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Jul 3, 2014

It's been a memorable World Cup for goalkeepers outside of Europe

Gab Marcotti discusses where this World Cup ranks historically for UEFA teams.

Complete the following sequence: Michel Preud'homme; Fabien Barthez and Jose Luis Chilavert; Oliver Kahn and Rustu Recber; Gianluigi Buffon, Jens Lehmann and Ricardo; Iker Casillas; and... ?

The next name will denote the goalkeeper deemed the best in this World Cup. FIFA's team of the tournament has varied in size, from the obvious choice of 11 to the bloated squad of 23, complete with three shot-stoppers, selected in 2006. Yet whatever the format, there is a dominant theme: Of the 24 men chosen in total, 17 came from one continent. Of the nine nominations from the past five tournaments, all bar one hailed from Europe.

The eccentric Paraguayan Chilavert, whose goal was only breached twice in 1998, is the lone exception in that time; the sole representative of the rest of the world. Advance to the current tournament, and there has been a swift role reversal: From supplying eight of the nine finest goalkeepers, Europeans may be outnumbered 8-to-2 in today's top 10.

Perhaps only Germany's sweeper-keeper Manuel Neuer and Belgium's terrific Thibaut Courtois belong on a short list, though a case could be made for France's Hugo Lloris. Yet this has been a vintage tournament for their African, and North and South American counterparts. Not since 1990, when Argentina's Sergio Goycochea and Costa Rica's current goalkeeping coach Luis Gabelo Conejo were the pick of the bunch, has New World outperformed Old between the sticks.

Guillermo Ochoa has excelled for Mexico between the posts, one of a few goalkeeping discoveries.
Guillermo Ochoa has excelled for Mexico between the posts, one of a few goalkeeping discoveries.

That was a rarity. Now there is a case for acclaiming the CONCACAF trio -- they may need a more catchy collective name -- of Guillermo Ochoa, Tim Howard and Conejo's pupil Keylor Navas as the three best. The southern half of the continent has been in safe hands, too, with Colombia's David Ospina, Brazil's Julio Cesar and Chile's Claudio Bravo. Nigeria's Vincent Enyeama and Algeria's Rais M'Bolhi have also impressed.

Perhaps the most memorable moment came from an African keeper, too, with the Ghanaian Fatau Dauda's celebrations after he repelled Cristiano Ronaldo's close-range header, bringing to mind the suggestion that a save can be as good as a goal. The otherwise excellent Enyeama's error, causing Paul Pogba's opener for France, was a reminder of the essential cruelty of the goalkeeper's lot: The mistakes come at great cost, while stops sometimes seem to be damage-limitation exercises.

Ochoa earned Mexico a stalemate with Brazil and took them to the brink of an elusive quarterfinal appearance with a magnificent performance against the Netherlands that ultimately counted for naught. The 28-year-old seemed to be competing against himself in a one-man, save-of-the-tournament contest, a brilliant block from Stefan de Vrij following similar, credibility-defying efforts to keep Thiago Silva and Neymar out.

Vincent Enyeama was exceptional for Nigeria, despite a round of 16 defeat to France.
Vincent Enyeama was exceptional for Nigeria, despite a round of 16 defeat to France.

His reflexes, positional sense and an apparent magnetism that draws the ball to him would earn the Mexican this vote as the pick of a fine bunch. Yet the numerical advantage may lie with Howard after he set a World Cup record with his 16 saves against Belgium, bringing acclaim but not a place in the last eight.

"Phenomenal, outstanding, an amazing match," manager Jurgen Klinsmann gushed. Romario, who had ample experience of beating goalkeepers, pronounced it the best display he had witnessed. Howard's Wikipedia entry was amended to rebrand him as America's Secretary of Defense.

Defiant goalkeeping is an American tradition on the world stage. Howard is following in the footsteps of Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel, who can count himself unfortunate not to be understudying Kahn in the 2002 squad. Friedel made history then by becoming the first goalkeeper to save two penalties in matches -- as opposed to shootouts -- at the same World Cup.

Shootouts can be a goalkeeper's salvation. Ever since Brazil won the 1970 World Cup, received wisdom has been that they triumphed in spite of Felix and, while Claudio Taffarel was a reliable presence in the 1990s, a reputation for haphazard goalkeepers was exacerbated when Cesar came for, and missed, Wesley Sneijder's cross, leading to their 2010 exit.

The QPR reserve, who was loaned to Toronto FC -- and the most recent employers of this World Cup's stand-out keepers also include CSKA Sofia, Ajaccio, Lille, Nice, Levante, none exactly a global superpower -- saved spot kicks from Mauricio Pinilla and Alexis Sanchez. He was subsequently anointed "Saint Julio Cesar" by O Dia, the Brazilian newspaper.

Of all the goalkeepers expected to excel in Brazil, Iker Casillas is the one whose disappointed most.
Of all the goalkeepers expected to excel in Brazil, Iker Casillas is the one whose disappointed most.

Until then, football's most famous shot-stopping saint was "San Iker." This has been a chastening tournament for Casillas, a man who was unbeatable on the route to World Cup glory and for European goalkeeping in general. Impeccable in 2006, Buffon looked decidedly frail in defeat to Costa Rica. Casillas blundered badly against both Holland and Chile, being dispossessed by Arjen Robben when the Dutch winger scored and then punching weakly to Charles Aranguiz when the midfielder did likewise.

And yet it isn't quite enough to render Casillas a shoo-in for any World Cup Worst XIs. Not when there is competition from Russia's Igor Akinfeev, who was directly responsible for goals scored by South Korea and Algeria. There is at least one goalkeeping award that has become a straight shootout between Europeans. It isn't the Golden Glove.

Richard Jolly

Richard Jolly is a football writer for ESPN, The Guardian, The National, The Observer, the Straits Times and the Sunday Express.