“There is nothing to do, until there’s something to do.”
Rather than a Buddhist koan, those words depict the life of a goalkeeper, a being who lives in isolation like that kid at the park who is the last one chosen during kickabouts, then left out as the other kids play. Nobody wants to be that kid, just as you wonder about the kind of person who would choose to play a football position where all you get is blame and abuse. Shutouts are credited to defenses, conceded goals to net minders as supporters everywhere mutter, “The keeper could have done better.”
Ter Stegen is, like his predecessor Víctor Valdés, beautiful to watch because of his innate understanding of the game. Mes que un keeper? Maybe. He makes the game make sense, starts attacks, manages danger and sets tempo. “Sweeper keeper” is a misnomer, like calling an artist a painter. You get your house done by a painter. An artist puts something on a canvas through eyes that see the world differently. The uninitiated shriek, “Hoof it! Hoof it,” as Ter Stegen surveys the pitch, unconcerned about the pressing opponent running at him. He unleashes a gentle arc of a pass, over distance, that plops at the feet of a midfielder who hurtles straight into the attack. So many keepers are almost anti football. They stop goals, then stop play as they hold the ball before booting it as far away from them as possible. Ter Stegen wants the ball, understands the power of being a catalyst.
Football is fond of “next” players, forgetting for a moment that if a player can so define a position as to leave people craving a next, how possible is such a thing to fulfill? Next Xavi? Nope. Iniesta? Forget it. Messi? Crazy talk.
We know now Ter Stegen’s qualities, the passing maps that resemble those of a midfielder, the reflex saves and interventions, the way he kept his team in the most recent Classic so that Messi could work his magic. But like so many things that end up a delight, Ter Stegen’s ascension came via auspicious beginnings.
He came to FC Barcelona from Borussia Mönchengladbach for the piddling sum of 12m and heavy baggage — replacing a club legend and icon in Víctor Valdés, who embodied the notion espoused by Johan Cruijff that the goalie is the first attacker. Rumor had it that Ter Stegen was brilliant with the ball at his feet. The price was right so why not, for nothing makes supporters as patient as a deal.
But Mikel San Jose didn’t care about price, or who was the next anything as he stroked a Spanish SuperCopa bomb from distance that looked to make a fool out of a wandering soul far from the comforts of home. Goal Athletic Bilbao. Roma’s Alessandro Florenzi didn’t care either. laying in another long-range bullet in Champions League that — again — caught Ter Stegen off his line. That bargain was looking a bit overpriced as mutters began about his propensity for “errors,” those things created by naysayers to clout an unfavored player about the head and shoulders.
In the wake of those moments, Ter Stegen’s Chilean rival Claudio Bravo assumed the preferred spot between the sticks for La Liga matches and Ter Stegen became the cup keeper, a role tradionally reserved for the No. 2 even as people said, “Well, Champions League is still important.” And Ter Stegen kept playing his game, his way until the gulf in quality became clear. Bravo is now sampling the Manchester cuisine, while a German is making the point that Barça DNA isn’t just made in La Masia. He is as important to how the Barça XI plays as any player on the pitch.
Traditional football followers don’t know what to do with keepers such as Ter Stegen. When asked what kind of a net minder he was, the German replied, “I think I am a participative and risky goalkeeper. This is my style.” He banged an outlet pass off a Celta player’s dome for an own goal, and didn’t care — because that’s how he played.
Today, those Bravo v. Ter Stegen debates seem so long ago. When Barça coach Luis Enrique committed to Ter Stegen, a star was born. A calm, unflappable man who, like every keeper extant understands human frailty, Ter Stegen goes about his task with the mien of an accountant and the verve of an aesthete. He averages almost 33 passes per match, with an 82 percent accuracy rating.
Valdés, the best keeper for Barça that supporters of the team had ever seen, wasn’t that ostracized kid. He wasn’t gloriously loco like Pinto. He was an outfield player with the ball at his feet, a mad genius who screwed passes into spaces, kicking off the magic that unleashed hell. Valdés left amid buzz that Barça had been scouting some German keeper who was supposed to be the next Neuer or something, or even the next Valdés. But that didn’t happen, because Marc-André Ter Stegen is, rahter than the “next Valdés,” the first Ter Stegen.
Written by: Kevin Williams/@kevvwill