Friday, 7 October 2011


[illustration by Si Mitchell]

In a recent survey conducted by CrazeeStats magazine, it was revealed that all but six of the greatest goalkeepers in history had surnames beginning with the letter Z (and one of the other six was Yashin). Why is this? Well, according to leading anthropologists – and corroborated by ancient documentary sources called “cassette tapes” – the phenomenon can be traced back to the school playground, once a site of plangent innocence rather than of behavioural hot-housing for future racketeers. Once upon a time, teams for the frenetic ten-minute games of schoolyard footy were selected alphabetically, A to Z, rather than on merit or preferentially. Each pick was able, in turn, to choose which position they were going to then occupy in the game. Invariably, goalkeeper was the last option, the positional wooden spoon, as it were… 

And thus came the Z-men:

First-choice Bulgarian ’keeper through the late 1990s and into the noughties, the shaven-headed Zdravkov once flickered on the radar of Arsenal yet failed in a trial to convince Arsène Wenger to part with his money (“too old,” the Professor Yafflish Alsatian is reputed to have told the thirteen-year-old). His club career began with Levski Sofia and thereafter alternated between his homeland and Turkey, while the high point of his 70 caps at international level was with the Stoichkov-led squad at Euro 1996 unlucky to exit at the group stages. His other two tournaments (1998 and 2004) were less successful, with only a single point accrued. After retirement in 2007, he went on the Bulgarian version of Survivor but was evacuated due to illness.

Legendary one-club ’keeper with Colombia’s Deportivo Cali, Zape won three Categoría Primera A titles with los azucareros (‘The Sugarmakers’) and came runner-up a further six times. In 1978 he helped them to their (and any Colombian club’s) first final of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s premier club competition, where, after a scoreless first leg in Cali against Boca Juniors, he shipped four at La Bombonera. At international level Zape won 47 caps for los cafeteros, forming part of the side that finished runners-up in the 1975 Copa América before hanging up his gloves in 1985.

The thirty-year-old Zhevnov, current captain of the Belarus national side, has recently moved to Russian powerhouse Zenit St Petersburg so as to further…sorry, to act as backup to Vyacheslav Malafeev. The golden moment of his career so far came last September, when Belarus stunned France in the Stade de France with an 86th-minute winner following several fine Zhevnov saves that had kept the game goalless.

Fulham’s fans have had to put up with some indignities in recent times – not least the statue of Michael Jackson that will be ripped down the moment Mohammad Al-Fayed sells the club (unless of course, much like another London-based institution that no-one really wants, it’s still “bringing in the tourists”) – but they always knew they were in safe hands, goalkeeper-wise, with Mark Schwarzer being backed up for three years by the Swiss, Zuhberbühler. That said, the number two would never actually make a first-team appearance for the Cottagers. However, before the cuckoo decision to wind down his career in the UK (all the while sending his salary back to an account in his homeland, no doubt), Zuhb’ had a distinguished career with Grasshoppers and FC Basel. On top of this he won 51 Swiss caps, turning out at both Euro 2004 and 2008 as well as the 2006 World Cup, during which he kept four clean sheets in four games only for Ukraine to eliminate Switzerland on penalties in the round of 16.

Rising from his local side via FC Vienna to Austria’s top club, Rapid Vienna, where he won eight league titles, Zeman was an integral part of his country’s wunderteam of the 1950s – truly the golden era of Central European football. Indeed, in neighbouring Switzerland in 1954 he helped achieve the country’s best ever World Cup finish, reaching the semi-final stages before being knocked out by a West Germany side that went on to upset the Mighty Magyars in the infamous ‘Battle of Berne’. Winning 41 Caps in total, Zeman is considered Austria’s second greatest ever ’keeper behind Rudi Hiden.

Voted the top African ’keeper of the twentieth century by the continent’s federation (CAF), Badou ‘Zaki’ Ezzaki was an iconic figure, skippering the Moroccan national side for eight years and Real Mallorca for three of his six seasons there, during which time he became the first man ever to save a Ronald Koeman penalty and was voted best ’keeper in La Liga for three years in succession. He remains idolised on Mallorca for his loyalty – refusing lucrative contracts when the islanders were relegated in 1988 – although his coach, Llorenç Serra Ferrer, defended his eventual mid-season exit in 1992 as the product of homesickness. He won the African Ballon d’Or in 1986 after Morocco’s excellent showing in the Mexico World Cup (they topped England’s group before exiting 1-0 to eventual runners-up West Germany), at which point he was undoubtedly among the world’s top shot-stoppers.

