Why goalkeepers don’t catch the ball

David Runciman

Football is a team game but it can also be a lonely business. Some positions come with massively outsized risks of getting fingered when things go wrong. Goalkeepers are notoriously vulnerable on this front. Lots of things contributed to Spain’s thumping defeat by the Dutch in their opening match but the most conspicuous mistake was the one made by Iker Casillas, so he was the one who ended up copping (and accepting) the blame. Referees too are highly prone to being scapegoated for their mishaps. A referee who has a good game will barely get noticed. But have a bad one and suddenly the whole world is on your case. Managers can find themselves in the same boat. An experimental team selection that comes off tends to redound to the credit of the player who got picked (hence the praise that is currently being heaped on Raheem Sterling). An unsuccessful one is the fault of the manager.

What this means is that individuals in these roles are incentivised to behave in ways that minimise their risk of carrying the can. Commentators often complain that goalkeepers punch or parry the ball when they should be trying to hold on to it. Catching the ball might be safer for the team but it looks a lot worse for the keeper when things go wrong. A hit-and-hope approach to goalkeeping sometimes leads to mistakes but any grab-and-drop counts as a howler, which is much harder to live down.

Studies have shown that referees are less likely to give decisions that will alter the course of a match than ones that seem to go with the flow of it. If you’re going to make a mistake, better to make one that doesn’t look decisive. That’s one of the reasons referees tend to favour the home side, because the home team is often the one doing all the attacking. Take the very soft penalty that Yuichi Nishimura gave Brazil in the opening match against Croatia. The reason it’s so hard to imagine it happening at the other end is not that the match was fixed (I know this is Fifa we’re talking about, but even so), nor that Nishimura was intimidated by the crowd. Most experienced referees are pretty hard to intimidate. It’s just that Brazil were always the likeliest winners. Even if only subconsciously, referees know that it’s better to favour the team that is less in need of their help. That way, if they get it wrong, they’ve got cover (often in the form of more goals). If Nishimura had given that penalty to Croatia and Croatia had won the game, he really would have been exposed.

This brings us to Roy Hodgson and Wayne Rooney. Should he play him or should he drop him for the crunch match against Uruguay? Hodgson knows that no one expects him to win the World Cup but seeing England’s tournament end after only two matches would count as a monumental failure. If he drops Rooney, that becomes the story. If he plays him and England lose, at least he’s got someone else to carry the can. These things can be a difficult balancing act. Graham Taylor got it horribly wrong when he took Gary Lineker off in a losing cause at the 1992 European Championships, seemingly as a way of signalling where he thought some of the blame should lie. All he succeeded in doing was signalling his own petty-mindedness. Rooney is a less popular figure than Lineker and many England fans would be happy to see him gone. Still, it would take a brave manager to give those fans what they want, given that none of them will be taking personal responsibility if it doesn’t work out. If England win then it doesn’t matter which way Hodgson decides to go: everyone’s a hero. But England managers can hardly be blamed for having some part of their thinking reserved for what happens when England lose.


  • 17 June 2014 at 6:49pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Goalkeepers are widely regarded as mad, like drummers. Referees are widely regarded as officious spoilsports, but I once wrote a poem called "The Referee Takes the Ball and Scores".

  • 20 June 2014 at 9:21am
    Simon Wood says:

    The referee takes
    the ball and scores.
    Stunned, the two teams
    begin a debate

    about neutrality
    and competition.
    As they converse,
    sitting on the grass

    in small groups which
    call across to each other -
    defence offering one
    angle, attack the other,

    midfield seeing it from
    both sides, as it were -
    the ref is airborne,
    an aeroplane, his arms

    outstretched like wings
    as he exalts, wheeling
    round the pitch in
    unalloyed schoolboy joy.

    "We all need boundaries,"
    he cries, "we all need
    parameters, we all need
    a pitch to play on."