Throughout footballing history, Germany have acquired an enviable reputation when it comes to producing world class goalkeepers.
With Champions League winners Manuel Neuer and Marc-Andre ter Stegan set to battle it out to be named as Joachim Low’s shot-stopper in Russia this summer, the pair are merely the latest in a rich production line of talent to follow in the footsteps of names such as Sepp Maier, Harald Schumacher etc.
While those aforementioned names are among some of the greatest to don the gloves for Die Mannschaft, only one can lay claim to being the first (and only) goalkeeper to win the FIFA Golden Ball. An honour bestowed on the imposing figure of Oliver Kahn, etching his name into the history books in the process.
Forging a reputation in his early career playing for hometown club Karlsruher SC as a staunch, aggressive ‘keeper that strived for excellence, it would be their phenomenal run to the 1994 UEFA Cup semi finals that would convince the Bundesliga heavyweights, eventually sealing a £2m move to Bayern Munich that summer.
His move to Bavaria would prove a fruitful one, earning four Bundesliga titles, two domestic cups, a UEFA Cup and Champions League all before the first World Cup held on Asian soil. Individual honours would also inevitably follow in that time, with two IFFHS Goalkeeper of the Year awards, six Bundesliga Goalkeeper of the Year awards and third place at the 2001 Ballon d’Or.
Despite the glut of success at Die Roten, Kahn had to be patient on the international stage before making his immense presence felt. Making his debut in 1995 after a watching brief at the 1994 World Cup, it wouldn’t be until Euro 2000 when Kahn got his first taste of tournament football for Germany, after spending Euro ’96 and the 1998 World Cup on the bench.
A disastrous tournament in Belgium and Holland culminated in a group stage exit in 2000, while a play off win against Ukraine to qualify for the World Cup two years later did little to convince fans of success in South Korea and Japan; giving a 32-year-old Kahn the ideal stage to install belief back into German football.
Ousting long-term rival Jens Lehmann to be named as Germany’s number one in 2002, Kahn was also given the honour of captaincy by manager Rudi Voller, with his unparalleled passion and perfectionism deemed the ideal blend to lead a nation with a point to prove.
Grouped alongside Saudi Arabia, Republic of Ireland and Cameroon, the Germans’ made light work of their opening games, topping Group E after 8-0 and 2-0 wins against their Asian and African counterparts. Robbie Keane’s late equaliser would prove to be the only goal Kahn would concede prior to the final, with the skipper giving a glimpse of the saves to come.
Nicknamed ‘The Titan’ throughout his career, Kahn would provide a trio of otherworldly performances in the forthcoming knockout games en route to the final in Yokohama, kicked off by a stunning save to tip Paraguay’s Jorge Campos’ long range drive over the bar to help preserve a 1-0 win in the last 16.
The result would be repeated in the quarter finals against the USA, overcoming the Young Player of the Tournament Landon Donovan in particular, with some smart full length saves and crucial blocks in one v. ones, which – along with a helping hand from Torsten Frings – booked their place in the semi finals. A third consecutive 1-0 against co-hosts South Korea led Germany to their seventh World Cup final.
Setting up a final against the runners up of ’98, Kahn and his teammates knew the size of the task, trying to quell a free-scoring Brazil side boasting the likes of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, and for 67 minutes, that proved to be the case at the International Stadium.
Kahn and Germany frustrated a vibrant Selecao attack in a game that provided chances for both, prior to Ronaldo’s opener. The German skipper looked at his imperious best, snuffing out the eventual Golden Boot winner with an instinctive save in the first period, before a block at the feet of Gilberto Silva in the second half led to Kahn sustaining finger ligament injury, just minutes before his fateful error.
A stalwart in the German defence, Kahn spilt a routine shot from Rivaldo in the 67th minute, leaving the predatory Ronaldo the gift of his seventh goal of tournament, in what was a cruel turn of fate for a man who had been a cornerstone in his side’s run to the final. His eighth of the tournament and second of the game was a scintillating Brazil at their best, killing off any hopes of the World Cup staying in Europe, while a despondent Kahn was left to reflect on what might have been after the final whistle.
A testament to the man however, his comments after spoke of someone accepting responsibility of his mistake, but refused to use his injury as an excuse, stating:
“That has nothing to do with the goal. If you lose the final, you are always disappointed. It was the sole mistake in seven matches and it has been penalised. But it would be an absolute joke if everything was regarded as shit now. Now we are able to build on this success for 2006,” which would be the backdrop for Kahn to call time on the international stage.
Despite the blot of the fumble in the final, Kahn’s fine performances of five clean sheets and countless saves in 2002 were duly rewarded, earning the coveted Lev Yashin Award for Goalkeeper of the Tournament, while even more significantly, he would receive the Golden Ball to mark him as the best player during the World Cup; a historic feat that no ‘keeper had or since achieved.
Further recognition for the Bayern Hall of Fame inductee would follow that year alone with a place in the Team of the Tournament, another second place finish at the Ballon d’Or and a third IFFHS World’s Best Goalkeeper in what turned out to be the pinnacle of an illustrious career,
While Kahn would add four more Bundesliga titles and four domestic cups among a plethora of other trophies before hanging up his gloves altogether in 2008, the watershed moment of his Golden Ball award was a true verification of his craft.
To win such an accolade against the usually accredited attacking talents is a notion that will forever resonate throughout the history of the World Cup and football generally. Always painted as an honest, hard-working individual who said:
“It’s difficult to reach the top if you don’t truly live out your profession and aren’t obsessed with wanting to improve yourself in every conceivable way.” He would see his endeavour rightfully rewarded.