Furrowed of brow and increasingly tardy in his descent to the dirt, the lugubrious Zubi is nonetheless considered an all-time great in Spain, for whom he racked up the small matter of 126 caps during a career spent playing for three iconic clubs: the Basque-only Athletic Bilbao, Barcelona (jettisoned after the 4-0 humbling by Milan, at the end of the Dream Team years) and Valencia. Although once the world’s most expensive ’keeper, Barça’s new Director of Football is largely remembered here for his performance at the 1998 World Cup, for which he was contentiously picked over Real Madrid’s younger and sprightlier Santi Cañizares. Spain’s Basque manager, Javier Clemente, defended his selection by saying “You don’t invite people to dinner who you feel uncomfortable with. It’s as simple as that. Zubi’s my friend. End of story.” Such favouritism led to more than a touch of embarrassment after the opening defeat to Nigeria, skipper Zubi scoring an own goal then allowing a tiddler from Amokachi under his body in a 3-2 loss that precipitated their first-round exit.

Despite being voted World Goalkeeper of the Year for three years running (1989-1991) by the International Federation of Football Historians and Statisticians (IFFHS), Walter Zenga remained largely unfulfilled at club level, winning but a solitary scudetto despite his dozen years at Inter coinciding with the most open period in Serie A history (Napoli, Sampdoria and Verona all won their first titles during this era). Even so, L’Uomo Ragno (‘Spiderman’) won 58 caps for Italy, coming close to landing the World Cup on home soil in 1990. After briefly starring in an Italian soap opera, he finished his career in the USA (where he caused a stir by celebrating a goal by necking his girlfriend, almost conceding into an unguarded net from the resulting kick-off), before going into management at Eastern European powerhouses Steaua Bucharest and Red Star Belgrade.

I guess you know you’ve made it when the award for the best in your profession is named after you, as with Pulitzer, Nobel, and Novello. Such is the case with the ’keeper in Spain with the cleanest of sheets, presented with the Zamora Trophy in honour of the 60-cigarettes-a-day dandy with the turtle neck and flat cap widely known as El Divino. Sandwiching a spell at Barça during the early 1920s with stints at crosstown rivals Español, Zamora then moved at the end of his career to that paragon of anti-Catalanism, Real Madrid, pocketing a tidy 40k of the 150k-peseta transfer fee (his unhealthy concern with his finances once saw him banned for a year for tax avoidance). A colourful character, to say the least, although being given the medal of the Order of Republic in 1934 was no doubt a little too pinko for this nationalist and Españolista; indeed, at outbreak of civil war in 1936, he was arrested by Republican forces and detained in the notorious Modelo prison, where, according to Phil Ball, “instead of being executed, he was given a ball by the guards and taken out into the yard for a game, so that they could say they had played with the legendary ’keeper. Over several tension-filled days…Zamora kept his executors at bay with tales of his playing days and an endless series of penalty competitions.” Eventually, he was slipped out and driven over the border in disguise, his sheets no doubt soiled…

With a name like a Superman villain and a face exuding the Wanted! poster menace of an international super-criminal, Dino Zoff commanded respect wherever he went; with his gigantic farmer’s hands, he also commanded the penalty area wherever he went. One of the places he went was Spain, in 1982, for the World Cup, at the end of which, after epic matches with Brazil, Argentina, and West Germany, he lifted the trophy at 40 years young. Zoffy, as he would have been called in England, won 112 caps in total for the Azzurri as well as five Serie A titles while playing most of his career for Juve. Thereafter, he managed Lazio during the Gazza Years, before taking Italy to Euro 2000, where they lost to Trezeguet’s Golden Goal. In 2004, UEFA voted him Italy’s ‘Golden Player’ of the last 50 years, while the zedists at the IFFHS considered him only the third best ’keeper of the last century.

This article featured on Guardian Football's 'Things We Like This Week' List...

No comments:

Post a Comment