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Neuer rather than Ronaldo should have won the Ballon d'Or

Simon Barnes
January 13, 2015
Bayern Munich and Germany stopper Manuel Neuer conceded just 60 goals in 2014 © Getty Images

He's through! Only the goalkeeper to beat!

And with a few thousand active and lapsed goalkeepers, I hear those words and say to myself: only the goalkeeper? Francis Hodgson wrote a fine book on football's loneliest art and called it Only the Goalkeeper to Beat. The book ended with the question I asked.

Manuel Neuer made the shortlist for the Ballon d'Or along with Lionel Messi and winner Cristiano Ronaldo, even though he's only a goalkeeper. But only one of his kind has ever won the damn thing: Lev Yashin in 1963. That's one goalkeeper in 59 years since its inception as a European-only award in 1956.

Here's a tip. If you ever find yourself managing a football team, blow your entire transfer budget on the best goalkeeper you can afford. That's the way to get real value. In 2009, Real Madrid paid £80 million to Manchester United for Ronaldo: a fair price and no one would say otherwise.

Without Peter Schmeichel's injury-time penalty save in 1999, Manchester United would not have won the treble © PA Photos

In 2011, Bayern Munich paid £17m to Schalke for Neuer - and that's a steal. It's the best value transfer since Sir Alex Ferguson paid Leeds a million quid for Eric Cantona. When you think that Liverpool paid £16m for Mario Balotelli last summer and he has yet to score a Premier League goal, you realise that there are a few anomalies in the transfer market - and they start with goalkeepers.

Goalkeeping is a disregarded art. Those who choose to do it are misfits, the sort of people who enjoy wearing a different outfit to everyone else. A goalkeeper pulls off a good save and the expert summariser, invariably a former outfield player, will say "Nice height for the keeper" as if he knew what he was talking about.

Look back at 1999, Manchester United's year of the treble. You will probably remember that their charge into the final stage was kick-started by Ryan Giggs's galloping wonder-goal in the FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal. It's a false memory. The moment that changed everything was Peter Schemichel's earlier penalty save from Dennis Bergkamp. Look it up and you'll find that Bergkamp was said to have "missed". He did nothing of the kind.

Neuer has forced football to notice that a goalkeeper can play a significant part in a football match, and that's a triumph in itself. His excellence was a vital part of Germany's victory in the Wold Cup of last year and of Bayern Munich's victory in the Champions League of 2013; he had a blinder in the final and was the difference between the two sides. In 2014, he conceded 14 league goals and in 62 matches in that year he conceded just 40 goals in total.

One of the consistent errors that people make in football is to base their judgement on aesthetics. They give the prize to the midfielder who makes the most dazzling runs, the most ingenious passes and scores the most dazzling long-range goals. There's more to football than beauty and even if goalkeeping has its beauties, they are elusive to most observers.

But Neuer is genuinely remarkable. He has the strength and confidence and aerial ability to command his area, which is the minimum requirement of modern goalkeeping. His shot-stopping is as solid as any and occasionally remarkable. He's a big man as all modern goalkeepers are, but supple and bouncy as a gymnast.

Neuer has the great gift of what's called "staying big", the area in which Schmeichel excelled, so that in one-on-one situations the striker seems to have no target to aim at. To all this, Neuer has extended the range of the keeper's influence.

Neuer has forced football to notice that a goalkeeper can play a significant part in a football match

For a start his distribution. Like Bruce Grobbelaar, Neuer can throw like a quarterback. Most keepers, on gathering a ball, like to lie on top of it for a while, in relief, and to make it plain to onlookers that they have made a decent contribution to proceedings.

Neuer's first reaction is to look for the out-ball: a hard, low and very accurate throw to feet that doesn't just get the ball away from the goal, it sets up a counter-attack. Alert strikers are off and running as soon as Neuer reaches for the ball. His kicking from hand is long when it needs to be, but also intelligent and accurate.

Neuer is often called a sweeper-keeper and is credited with reinventing the goalkeeper's role. This is incorrect: Dave Beasant was taking free-kicks near the halfway line for Wimbledon in the 1980s, while generations of South American goalkeepers - Rene Higuita, Jose Luis Chilavert, Jorge Campos - generally nicknamed El Loco by English newspapers - have revelled in excursions upfield.

But Neuer does it better than any before him. He reads the game astonishingly well and his speed of thought allows him to break up attacks as they begin. His anticipation often makes the save unnecessary.

He is also confident when deprived the use of his hands. His style is the logical development from the change in the backpass law. That came into football in 1992, long after I had retired thankfully; there's still part of me that feels that forbidding a goalkeeper to handle the ball in his own area is a violation of fundamental human rights.

It's a modern goalkeeper's task to rise above such trials. Neuer has done this so completely that his versatility gives the team in front of him an advantage very close to that of an extra man. He make the high press, so beloved of modern coaches, so much easer and safer to perform.

Yashin, though a supreme line-keeper, was also a revolutionary, extending the role of the goalkeeper as the supreme defender, the boss of the last third. Neuer has added to the goalkeeper's role still further and is Yashin's worthy successor.

Football is a game that involves 11 players on each side, and victory can only be achieved by combining their talents. But when it comes to the subjective awards, the vote always goes with the aesthetes; with the ballet critics. Me, I'd put Neuer at the pinnacle of the game.

Which is a nice height for a goalkeeper.

Cristiano Ronaldo has won the Ballon d'Or for the last two years © Getty Images
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