by Natasha Raheel
KARACHI: As the last line of defence, a goalkeeper is arguably the most crucial component of a football team, yet the man between the sticks seldom gets the adulation the outfielders are routinely afforded.
Football’s final custodian stands at the back all by himself as goals at the other end turn strikers into superstars and assists help midfielders become maestros. But when the action shifts to the back and the man with the gloves makes a match-saving save, the applause lacks the same enthusiasm.
The problem is even more deep-rooted in Pakistan, where some even consider the goalkeeper as a fifth wheel or a job for those who are deemed unfit for any other position on the field.
“It is a thankless job and completely the opposite of the concept of a striker,” Pakistan’s most successful goalkeeper Jaffar Khan, who now coaches Army, told The Express Tribune. “I also began playing football as a striker and took up goalkeeping later.”
In Jaffar’s case though, the positional switch actually benefited him as at times he already knew everything the opposition attacker had to throw at him. “I knew what my challenger was up to,” he said. “A goalkeeper has to be one step ahead of everyone else, and my attacking background often helped me predict what my opponent would do next.”
However, he is well aware that the lack of recognition means that goalkeeping never attracts the best athletes and even coaching goalkeepers is considered a chore or an exercise in futility.
“We still don’t have any specialised camps for goalkeepers —at least not in football,” complained Jaffar. “The problem is that goalkeeping is a position that needs to be promoted and glamourised among the youth. How many people even remember the name of goalkeepers? No one. But in reality, a strong goalie makes or breaks a team.”
Highly-rated Saqib Hanif, who famously gave up a promising career as a forward to become a goalkeeper, agrees with Jaffar’s viewpoint but also points out that being the custodian at the back has its own charm, something which all the goals and assists can’t match.
“I still play as a striker sometimes for KRL,” said Hanif, who currently plies his trade in Maldives for BG Sports. “But goalkeeping is the position I love. I was a striker first in my U14 team, but then two goalkeepers from my Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa side had to leave because they were over 14 years of age. That’s when I was asked to fill in and since then I have never looked back and have gone from strength to strength.”
The 22-year-old Bannu-born further added: “I’m still a decent striker as I scored 12 goals in five matches for PEL in one of the national tournaments, but now I feel that goalkeeping is like a drug. I won’t be able to continue playing football if I’m not a goalkeeper. It is a fearless job, and that is the thrill.”
Meanwhile, national coach and Pakistan Football Federation’s former technical director Shehzad Anwar said that it is the aptitude of the goalkeepers that sets them apart.
“The goalkeeper actually plays as the last defender, and they are smarter, low-key and have more leadership quality in them,” said Anwar. “Very few individuals have that patience to begin with, but yes we need to improve our goalkeeping standards and for once give the goalkeepers the recognition they deserve. Especially the younger lot like Hanif so that they can stick to the sport for a longer period.”