This article also featured on Guardian Sport.
Individual acclaim for a goalkeeper is rare. No goalkeeper has won the Ballon d’Or since Lev Yashin in 1963 and only three keepers – Oliver Kahn in 2002, Gianluigi Buffon in 2006 and Manuel Neuer in 2014 – have made it on to the podium in the last 45 years. All 10 of the players shortlisted for the Fifa player of the year award in September were outfield players. However, over the last week, France captain Hugo Lloris has again underlined his own claim to be recognised for individual awards. After a stunning 2018 for France, he deserves to be considered.
Prior to lifting the World Cup in Moscow this summer, Didier Deschamps’s often pragmatic team owed much of their progress to their goalkeeper’s reflexes and commanding displays. In their shaky opener against Australia his sharp reactions prevented an own goal at a crucial moment; in the quarter-final he sprung inexplicably to his right to keep Martin Caceres’ first-half header from dragging Uruguay back into the game; and in the semi-final his string of eye-catching stops helped maintain a pivotal clean sheet in a conservative yet ultimately effective win over Belgium.
Over the last week Lloris has been pulling off his usual heroics for France in their matches against Iceland and Germany, but it can be difficult to reconcile his performances for his country with his displays for Tottenham. His form in the 18 months before the World Cup, particularly at club level, was erratic at times. His misjudged cross against Chelsea in April allowed Álvaro Morata to score at Stamford Bridge, an error that was atoned for by goals from Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen that gave Spurs a 3-1 win. In Spurs’ next match, at Stoke, an ill-conceived clearance ricocheted off Mame Biram Diouf and allowed the Senegalese forward to equalise; thankfully for Lloris, Harry Kane was on hand to score the winner and cover over that mistake. Despite a productive start to the new Premier League season – with Tottenham winning six of their first eight games – Lloris’s rash rush off his line gave Barcelona an early lead in the Champions League at Wembley earlier this month.
He has also made the odd calamitous error in a France shirt – such as in the defeat to Sweden in qualifying for the World Cup – and his form has occasionally been characterised by a certain haphazardness and uncertainty. But, despite one or two flappy moments, his ability as one of the game’s leading keepers was rarely in doubt and the prospect of a Joe Hart-esque nosedive never appeared possible.
His very best performances have been reserved for the grandest of stages: against Uruguay, Belgium and, despite the unfortunate incident with Mandzukic late in the final, Croatia. France would have struggled to emerge from the Moscow rain victorious without the talents of Kylian Mbappé, N’Golo Kanté and Antoine Griezmann, but captain Lloris proved at least as important in an era-defining triumph for French football. When taking the whole tournament into account, few other World Cup-winning keepers have produced a body of work over one competition to rival his exploits in Russia.
Importantly for Lloris, the last three goalkeepers who have found their way on to the Ballon d’Or podium also did so after eye-catching World Cups. The sweeper-keeper role had been prevalent for some time in 2014 but Manuel Neuer went some way to redefining the position, combining his technical mastery with unerring shot stopping as Germany lifted the World Cup in Brazil. Like Lloris, Neuer also proved less than unflappable the following season, when a pair of fumbled mistakes gave Borussia Monchengladbach a 2-0 win at the Allianz, for example. All goalkeepers slip up and most of Lloris’s mishaps have been minor.
Lloris’s importance to his team remains greater than any of his current peers at international level, a point that was exemplified again this week with his superb quadruple save against Iceland and pair of crucial stops in a largely undeserved 2-1 win over a floundering Germany that keeps France in a strong position to win their Nations League group.
Of the 30 players shortlisted for Ballon d’Or this year, four are goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois, Jan Oblak, Alisson Becker and Lloris. While Oblak’s commanding presence, Alisson’s technical ability and Courtois’s reflexes may prove more effective in the longer term or make them more attractive propositions to elite clubs, Lloris’s achievements in 2018 outstrip them all. His arrest for drink driving in August – an incident he later described as “embarrassing” – was abhorrent and should not be forgotten. But his actions on the field were momentous and it is time a goalkeeper was recognized as one of the world’s best footballers.
by Adam White