Oliver Kahn and Peter Schmeichel among best goalkeepers ever in tiered rankings

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Oliver Kahn

Goalkeepers have been football’s unsung heroes since its formation in the 19th century.

The best provided the upmost assurance as a last line of defence, plus set the foundations for attackers to claim all the glory. A few too many mistakes, however, and even the grandest side will come unstuck.

Revolutionaries like the Soviet Union’s Lev Yashin redefined the role, while the warrior spirit of Germany’s Oliver Kahn and Denmark’s Peter Schmeichel dragged their team-mates to new heights.

Using only retired players, we’ve reviewed the all-time greats.

TIER 1 

LEV YASHIN 

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Yashin left an indelible impression on the game – and society at large.

Clad head to toe in black (in truth, it was dark blue), he revolutionised the position and became a hero of the Soviet Union. Yet, both his remarkable life and career began auspiciously.

After he survived the rigours of World War Two, a nervous breakdown aged 18 sent him to a military factory. But he would fortuitously come into view of scouts when playing for the factory team, beginning a life-long affiliation with Dynamo Moscow.

An unpropitious start to this partnership, however, contained a first-team debut in 1950 during which he conceded straight from a clearance by the opposing shot stopper.

Astonishing gifts would, though, soon shine through. Where goalkeepers had previously, with precious few exceptions, stood passively on their line waiting for the game to come to them, Yashin barked orders at defenders and sprinted out to meet onrushing attackers.

The Moscow-native is still the only goalkeeper to be awarded the Ballon d’Or (1963), plus was influential in Soviet triumphs at Euro 1960 and the 1956 Olympics. FIFA records further state that he stopped more than 150 penalty kicks and kept over 270 clean sheets.

More than 50 years since his last international cap and nearly 30 years since his death, Russia’s official World Cup 2018 poster featured a distinctive figure, in dark attire, pulling off a superb stop. There could be no other choice for the eternally grateful host nation.

OLIVER KAHN

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The nicknames accrued by Kahn throughout his exceptional 21-year playing career evidence how force of personality spliced with world-class ability can concoct an icon.

Der Titan, Vol-Kahn-o and King Kahn speak volumes about the man who would go on claim eight Bundesliga titles, six DFB-Pokals, the 1995/96 UEFA Cup, plus the UEFA Champions League and the Intercontinental Cup in 2001 with Bayern Munich.

So too his singular response when quizzed in 2002 about whether there was anyone who could tell him what to do. “Who can? The only thing which engages me is what I can do to be successful.”

Kahn’s 86 Germany caps also included victory at Euro 1996. There was also the runners-up spot at World Cup 2002, even though he made a high-profile error in the final, where he became the only goalkeeper in the tournament’s history to win the Golden Ball.

Some ride for a legend whose course towards greatness was set upon at an early age by the gifting of a Sepp Maier goalkeeper shirt by his granddad.

TIER 2

PETER SCHMEICHEL

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Schmeichel made a habit of defying expectations. A trademark XXXL shirt, shock of blond hair and weight close to 100 kilograms provided an imposing image.

Yet, the Great Dane produced astounding acts of agility. His famous ‘star save’ – a skill credited to handball – against Inter Milan’s Ivan Zamorano was a key moment during Manchester United’s quest to land the fabled ‘treble’ in 1998/99.

He was also a relative unknown when plucked from Brondby in August 1991.

Within a year, the domineering shot stopper – whose implacable iron will crushed attackers in one-on-one situations and then traumatised defenders who’d allowed the chance – was a surprise Euro 1992 champion with Denmark and well on his way to establishing himself as the Red Devils’ greatest-ever shot stopper.

DINO ZOFF

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Consistency was the bedrock of Zoff’s 22-year career. He rebounded from being rejected as a teenager for being too small – with the reputed help of his grandmother’s recommendation to consume eight eggs a day – by Inter Milan and Juventus, becoming one of Italian football’s defining characters.

Zoff eschewed the fervour present in Yashin’s game, instead mastering the traditional arts of positioning and efficiency of movement.

He was perfect for the cagey ‘catenaccio’ approach that defined this era, winning nine major honours after Juve finally purchased him as an established professional in 1972 and a decade later lifting the World Cup with the Azzurri.

This longevity marks him out as the global competition’s oldest winner at 40.

TIER 3

GORDON BANKS

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Only one man can lay claim to executing the finest save of all.

Banks’ unfathomable low dive across goal to claw away the great Pele’s firm header at World Cup 1970 still produces audible gasps when replayed, regularly, to this day.

The precision of the Brazil icon’s attempt and the speed at which it ricocheted of the baked Mexican turf only added to the spectacle. Banks’ renowned technical acumen and supreme physical fitness made him uniquely placed to pull it off.

This was just a solitary highlight on a career arc that saw him ignored by the Sheffield giants as a teenager, become a World Cup winner on home soil in 1966 for England and then be forced into early retirement after the debilitating loss of an eye aged only 34.

SEPP MAIER 

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There was one near constant during German football’s rise from the second half of the 20th century – Maier.

Die Katze von Anzing” (“the Cat from Anzing”) gained an appropriate moniker to match his lightning reflexes, stupefying agility and miraculous flexibility. The one-club man won 13 major honours with Bayern Munich, including three European Cups from 1973-76, plus added the 1972 European Championships and 1974 World Cup with West Germany.

His was a talent to match that of the venerated Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller and Paul Breitner.

Maier’s jocular and eccentric disposition, however, set him apart, famously chasing a duck that had wandered onto the Olympiastadion pitch to ease boredom against shot-shy opposition. His overlong shorts and – now de rigueur – thick, oversized gloves added to the image.

A car accident at 35 provided a premature end to his playing days. An already formidable legacy would then be buttressed in retirement when long stints as goalkeeping coach with Germany and Bayern Munich saw him successfully mentor Kahn – among many others.

TIER 4

ANDONI ZUBIZARRETA 

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Even a fabled ‘Dream Team’ needs someone to prevent nightmares.

Zubizarretta was that man for Johan Cruyff’s all-conquering Barcelona. He was also the conduit between squad and a genius head coach, plus gained renown as captain for his calming presence.

The imperturbable Basque donned the Catalans’ colours from 1986-94, winning 11 major trophies – including a club-first European Cup in 1991/92. He was the hero of that hallowed night at Wembley, making several stupendous stops to keep out the likes of Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini.

Zubizarreta’s longevity was also legendary. His 622 run-outs for Athletic Bilbao, Barca and Valencia remains a La Liga record, while 126 Spain caps across four World Cups and two European Championships was his nation’s high before the emergence of the recent ‘Golden Generation’.

EDWIN VAN DER SAR 

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If asked to craft the ideal form of a goalkeeper, Van der Sar would suffice.

Imposingly tall, yet lean and full of spring. Blessed with a refined football intelligence to match the sweepers of yesteryear, perfect positioning and an ability on the ball that would shame most midfielders.

This rare holism was also matched by the Netherlands No1’s durability.

Champions League successes with Ajax and Manchester United were separated by 13 years. He kept a clean sheet against AC Milan in 1994/95 and decisively repelled Nicolas Anelka’s final effort in 2007/08’s penalty shootout against bitter rivals Chelsea.

A miserable stint at Juventus from 1999-2001 is the only true black mark from an association with the professional game that continues to provide fulfillment long past 2011’s retirement.

His union with former team-mate Marc Overmars at Ajax – he’s CEO, the ex-Arsenal winger is director of football – has rejuvenated a sleeping giant.

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