Ochoa the shield guards vital craft

In a sport that waits for goals, depends on goals, is vitalised by goals, Mexico's Guillermo Ochoa against Brazil was a breathtakingly beautiful spoilsport. He blocked, he stopped, he blunted, he invested his entire being in the idea of goal-lessness. Rarely has the no-goal been so satisfying.

In the 25th minute, as Ochoa took off on a flight of his own invention, he was a nobody. When he landed, he was somebody. Neymar, rising high like a man bouncing off a trampoline, headed from close. Behind the net, Brazilians rose as if to applaud to goal, when a diving Ochoa interrupted their pleasure.

He flew, his hand deflected the ball just as it was on the goal-line. The only thing that landed in the goal was him.

He saved then with his knees, then with his hip and body, then with his hands from point-blank range.

Had Horatius, the Roman who defended the bridge, been alive, he may have applauded this return of the one-man army.

By day's end, Ochoa's own myths began. A headline clarified that he did not have six fingers, he was compared to an octopus and a tweet in honour of him simply pictured a brick wall. And yet no compliment did justice to a man who this day resembled a part-time trapeze artist who teaches Superman how to catch bullets while mastering the concepts of geometry.

In a planet that over-subscribes to the notion of the star, Ochoa - out of contract after a stint with France's AC Ajaccio - spoke for football's vast unknown talents. This Cup is their stage also, but only for some will it be their time.

It requires luck, audacity and timing and this defined him: to lift against Brazil, with a planet watching, is to change a life in a few frenetic seconds.

Ochoa also spoke for his species, for goalkeepers are part of a team yet their own unique tribe.

They are mostly stationary observers in a fluid game, lonely often in a crowded sport and advised by white lines on where it's safe to roam.

Size is their signature and it is a useful asset beyond reach. As David Seaman apparently once said: "People come up and remind you of your mistakes, but it helps being 6ft 4in and 15 ½ stone."

The goalkeeper separates himself through dress, wearing gloves yet also blame. A striker can miss, a midfielder can mis-pass, but he is disallowed any imperfection.

He knows for all his practice he will err, as Russia's Igor Akinfeev did while letting a routine South Korean shot slip from his hands. He knows life, as Iker Casillas will testify, will make him crawl, yet eventually he must stand upright again.

He must be heroic yet only faintly recognised for it. From 1956-2009, when the Ballon D'Or was awarded to Europe's finest player, only once was a 'keeper (Russia's Lev Yashin) worthy of it.

The goalkeeper's resemblance to superheroes only flatters the latter: Captain America carries a shield, the 'keeper turns his entire body into one. He must never flinch like Ochoa, he plays with a broken neck as Bert Trautmann did, not just football's bravest men but among its finest readers.

Always, as Ochoa did, he must assess danger, interpret flight, calculate spins and peek into a striker's mind.

This tribe is a trifle crazy, a bit like astronauts who tire of being chained to the ground, and as Yashin said of the pleasure of his craft: "The joy of seeing Yuri Gagarin flying in space is only superseded by the joy of a good penalty save."

Even though three goalkeepers - Gianpiero Combi 1934, Dino Zoff 1982, Casillas 2010 - have captained teams to Cup victories, the goalkeeper remains, literally and figuratively, a useful fall guy.

In a tragic tale, Moacir Barbosa, Brazil's errant keeper in the 1950 fatal final, was reportedly prevented from meeting players at a team camp in 1993 because he was considered a bad omen. Only his worst day was unforgettable to his nation.

Yet even at their best we are less extravagant in our praise than we are for strikers: after his performance, a website gave Ochoa a rating of 9.5/10.

Perhaps they did not care for his hair. In truth, on this one day, he was perfect. Reminding us that he is the last man in a football team, but on this day hardly the least of them.


This article was first published on June 19, 2014.
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