that they never again got a clear chance to test his clearly destroyed resolve.
"I can't say that it was because of worry," Akinfeev admitted in the postmatch mixed zone. "Maybe I wasn't sure in myself, I don't know. The guys supported me. I say thanks. The goalkeeper of the national team shouldn't make mistakes like this one."
These seemed words of resignation. He might console himself with the fact that the great Yashin made famous errors at the 1962 and 1966 finals or that modern-day great Iker Casillas suffered one in Salvador on Friday. However, Akinfeev can only fear a similar fate to that which befell Green. History suggests Capello is not a coach to shirk decisions on goalkeepers.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.