World Cup Watch: Why are American goalkeepers superior to the Europeans?

From the NYT:

In England, American goalkeepers have become as reliable as tea time. The theories for this are plentiful and speculative: Americans grow up playing sports that require use of the hands. The population of 300 million is bound to produce a high number of terrific athletes. The 6-foot-3 Howard, for instance, was a formidable basketball player at North Brunswick High School in New Jersey.

Bob Bradley, the United States coach, does not subscribe to the good-hands theory. He believes more in the ancestry of role models. In this view, Gianluigi Buffon’s impenetrability as Italy won the 2006 World Cup can be directly traced to the magnificence of Dino Zoff, who captained Italy’s 1982 World Cup-winning team at 40.

….

Hahnemann said he thought the goalie position was more prized in North America than it was in England, mentioning both soccer and hockey.

“After an N.H.L. game, what does everyone do? Skate over to the keeper,” Hahnemann said. “That sort of respect, they don’t really have over in England. For donkey’s years, they’ve always stuck the worst player in goal. No one wanted to play back there. Part of the reason is, the press is so ruthless with us. Anything happens, and they blame the keepers.”

The situation in England is changing, Hahnemann said, though he thinks Americans still hold a cultural advantage — comfort with athletic individualism. He speaks of goalkeepers and field players as “us and them.”

Hahnemann said: “There’s only one of you. You can’t do it if you want to be like everybody else. We enjoy being a little different. As Americans, we don’t mind that, so we strive as goalkeepers.”

The cultural argument strikes me as the most compelling, though not exclusively. If you’re a keeper in England, especially in the lower leagues, it really is the least glamorous position. It suggests many good goalkeepers are undervalued by a large sector of the market, which means many high status offensive players are overvalued. The implications for teams looking to move up in the rankings are obvious.

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