One man is immersed in one of the game’s biggest scandals in eons. His counterpart, a victim of ritual humiliation at the hands of Paolo Di Canio, and a Jay Glazer-lookalike to boot. The Telegraph’s Bob Wilson sizes up the respective goalkeepers in Sunday’s World Cup final, Italy’s Gianlugi Buffon and France’s Fabien Barthez.
I have never been the biggest fan of the Italian but his performances in Germany have been hugely impressive. Against the host nation in the semi-final, Buffon (above) made one of the saves of the tournament while exuding a priceless presence, which separates the great players from the good.
Barthez (above) has always mixed brilliance with the bizarre. In the closing seconds against Portugal he was as brave as a lion, saving his team amidst flying feet only to immediately throw the ball straight back to the opposition. There was also one ungainly scoop-like save from a vicious free-kick, though it was good to see his fierce rival for the French jersey, Gregory Coupet, explaining to other subs on the bench how violently the ball had moved in flight.
It’s likely that Buffon will today be named goalkeeper of the tournament ahead of Germany’s Jens Lehmann. I hope it doesn’t prove to be the kiss of death as it was four years ago when Oliver Kahn received the accolade on the eve of Germany’s final against Brazil, only to cost his team victory the next day by fumbling a Rivaldo shot into the path of Ronaldo. It is difficult to see the calm Buffon doing that.
Barthez, however, has always had a problem with nerves and anxiety. A few seasons ago in the dressing-room corridor at Highbury, he emerged from the Manchester United changing area and asked me if there was a private space available for him to do his warm up. It seemed a strange request, but I directed him to the one room I always knew was unoccupied pre-match. A few moments later his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, found me and asked, “Seen my goalkeeper?” I hesitated just enough for the United boss to follow up with, “Don’t worry about the goalkeepers union, I know he’s sneaked off for a fag. He thinks I don’t know.” The great man laughed when I told him I’d sent his keeper to the dope-testing room.
Forget what the traditionalists tell you. The history of football rules is one of exploitation followed, several years later, by correction. The introduction of referees, changes in the offside law, professional fouls, the backpass rule and so on, have all come about following this process.
Such intervention needs to happen again. Because ever since the wondrous magic of Euro 2000, football’s delicate balance between attack and defence has spun increasingly out of kilter. Here are a few ideas:
– Stop the clock every time someone gets injured. Too often players feign distress, especially in the last 10 minutes, wasting two or three minutes of play and destroying their opponents’ momentum. They’re rarely seriously injured. Another option: if the injury is in the middle of the pitch, allow the physio on but keep playing. Either way, more playing time may lead to more goals.
– Investigate the use of sin bins. At the moment it’s rational for defenders to body-check, scythe and take out opponents in promising positions, picking up a professional yellow, because conceding a goal is far worse. The possibility of 20 minutes in the sin bin – with a yellow card chucked in – for cynical fouls might change a player’s incentives and, ergo, behaviour.
– Increase the size of the goals by a few centimetres. Yes, you hate the idea. Every football fan does, but surely it’s worth experimenting with in a semi-professional league? After all, keepers are at least a foot taller now then in the 19th century when goalpost sizes were laid down in law.