These great goalkeepers should have won the Ballon d’Or

The last line of defense.
The last line of defense.
Image: Reuters/Miguel Vidal
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So Manuel Neuer made the three-man shortlist for FIFA’s Ballon d’Or award for the best player in the world along with favorites Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. The German goalkeeper, off the back of winning the World Cup in the summer, is the first in his position to make the list of finalists in 12 years—and, realistically, doesn’t have much chance of winning.

Lev Yashin, the great Soviet player, is the only keeper to ever have won one, back in 1963*. But Yashin wasn’t the only great goalkeeper in history. Historically, talk of the best player in the world favors goalscorers and strikers—relatively few defenders have ever won the Ballon d’Or. Few appreciate the contribution of the man at the back, saving shots, commanding his area, and having to deal with the psychological warfare that is the penalty shootout.

Quartz has looked back through the archives from 1991 onwards and found the years when a goalkeeper should have been named the best in the world.

Oliver Kahn (2002)

Actual winner: Ronaldo

Kahn, the great German keeper, was the last goalkeeper to make the final three, and the only one prior to Neuer since FIFA started giving out awards. The great (and original) Ronaldo won in a year when Brazil took the World Cup, netting two goals in the final.

Admittedly, that is difficult to beat. But we think Kahn did enough: his team, Bayern Munich, won the Champion’s League in 2001 and Kahn was named man-of-the-match in the final, having saved three penalties in the shootout that decided the game. Then, during the World Cup in 2002, his unheralded Germany made it through to the final conceding only a solitary goal along the way. Ronaldo had a great year internationally—but Kahn, one of the all-time greats, was at his peak for both club and country.

Gianluigi Buffon (2006)

Actual winner: Fabio Cannavaro

Italy won the World Cup that year with some great (if unattractive) defensive performances. So the award went to Cannavaro, the captain and central defender of the team. Really, they should have given it to the man standing behind him.

Buffon has been one of the world’s best keepers for most of his career. He didn’t make FIFA’s shortlist in 2006, but was the runner-up in the old Ballon d’Or. In the World Cup, Buffon made 40 saves, kept five clean sheets, and didn’t concede a goal for more than 450 consecutive minutes.

Peter Schmeichel (1999)

Actual winner: Rivaldo

That Schmeichel wasn’t shortlisted for either FIFA or France Football’s prizes this year is a travesty. In the final game of the Champions League, Schmeichel captained Manchester United and actually helped score a goal, running the length of the pitch to participate in the scramble that led to the equalizer. (Many goalkeepers do this in the dying minutes of games, but it’s still risky; you’re facing the other best team in the world. If they manage to counter-attack, they’ll have an open goal.)

In 1999, Manchester United won the historic treble of league, FA Cup, and Champions League. It wouldn’t have been possible without Schmeichel at the back.

Iker Casillas (2010)

Actual winner: Lionel Messi

Casillas is arguably the best goalkeeper of the past 10 years. He has led the Spain team for the last four tournaments—in which they won one World Cup and two European titles.

We think the year he should have been rewarded is 2010, when Spain won the World Cup for the first time in its history. Messi won it the year before and in 2010 again, but look at the others on the shortlist—Andres Iniesta and Xavi. Despite a monumental year for the Argentinian genius, it was time for a Spaniard to take the trophy for four years of world dominance. In South Africa that year, Casillas kept five clean sheets and only allowed just two goals. He was only the third goalkeeper to captain a World Cup-winning team. And he can’t get an award?

*France Football magazine originally awarded the Ballon d’Or to the best European soccer player since 1956 and FIFA handed out the World Player of the Year from 1991 onwards. The two awards were merged in 2010.