(Ed note: We're pleased to bring you the Los Angeles Review of Books coverage of the 2012 Olympics. To read the complete series, click here.)
for CM, KT, and the rest
El Loco. El Gato. Fatty. The Panther. The Bullet. The Loner. Odd-woman-out. Safe-as-houses. Shot-stopper. Calamity. Golden Gloves. The Black Octopus. Butterfingers. The Oaf. Green Giant. The Outsider. El Chopo. De Muur. The Guardian. Die Katze. The Lighthouse. The Bear. Tiny. Little. Flash Lightning. Stretch Armstrong. Kamikaze. The Magician. Lone Wolf. Last Man Standing. The Stranger. Last Line of Defence. Numero Uno.
You are called any or all these names. Some are a mark of respect, some a sign of your opponents’ fears. Others are badges of shame, past errors carried into the present.
You are never simply the goalkeeper.
You don’t have to be mad to play here, so they say.
Here is a line: a point that stretches visibly across space.
Some cross themselves before beginning, some look to the heavens. For my part, I like to feel the line’s width, to tread its distance. I sidestep 12 yards right until I can touch the goalpost, jump to touch the crossbar. Turn, sidestep, repeat on the other side, so I am centered in the goal-frame. There’s safety in the line.
A line: a point that becomes visible by its edges, by what happens at each terminus. Even the prose poem is written with a sense of how the line breaks, of the white space that borders each edge. A turning, returning.
The goalkeeper has been exiled from the rest of the pitch for a forbidden desire: to play football with her hands.
She spends her days at the line-edges of being. Her existence is a study in lines, a life in rectangles not of her making: the six-yard box, where her word is nine-tenths of possession, lies inside the penalty box, where her hands conjure the course of events.
Transgress the lines of the box if you must. ’Keepers have done so and turned goal-scoring heroes. Or they have become dispossessed. To stray beyond the lines is to imply you are through with your visions, that you wish to join the mêlée.
It is all a matter of voice. You will need to throw your words as much as the ball. No one else sees where you are, what you do. Your worldview is architectonic, it superintends. You are tasked with communicating your vision to the rest of the team.
Yours is the barbarous yawp and also gentle talk, the thunderous roar and the whisper in the ear.
As Team USA beat North Korea by a goal to nil, we see little of Hope Solo (named at birth a goalkeeper). Her teammates hear from her constantly. The goalkeeper is a mynah bird. Her power lies in what she can do to others with language.
“It's very difficult to take your eyes off the forwards and the ball and watch the goalie," Bloch said. "You have to tear yourself away from the ball. It's a completely unnatural thing."—Peter Handke
While the poets have been seen as visionaries, that title more fairly belongs to the goalkeepers, who spend 90 percent of their game imagining the future. The camera ignores the ’keeper, only bringing her into view when the ball threatens the goal. While no one’s watching her, she’s calculating likely angles, predicting where her opponents will be in 30 seconds. The attacker wonders how the goalkeeper saved his shot? She lives two seconds in the future. Just enough.
At 14, I earn a new nickname: Let-in.
Our opponents swing a corner in waist-high, across the front of my goal, bisecting the six-yard-box. Anything in here must be the ’keeper’s: if it’s not in your hands, it’s in the back of your net.
I grasp at it, spill it forwards, it bounces away. I’m reaching forwards as our defender throws his knee at it to heft it clear. The ball thumps off my chest, into our goal. Let down. Let-in. Lytton.
There’s no more wearying feeling than picking the ball from the back of the net where it’s nestled and still. You will replay what happened for nights. For years.
Here is also a paradox:
You play the game in the future: imagined event. The inevitable happens, and you’re returned to the past to relive to relive your failure. If I’d placed my feet differently, gone the other way.
I spend one season in blind rage. I snarl, swear at anyone approaching my goal. I am beaten time out of mind, grow ever angrier. I will not be contained. My teammates bring me back, teach me again the safety in keeping the line.
The goalkeeper, like the panther, bursts to motion from still. This is a meditative art. The breath, entering and leaving.
Without paradox, no juxtaposition. Without juxtaposition, no poetry?
The poet was lauded, then banished, for the crime of being transformative, of having more than one techne. The poet is dangerous because she will not stay in one role.
To be as you are, you must be a mathematician and know how to narrow the angle, that reverse metonym in which the goal becomes smaller as the attacker approaches. A telepath also, seeing what lies inside the attacker’s heart. Animal, a reflex, able to quell your rational mind. A philosopher, weighing which knowledge will serve you. An acrobat, found in the leap from thought to deed.
You think with your hands, spring from your feet: live wire, line in motion.
What of London 2012? No one will tell the goalkeepers’ stories, least of all the goalkeepers themselves. Who can still see Jack Butland in their mind’s eye, full length denying the Uruguayans?
We spectators thrill for the highlight, the impossible save, the moment a sure version of the future was derailed by the ’keeper’s thrown palm. But goalkeeping is a ninety-minute game. Context is king.
We complain Spain disappointed us, failing to score, heading back from the rain with us left empty-handed. What of De Gea’s saves, of the sight of the ball nestled in the cradle of cupped gloves when by rights it belonged in the back of the net?
“He has to fill a position in which the principle is forced upon him that ‘it is good for a man to be alone’ — a position which is distinctly personal and decidedly individualistic in character.” Welsh goalkeeper Leigh Roose, writing in 1906, returns us to solitude.
Soloists, though, are never alone; they’re always contoured by other musicians. The soloist takes up the line of the piece and brings it back to the rest of the group.
For Roose, “a good goalkeeper, like a poet, is born, not made.” Yet England legend Peter Shilton hung by his arms from the bannister for hours, trying to eke out a half-inch more of height.
The goalkeeper is not like the poet. A simile is not enough; a comparison begs only the differences.
Neither goalkeeper nor poet can be called a job, a profession, an entry on the biographical page of your passport. Each is a way of seeing, a practice of moving in response to the world: you measure, imagine, forecast, wait, leap into action.
To go unnoticed is not to lack consequence. While we are aware of the goalkeeper only at times of crisis, she has been there all along, watching and commenting. Within the lines a soloing voice.
How different the world would be if everywhere we switched the terms poet and goalkeeper.