A prayer for the goalies and referees of the World Cup

Let’s take a minute to remember the perennial villains of the game.

Danish goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard in action for Manchester City in January 2012. Photo: Getty
Danish goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard in action for Manchester City in January 2012. Photo: Getty

Here is one thing I can predict with total certainty about this World Cup: an as-yet-to-be determined number of goalies and referees are going to suffer terrible fates. They will be vilified. They will ruin their lives as we watch. They will shoulder the rage and sorrows of entire nations.

As we saunter into this month-long spectacle, let us take a moment to thank them. For their suffering is what makes this theatre possible.

I was the goalie for my suburban American youth team, and I actually remember a kind of beautiful peace to the role. You watch, from a quiet distance, as the pattern of the game unfolds, at ease when the ball is far off, gradually more and more alert as it approaches. There’s a kind of curious apartness to being a goalie. Except, of course, when your defenders once again screw up, and the ball comes streaking towards you, and in a gesture of complete irrationality and abandon you throw yourself in its path. And then, often enough, after all that, as your face smashes into the dirt, the ball goes into the net anyway. And it’s all your fault.

I was spared this experience much of the time only because an Icelandic wunderkind named Yakko had miraculously descended into the precincts of Bethesda, and even more miraculously ended up on our second-rate team. My job mostly consisted in watching him leave a trail consisting of every opposing player lying on the ground, then scoring one goal after another, then running back to us, all smiles, and high-fiving me as if I had contributed somehow by standing inert in the goal in the meantime.

I do remember well, though, the brief period when my Bolivian coach (who, he always repeated to us, had once “played with Pelé”, allowing us to imagine this taking place in some grand circumstance) decided I should be a striker. Apparently I’d dribbled better than anyone (save Yakko) during a drill. Plus I was Belgian, which I think he hoped would have conferred on me some skill in the midst of the desert of talent he found himself in. My career as a striker was relatively short, but I do remember well the incredible freedom I felt, the lightness of trying to score rather than stopping others from scoring. It was sometimes my fault we didn’t win. But it was never precisely my fault that we lost, the way it was when I was a goalie.

The lot of the goalie has generated its share of art, literature and philosophy. Albert Camus was a goalie, and I feel pretty comfortable attributing the entire structure of existentialist thought to that fact. And of course we have constantly been hearing of late about Moacir Barbosa, whose mistake in the final of the 1950 World Cup cost Brazil its trophy, completely ruining his life for good in the process, since Brazilians blamed forever for the worst thing that ever happened in history. If you are ever feeling sorry for yourself just imagine trying to go out to dinner in Rio as Moacir Barbosa.

If you are lucky as a goalie for a losing side, people will forget you. Who was the English goalie against whom Maradona scored his two legendary goals in 1986? Most of us don’t know his name, because no one really blames him for letting those two goals in. They either blame or celebrate Maradona, who occupies enough space in people’s memories anyway.

Often, though, goalies play extraordinary games but then are remembered for one failure. Think of Raïs M’Bohli, the amazing goalie for Algeria in the 2010 World Cup who stopped strike after strike from the U.S., basically keeping his team in the game. Except we don’t remember that so much as the fact that in its final minutes, Landon Donovan scored probably the most exciting goal in our country’s history against him.

Goalies do have some things going for them. In the right circumstances, they can be heroes. I suspect that for many goalies there is a certain pleasure in penalty shoot-outs for precisely this reason. The tables are turned, and for once it is those who are trying to score who bear all the responsibility. During penalty kicks, every player becomes a goalie. They get the chance to lose everything for their team. Roberto Baggio is condemned to be forever sending his shot far over the cross bar and into the stands in the 1994 final against Brazil, losing the Cup for Italy in that one instant.

As bad as goalies have it, referees have it even worse. The very best they can hope for is relative invisibility. If they referee a perfect match, people will forget they were even there. As for glory or praise, they can pretty much give up on that. When’s the last time you sat around with friends and waxed poetic about the brilliant refereeing of Howard Webb? Will there ever be a video game called FIFA referee?

Much more likely for a referee is that they will at some point be accused of being absolutely the worst person on the planet. Remember Koman Coulibaly, who at the 2010 World Cup disallowed a goal scored by the U.S. that was clearly over the line? Suddenly all kinds of people who never had seemed to care about soccer much before were enraged that this African referee – who, some noted, didn’t even speak English! – had stolen a goal from United States. As Paul Kennedy put it wryly, Coulibaly had actually done us a big favor: “He accomplished what no one else could in more than 100 years. He made Americans care passionately about soccer.”

I love yelling at referees as much as anyone else. I’m rip-roaring mad about the refereeing of the 1982 semifinal between France and Germany, which happened when I was ten and which I have only ever seen on YouTube.

But even though I realise this is a completely quixotic hope, one that goes against the very core of the being of most football fans, I’m still going to make this modest proposal for this World Cup. When the moment comes when we want to blame everything on a goalie or a referee, let us stop for a moment and imagine ourselves in his cleats. If we do that, maybe in a small way this World Cup will actually make a contribution to humanity.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com