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Aug 25, 2009

Keeping the faith

One of the more honourable aims of journalism is to speak for the weak, the disenfranchised, those forgotten on the fringes. Which, I guess, means for a Bayern Munich player.

As Mainz midfielder Andreas Ivanschitz sent his left-footed strike into the net, just inside the post and somehow beneath the outstretched arm of Bayern keeper Michael Rensing, Steffen Simon said: "This is the club of ..." - at this point he reeled off a list of names that began with Sepp Maier, ended with Oliver Kahn and included Raimond Aumann plus, I think, Jean-Marie Pfaff - "... and they still content themselves with Michael Rensing."

Steffen Simon, I should explain, is not my local pub's barman but a football commentator for one of our publicly owned television channels. It is, incidentally, the channel of Rudi Michel and Ernst Huberty, so I wonder why it still contents itself with Steffen Simon.

Ah. That was cheap, wasn't it? Just a silly tit-for-tat response. But I've lost patience with all those reporters who seem to think that, when it comes to sports, you don't have to follow any journalistic guidelines but are perfectly free to spit forth whatever opinion you happen to hold.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Rensing is as good as Maier and Kahn were. He's probably not even as good as Aumann was. But, for a reporter, it's just not on to put him down like that on public television. Not to mention that Simon's line was also utter rubbish because he should know quite well that Bayern have been openly courting Schalke's Manuel Neuer, so they are far from contenting themselves with someone or something.

Yes, goalkeeping is currently a topic. On Thursday, I opened Kicker magazine to find the result of a poll the venerable magazine had held among its readership. The question was: "Who is Germany's best goalkeeper?"

Some 14,500 readers of Kicker took part and awarded first place to Neuer (20.5%). Werder Bremen's Tim Wiese came second (19%), Hannover's Robert Enke was in third place (18%), followed by Leverkusen's René Adler (17.4%) and Hoffenheim's Timo Hildebrand (10.8%). And no less than 14.3% of the readers voted for a guy I've never heard of, Someone Else.

Quite a few things are interesting about this list, for instance a rather prominent name (other than Rensing's) is conspicuous by its absence and must have been subsumed under "Someone Else". We'll come to that, and him, in a moment.

But before we do so, let me draw your attention to another Kicker poll, less than three months old. During the summer break, the magazine asked the Bundesliga players about the past season. The pros voted Enke the best keeper in 2008-09 (18.9%), followed by Wolfsburg's Diego Benaglio (15.4%), Hertha's Jaroslav Drobny (15.1%), Adler (14.3%) and Wiese (12.4%).

That list is interesting, too. It not only misses the player also absent from the readers' poll - it completely ignores the guy the readers consider the best of the profession, namely Neuer.

Now, a third and last poll. On Saturday, my local paper informed me that Germany's leading sports wire service had carried out a "representative survey" last week, asking 1,200 "citizens of the Federal Republic" about the best German keeper. The result was a landslide victory for - Stuttgart's Jens Lehmann! The man who couldn't even crack the top five in those other two lists won 32% of the vote. Neuer was second (12.9%), followed by Enke (11.2%), Adler (10.9%) and Wiese (10.8%).

What is intriguing about all those polls is not that opinions about Lehmann seem to differ. I think that's fairly easy to explain. The Stuttgarter Nachrichten newspaper may have headlined its report on the wire service poll "The fans love Jens Lehmann", but that's just another case of, at best sloppy, at worst irresponsible, journalism.

First, the people polled were not asked whom they love, but whom they consider the best. In fact, I can assure the Stuttgarter Nachrichten writer without asking around that Gerrman fans do not love Lehmann. Second, the wire service survey explicitly states that the people polled were not fans but "representative citizens".

In other words, many of the people polled will have been barely familiar with the current state of the game. In fact, we can safely assume there were a lot who struggled to come up with a single name. Those people will have named the first keeper that came to mind, and that will have been Lehmann, because he played for Germany at the last two major tournaments.

So let's cross, with all due respect, Lehmann's name off those lists, or rather off the one list it appears on. We're still left with a lot of goalkeepers. And what's more, they all seem to be roughly on the same level, as neither the players themselves nor the readers of Kicker (nor, once we disregard Lehmann, the "representative citizens") could make out a clear favourite.

Does that mean the quality of goalkeeping in Germany is currently high - or low? If you allow me to laud myself: good question.

There's a reader's letter in the Monday edition of Kicker which argues that Germany "after almost six decades, no longer has a world-class keeper". Well, on the one hand the apparent lack of an outstanding, dominating keeper is not the same as mediocrity. Consider the fact that Oliver Kahn quite regularly lost such polls when he was still playing. In 2005, the Bundesliga pros felt that both Robert Enke and Dortmund's Roman Weidenfeller were better than Kahn and the Bayern keeper also lost the 2006 vote (to Enke again).

On the other hand, it's true that we, meaning Germans, have traditionally prided ourselves on the class of our goalies so much that we've sometimes been a tad too smug about it. The Germany versus England pre-match coverage in 2001, I recall vividly, centred around the fact that we had the best keeper in the world while the English, who once used to produce so many great shot stoppers, had David Seaman. In the end, the best keeper in the world conceded five goals while Seaman made a stunning and important save.

Now, please don't leave comments telling me how great Seaman was. I used to literally rub shoulders with him in a fish and chip shop in Kings Langley, so we're practically pals. It's just that, well, his reputation is not the best over here. Perhaps it's got to do with Nayim's lob for Zaragoza in the 1995 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup final.

Ah, reputation. Until the arrival of Iker Casillas, I thought Spain had below-par goalkeepers, because Luis Arconada made a terrible mistake that lost the 1984 European Championship final and his successor Andoni Zubizarreta gave away an own goal at the 1998 World Cup on which a crucial game against Nigeria turned. And I wasn't the only one who felt this way. Just the other day, I came across a blog entry about keepers that included this line: "Casillas is ... Spanish, a country that has not got a great goalkeeper history."

Spain had an all-time great in the immortal Ricardo Zamora, known as The Divine One. It also had the famous Antoni Ramallets, who so impressed crowds at the 1950 World Cup that they dubbed him the Cat of Maracana.

So this country does have a distinguished goalkeeping history. But it takes only a few moments, only a few prominent mistakes to forget all that and dismiss, not just probably good keepers like Arconada and Zubizarreta, but a whole country lock, stock and barrel.

Goalkeeping gaffes stick in the mind. Which is, incidentally, why a few foreign readers may be surprised that Tim Wiese places relatively well in those polls. They won't have forgotten his momentous howler against Juve in March 2006. Outfield players are treated much more leniently. Which brings us back to Bayern: centre-back Daniel van Buyten was responsible for the second goal the team conceded at Mainz, but Simon didn't commemorate great Bayern defenders of yore during the replay.

Yes, the first goal was Rensing's mistake. And yes, it wasn't his first mistake. But he has yet to blunder as magnificently as Jean-Marie Pfaff did in his very first game for Bayern when he bundled Uwe Reinders's throw-in (!) across the line. And he has yet to make a gaffe as costly as Aumann did in April of 1991 in Belgrade when his error prevented Bayern from reaching the European Cup final.

So we should cut Rensing some slack. He's no Zamora and no Ramallets, but that's not Bayern's most pressing problem at the moment. In fact, I'm surprised Rensing doesn't play worse, considering the pressure he's under and how thoroughly Klinsmann undermined his status when he suddenly benched him ahead of the Barcelona game last season. And if his critics claim they are merely measuring him against his predecessors, let me say Walter Junghans and rest my case.

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