During the first half of Belgium’s World Cup group match against Morocco last week, Thibaut Courtois, Belgium’s gifted goalkeeper, received a back pass from a teammate as a Moroccan attacker closed in on the ball with lightning speed. Courtois was standing just a few feet from his own goal, yet he didn’t panic. Instead, he calmly slipped the ball behind one foot, eluding his opponent with what the Guardian called “a jaunty Cruyff-turn” — referring to the Dutch playmaker Johan Cruyff, among the most technically skilled players in soccer history. It’s one thing for an outfield player to execute such a move in the middle of the field, where the worst-case scenario is a loss of possession. But a goalkeeper in front of his own net? Had Courtois bungled this move, he would have ceded a goal in a sport where just one is often the ultimate decider.
Soccer goalkeepers are not known for demonstrating offensive skills. Yet goalies playing offense have become more and more common. The strategy is high-risk, high-reward. In Australia’s World Cup round-of-16 match against Argentina on Saturday, Australia’s keeper Mathew Ryan tried to dribble out between two oncoming Argentine attackers. He failed. Argentine striker Julián Álvarez stole the ball, then easily tapped it into an open net. That put Argentina up 2-0, effectively sealing Australia’s fate.
“Week in and week out, in every league around the world, there’s a mistake” when a goalkeeper attempts this style of play, says Phil Wheddon, goalkeeper coach of Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union who has worked with both the U.S. men’s and women’s national soccer teams. Yet the trend has only picked up steam.
“Coaches are now saying that the reward outweighs the risk, and they want goalkeepers to start the attacks,” says Tim Howard, the U.S. men’s national-team goalkeeper at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, who is now a Premier League commentator for NBC Sports. “You’re seeing goalkeepers make mistakes, but they’re encouraged to do that, where in the past, they weren’t.”
The best teams in the world often face defenses that, as Howard phrases it, “bunker in and thicken things up.” This was Morocco’s strategy during its Tuesday match against heavily favored Spain. When a goalkeeper becomes more aggressive, they can lure an opponent out of their defensive shell. So Spanish keeper Unai Simón tried initiating offense with methods that appeared fraught to the untrained eye — like holding the ball with his feet until an opponent was very nearly upon him. It didn’t work this time, as Morocco held Spain scoreless even through penalty kicks. (Bono, Morocco’s keeper and now national hero, ended up the star of the match.)
“That’s something that is encouraged, that a goalkeeper feels comfortable enough to bring pressure toward them, then bypass it,” says Laura Harvey, who coaches OL Reign of the National Women’s Soccer League and has won the league’s award for coach of the year three times. When a goalkeeper can successfully execute such a move, it leaves the opposing defense with one less player in front of the ball, which can be a crucial advantage.
When defense doesn’t take the bait, unpressured goalkeepers will often come 20 or 30 yards out from the net. Wheddon cited Dutch goalkeepers in particular, who he says are sometimes “actually playing as a third central defender.” (The Dutch are known for cultivating an unusual brand of keeper, as Rory Smith reported in a recent story for the New York Times.)
The two most famous goalkeepers to regularly stray far afield are both legends: Germany’s Manuel Neuer, who played in his fourth (and presumably final) World Cup this year, and René Higuita, the great Colombian goalie of the 1990s. While both have done so with great success, neither has been immune to blunders. Neuer’s most famous mistake came at the 2018 World Cup in the final minutes of Germany’s last group match against South Korea, when Germany still needed two goals to avoid elimination from the tournament. Neuer had boldly joined his teammates in attack in the South Korean end of the field, leaving his goal unprotected. When he misplayed the ball and lost possession, it led directly to a South Korean goal and the official end to Germany’s run as defending champion.
Higuita’s best-known error came on the sport’s biggest stage — at the 1990 World Cup. With Cameroon leading Colombia 1-0 in extra time of the round-of-16 match, Higuita mishandled the ball near midfield. Cameroon’s famous striker Roger Milla reacted quickly, stole the ball, and scored, sealing the win for Cameroon.
Higuita accepted the blame that poured in afterward. “It was a mistake as big as a house,” he said at the time. His coach, Francisco Maturana, defended him. “There are no objections to this from me or from my players,” he said. Three years later, when Maturana coached Óscar Córdoba, the Colombian goalkeeper who succeeded Higuita, Maturana gave him four words of instruction: “Play like René Higuita.”
Forgiveness might be easier when the goalkeeper is a generational talent. Not everyone is.
“These systems were born and designed for goalkeepers who have managers who are encouraging them to play with their feet, who are encouraging them to find passes and not criticizing them when they don’t,” says Howard. “That’s a big key. If you criticize a goalkeeper for making a mistake in the passing game, it’s very likely he’s not going to play that way anymore, which goes against the team principles.”
In any case, keepers can be aggressive without resorting to such extreme measures: They can kick-start an offensive attack with longer targeted outlet passes either with a kick or a throw. Often such passes come on the heels of a free kick or a corner kick, when the opposing team has positioned most of its players near the opponent’s goal ready to strike. When goalkeepers can catch the ball in these circumstances, their next action is almost comical in its uniformity: The keeper will rush to the top of the penalty box, looking seemingly frantically for a teammate going forward to pass the ball to before the defense has time to reposition itself.
For U.S. fans, the most famous example of this phenomenon came in the U.S.’s final group match of the 2010 World Cup against Algeria. With the score tied 0-0 and the U.S. on the verge of elimination, Howard caught an Algerian shot attempt, rushed to the top of the penalty box, and launched the ball nearly 50 yards to midfield, where his teammate Landon Donovan led a U.S. attack that caught the Algerian team unprepared. Donovan’s resulting goal propelled the U.S. to the round of 16 and fans to delirium.
With only all-or-nothing matches left at this year’s World Cup, we may still witness moments of legitimate goalkeeper desperation. When a team trails by one goal and is able to secure a corner kick in added time at the end of the match, a keeper may very well abandon his post and join his teammates in front of the opposing goal. It’s a thrilling moment, where the keeper becomes an extra offensive weapon. Howard says these situations are never practiced: “That’s just an end-of-the-game, dramatic, desperation-type roll of the dice. They’re just trying to get themselves in the way and hope they find some gold.”
In 1998, Paraguay’s José Luis Chilavert nearly became the first goalkeeper to score at the World Cup when he attempted a free kick in the second half of a tied match against Bulgaria. “He was an anomaly,” says Wheddon. “The velocity that he would strike the ball at could physically harm someone.” And while goalkeeper goals remain exceedingly rare even outside of the World Cup, Howard has actually done it once, albeit aided by freakish wind conditions on a British winter’s night in 2012.
All World Cup knockout-round matches that end in draws are decided by penalty-kick shoot-outs, and with a minimum of five penalty takers per team, the opportunity could arise for another rare occurrence: a goalkeeper taking a penalty kick. Penalty shoot-outs are moments of remarkable tension, and nearly every player who misses will break down in tears afterward if their team loses. Perhaps keepers are the perfect candidate for the task.
“Penalties are as much about technique as they are about the pressure of the environment,” says Harvey. “Goalkeepers are used to having to deal with the pressure of not making mistakes.”
From here on out, for everyone — but especially for the keepers — pressure is the name of the game.