This World Cup is on track to be the highest scoring on record, but it’s also been a World Cup of goalkeepers. Tim Howard, secretary of defense against Belgium; Guillermo Ochoa, who heroically denied Brazil in a draw that felt like a win; Keylor Navas, who single-handedly kept Costa Rica on their historic run; Tim Krul, who so cruelly ended the Costa Ricans' run with his mind games and intimidation techniques. But as FIFA officials cast their votes to decide who will take home the Golden Glove for best goalkeeping, they should look no further than Manuel Neuer, Germany’s sweeper-keeper.
While the likes of Howard and Ochoa delivered outstanding performances that made them national heroes and Internet sensations, Neuer stands quietly a class above. While the other keepers made seemingly superhuman saves, Neuer’s composure, vision, and positioning make it so that his saves, however difficult, are rarely dramatic. His reactions are so controlled, his reading of the game so anticipatory, that the goal threat seems less dangerous. Basically, he’s so good that you forget that he is.
It partly comes down to how good the German team is as a unit; Neuer never puts in as dramatic performance because he doesn’t have to, not because he can’t. So far, he’s made 24 saves and conceded four goals, while Howard, who played two fewer games, saved 27 shots and conceded six. Neuer will never top Howard’s record of saving 15 shots in one match, but that’s because the German defense would never put him in a position where he must.
But when they do have a bad day, the Germans know they can rely on Neuer to sweep up behind them, as he did to such great effect against Algeria. Challenge after challenge, clearance after clearance, he charged out of the 18-yard box to take on oncoming attackers like an extra defender, using his head and his feet to clear the ball from danger. With him in goal, long balls—that classic resort of teams short on ideas—become futile, and teams must either keep pinging the ball forward in vain, or try to find a way through Germany’s similarly stymying midfield.
In training, Neuer sometimes plays in the outfield, splaying passes alongside Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger, and it’s noticeable in his play as a self-styled offensive goalkeeper. Not only does he sweep up like an extra defender, he’s also an extra player in attack, possessing both the vision to see the entire field of play and the skill to executive his vision. His goal kicks are not simply a quick way to move the ball upfield, but real opportunities to create, and he rarely misses. During the Netherlands’ quarterfinal against Costa Rica, both Jasper Cillessen and the much-heralded Navas booted the ball upfield too hard, leaving their own attackers to chase after it as it bounced out of bounds.
That doesn’t happen with Neuer. In the 20th minute of the 2010 quarterfinal, Neuer set up for a routine goal kick, gesturing for his teammates to move upfield. He sent the ball flying towards the opposing goal, landing just outside the 18-yard box—directly into the path of Miroslav Klose as the striker charged towards goal to slot it home, 1-0. It was such a quick goal the English defenders were left gobsmacked; the ball was in the back of the net within two German touches, one of them by Neuer, the goalkeeper turned playmaker.
This World Cup, he created a similar chance against Algeria, throwing the ball directly into André Schürrle’s path, though the Algerian defense got to it first. In Sunday’s final, Neuer will keep his eyes open and look for opportunities to send his strikers clear. It wouldn't be crazy to find him on the scoresheet with an assist.
As Germany prepare to claim their fourth World Cup title, Neuer will be a pivotal presence both in offense and in defense. While he probably won’t emulate Oliver Kahn in 2002 and take home both the Golden Ball for best player and the Golden Glove, he could go home with an even better trophy—the World Cup. When he started playing football at the tender age of four, he was put in goal simply because his team didn’t have anyone else between the sticks. What a lucky day for Germany that turned out to be.
Elaine Teng is the managing editor of The New Republic.