They are rarely the stars of the show, often an afterthought when considering the players who could define a World Cup, but a top goalkeeper is vital to a country’s hopes of success on the biggest stage of them all. The history of the competition is littered with memorable feats by the unheralded men between the sticks.
Perhaps most famously, Dino Zoff captained Italy to glory in 1982 at the age of 40. Similarly, 24 years later his compatriot Gianluigi Buffon cemented his status as the world’s best goalkeeper by helping his side to glory having conceded just two goals along the way. It can also be a place to make your reputation, as West Germany’s then 23-year-old Bodo Illgner did in 1990 when making a crucial save in a penalty shootout of the semifinal win over England before going onto become the first goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet in the final.
In 2002 Oliver Kahn experienced the harsh fate of being the last line of defense. The German stopper’s performances in South Korea and Japan led to him being given the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player, but in the biggest game of all in the final he spilled a shot to Ronaldo, who put Brazil in front and went onto lift the trophy.
Perhaps the greatest goalkeeper of all, though, is Lev Yashin and the award for the World Cup’s best goalkeeper was long named after the great Soviet stopper.
Now called the Golden Glove, here are the top 10 candidates for the award in Brazil this summer.
1. Manuel Neuer (Germany)
Thrust into a starting place at the last World Cup following the sad death of Robert Enke and injury to Rene Adler, Neuer has since moved to Bayern Munich, where he has won a plethora of trophies and established himself as the world’s best goalkeeper. A superb shot-stopper, commanding presence and good with his feet, the 28-year-old is the total package. Behind a defense that is the weakest part of the team, Neuer will have to be at his best if Germany are to win their fourth World Cup.
2. Gianluigi Buffon (Italy)
Buffon has been regarded as one of the best around ever since coming off the bench for his Italy debut in a snowy Moscow during a playoff for the 1998 World Cup against Russia and making several outstanding saves. Now aged 36, Buffon is perhaps now susceptible to lapses than in his absolute peak, but he remains an imposing presence between the sticks and arrives in Brazil on the back of claiming his third straight Serie A title with Juventus.
3. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Belgium have an incredible generation of players hoping to fulfill their talent in Brazil, not least their man in goal. Aged just 22, Courtois remains on the books of Chelsea but has spent the last three seasons on loan at Atletico Madrid. The incredible reflexes of the 6-foot-6 Genk product has already helped Atletico win the Spanish title against the odds and he could yet arrive at the World Cup as a Champions League winner.
4. Iker Casillas (Spain)
Like, Buffon, Casillas made his name at a young age, in his case helping Real Madrid to two Champions League trophies before the age of 21. It has been a strange 18 months, though, for the now 33-year-old. Perhaps due to his weakness in controlling his area, Casillas was first dropped by Jose Mourinho and then limited to cup appearances this season under Carlo Ancelotti. Still, he has played every minute of Madrid’s run to the Champions League final and showed his reactions remain unaffected by a lack of regular action with some superb saves to help stave off a comeback from Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinals. Was voted the best goalkeeper as Spain claimed the trophy in 2010.
5. Salvatore Sirigu (Italy)
Italy has long been associated with producing great goalkeepers and that remains true, with Buffon’s backup also deserving of a place among the world’s best. Sirigu was one of the unheralded signings at the start of Paris Saint-Germain’s spending spree after their Qatari takeover, but in the last three years has proven one of their best. Has won eight caps for Italy, and will be a more than reliable deputy for Buffon, should the veteran go down injured as he did in the 2010 World Cup.
6. Hugo Lloris (France)
Lloris has now been France No.1 since the qualifiers for the last World Cup and will be looking to put behind him the memories of South Africa when his country went out in shambolic fashion in the first round after a revolt against then coach Raymond Domenech. The 27-year-old left Lyon for Premier League side Tottenham two years ago and has been a big success. However, perhaps his biggest strength, his ability to sweep up behind the defense, has also been a source of too many errors this past season. He will need to return to the form of his first campaign in England if France are to go far.
7. David de Gea (Spain)
In a woeful season for Manchester United on the pitch, De Gea has been the one player at Old Trafford to enhance his reputation. The 23-year-old has come a long way since struggling with the physicality of the Premier League in the early days following his big-money move from Atletico Madrid three years ago. It says much for Spain’s incredible generation of goalkeepers, that De Gea has yet to win a cap for Spain and may even be third choice behind Casillas and Pepe Reina.
8. Tim Howard (USA)
Howard was deemed not good enough for Manchester United after the jump from Major League Soccer proved too big for the New Jersey native, but he has been a consistent standout performer for Everton for the past eight seasons in the Premier League. The 35-year-old has strong competition from Aston Villa’s Brad Guzan, but the way Howard raises his game to sometimes superhuman levels for his country means he rightly remains No.1.
9. Joe Hart (England)
England’s goalkeeping situation was something of a mess at the last World Cup, especially after Robert Green’s calamitous error in their first game. Since being selected but overlooked in South Africa, Hart has since become his country’s undisputed first-choice and given them some long-sought stability between the sticks. Was perhaps praised above his station too early and a series of errors led to him being dropped by Manchester City midway through this past season. But the 27-year-old has returned to the team and to form to help City win the Premier League title.
10. Julio Cesar (Brazil)
It has been a strange past four years for Julio Cesar. At the last World Cup, his error allowed the Netherlands a way back into their quarterfinal that they went onto win and he has since been offloaded by Inter Milan and relegated from the Premier League with Queens Park Rangers. After six months getting paid handsomely on the sidelines, the 34-year-old took a loan move with Major League Soccer side Toronto FC in January. Not ideal preparation for the incredible pressure of being the last line of defense for Brazil at a World Cup on home soil. However, it is not that long ago that he was arguably the world’s best goalkeeper and his performances in the Confederations Cup last summer justifies Luiz Felipe Scolari keeping him as No.1.
Honorable mentions: Fernando Muslera (Uruguay), Asmir Begovic (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Pepe Reina (Spain).