World Cup 2018

To the Back of the Queue: The 2018 World Cup Benchwarmers

Imagine the scene. You go through a season following a team, their ups and downs tracing yours, their triumphs bringing your joys, their defeats your sorrows. You spend every nerve and sinew you have on them, hoping above hope that they do the same for you. They do, they do well, and the season is a happy one. You dream of strengthening over the close season, with players’ names scattered across the Internet like confetti, proposed signings thick in the water like fish at the shore.

Days go by, and strikers go elsewhere. Weeks go by, and midfielders relocate to another club. Months go by, and the defenders with them. When the new season hoves into view, there is but one new signing at your club – a reserve goalkeeper, who cost as much as a World Cup winner would have in back 1994.

Your heart sinks

Reality suggests something else, however. To sign a reserve goalkeeper, and to make them a valuable signing, is to send a powerful message. ‘Our squad is fine’, it says, ‘and the only place we can make improvements is in those players who don’t play regularly’.

Juventus signed Wojciech Szczesny to deputise to Gianluigi Buffon last summer; as it was, the Pole played a significant role in the Bianconeri’s Scudetto and, now the legendary Italian stopper is moving on, is in position to take over from him.

Therein lies the value of the role. While it must be difficult to entrust the reserve spot for a top-level stopper for a number of seasons, it is imperative that top clubs have good quality goalkeepers to step in should their first-choice goalkeepers be unavailable.

Chelsea have struggled with this problem over the years, and seen a procession of goalkeepers come through Stamford Bridge to wait in line behind Petr Cech and Thibault Courtois; the likes of Asmir Begovic, Mark Schwarzer, Magnus Hedman and the incomparable Carlo Cudicini.

Begovic was brought in as a blue chip reserve goalkeeper, though it is difficult to imagine the London side splashing out in that department this summer. Their squad has too much work needed in other areas.

Champions League Final

The Champions League Final has a couple of fine exemplars of how a settled and an unsettled squad show this disparity. Real Madrid’s bench will be warmed by Kiko Casilla, who signed (back) to the club for €6m back in 2015, and has been making sporadic appearances since that date. Liverpool will likely start with Loris Karius with Simon Mignolet deputising. While Mignolet is a decent goalkeeper, he is second in line because he has been demoted to that point and may well move on in the summer.

In other words, while Casilla was brought in to deputise, the Belgian was brought in to start, and deemed not good enough to do so. It is a very different reason to find oneself in that position, and rather suggests that it would be worse for Liverpool to have to use their second choice stopper than the reigning champions.

The World Cup throws up similar cases, but with an even wider range of reasons for goalkeepers to be selected. Most countries are travelling with a first choice, who has a large amount of caps; a second choice, who has a handful; and a third choice, who has few if any.

Spain are an exception to the rule; David De Gea will start for La Roja, but with fewer caps to his name than back-up Pepe Reina. None of either England’s nor Argentina’s goalkeepers have over ten caps.

To this end, it is very rare for the third choice goalkeeper to get the chance to feature in a World Cup (just four of them have done so since 1934) so it makes sense that given the unlikelihood of his being needed, the third choice keeper is inexperienced.

Alphonse Areola of France

2018 will prove no different in this regard, with some interesting names in the uncapped brigade – Alphonse Areola of France and Paris Saint-Germain probably the biggest, but Belgium have two goalkeepers who have never played an international in their preliminary squad.

Areola is an interesting case, and perhaps harks back to the previous point. For an international squad to have such strength in any one department surely has to render them serious contenders for the World Cup, and it is hard to see a better triumvirate of stoppers than Hugo Lloris, Steve Mandanda and Alphonse Areola. Even the Germans, another squad captained by their keeper, perhaps lack a little in this department. Manuel Neuer is backed up by Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, and one of either Kevin Trapp or Bernd Leno (one will be dropped before travelling to Russia).

First choice goalkeepers are so often used that their replacements can slip by almost ignored. The transfer window and international tournaments are perhaps the only times that they manage to enjoy the limelight.

Whether it is Reina, in his unofficial cheerleader role for the Spanish side, or Nick Pope, in his nervous Bambi-like steps in an England career he hopes will see him return as first choice in future. Whether it is Areola, who barely misses a game for France’s dominant force, or Alfred Gomis, who has now racked up 150 clubs games, all of them on loan from his parent club Torino.

Take the time to appreciate them over the summer, just in case one of them ends up at your club because, if they do, it might not be the disaster you think.

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