The hugely underappreciated art of goalkeeping

After getting starstruck by one brilliant save by Izwan Mahbud, Dez Corkhill argues the goalkeeper position is criminally undervalued in Malaysian football...

On April 7th at the Jalan Besar Stadium in Singapore, I was fortunate enough to witness one of the greatest saves by a goalkeeper. At any level. From any league. Live or on TV. I kid you not.

Midway through the second half of the Malaysian FA Cup quarter-final first leg, Johor Darul Takzim II (JDT II) won a free-kick to the right of the goal, 35m out. JDT II’s Argentine midfielder, Leandro Valezquez, curled a lovely ball towards the six-yard box as a flurry of attackers and defenders rushed to get a touch or a clearance. LionsXII goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud, aware that a touch could have taken the ball to his left, stood upright and waited for the touch. It was a good enough free-kick, which was too far away from goal for Izwan to come and claim, and too flat for a defender to clear.

No one got a touch and the well-struck ball continued into the six-yard box. It bounced three yards from goal and was destined for the back of the net, making the game 1-1 and giving JDT II a huge boost. Then Izwan reacted. His right handed parry was Gordon Banks-like in the way his strong arm pushed it up and over the bar; David Seaman-like in his claw at a ball that seemed beyond him; Dino Zoff-like in his agility; and Iker Casillas-esque in his astonishing reaction time.

The excellent Astro Production TV coverage (available, for various reasons, only in Singapore) showed the save in all its magnificence from five different angles. On each occasion – even in the replays – you thought “GOAL!” It was a world class save. The headlines from the match were made by Baihakki Khaizan’s red card against his former team-mates, and the fairy-tale story of Chris Van Huizen’s emergence from a reality TV show to scoring a 93rd-minute goal in an important cup tie. But for me, the story was Izwan’s save.

In the same game, Johor goalkeeper Anis Faron made a late save to prevent Khairul Nizam scoring a third goal that was shades of Peter Schmeichel as he made a star-jump to repel a certain goal with an outstretched left hand. Yet, few seem to acknowledge the excellence of some of the shot-stopping displays in Malaysian football. Izwan, and others of this generation of shot-stoppers in Malaysia and Singapore, have been performing this kind of heroics on a regular basis without getting the praise they deserve. The ex-professionals (normally outfield players) I have the privilege of commentating matches with for Astro and Mediacorp are invariably reluctant to praise the goalkeepers, often saying “it’s their job”. But I disagree.

"Everyone remembers the errors simply because they are so costly"

The goalkeeper is, and I am biased here, the most important player in a team. He can make or break the team. Look at any great team of any era, and a common denominator will be a great goalkeeper. Brian Clough said of his European Cup winning teams that the signing of Peter Shilton was the most important of all. It’s easy to forget that at the time of the move, Shilton was playing Second Division football, and was mainly regarded as an arrogant young man, whose error against Poland had cost England a place in the 1974 World Cup finals. Shilton then moved from Stoke to Nottingham Forest, and proceeded to lead the team to the pinnacle of European football. Liverpool had Ray Clemence and Bruce Grobbelaar in their prime. Manchester United became winners when Peter Schmeichel became their regular last line of defence, and have followed it on with Edwin van der Saar and now David de Gea. Is it any coincidence Arsenal stopped winning trophies regularly after the departure David Seaman? The list just goes on.

It’s relatively easy to cite numerous examples of poor goalkeeping that have directly influenced the outcome of important matches. Everyone remembers the errors simply because they are so costly. However, there are a few stunning saves, yet massively underappreciated, that deserve shout-outs. In last year’s Malaysia Cup Final, Pahang’s Khairul Azhan was lauded for his save from Norshahrul Idlan Talaha in the penalty shoot-out, but even more crucial was the deflection he got to the ball on the occasion when Jorge Pererya Diaz’ shot came back off the post late in regular time when the score was 2-2. All reports recorded it as Diaz hitting the woodwork. And that was not the first time Khairul has made such interventions. Pahang were 1-0 down in the Malaysia FA Cup Final to Felda United, when Edward Wilson Junior thundered a ball to his right. He made a stunning reaction to deflect the ball onto the post.  

Khairul Azhan has been instrumental for Pahang

Khairul also did the same in the 2013 Malaysia Cup quarter-final in Kuching against Sarawak. Trailing 3-1 from the first leg, Sarawak were a goal up and pressing hard for the goal that would have put them into the final on the away goals rule. Khairul’s touch onto the post of a Joseph Kallang Tie effort was another incredible intervention. It was a surprise to many that Khairul was named the MVP last season in Malaysia, but those three saves easily warranted the award.

And yet he’s not even the best in Malaysia. Khairul Fahmi and Farizal Marlias are brilliantly acrobatic shot-stoppers – incredibly agile, lightning quick in coming off their lines, and also generally make good judgments about which balls to come and claim from high crosses.  Their one shared problem is that they are both relatively short to be considered a goalkeeper of the highest quality. Add four inches to their respective heights and they would be the equal of many in Japan and Korea.

In Malaysia, there’s a decent depth in the pool of goalkeepers available. JDT start with Farizal when he’s fit, but have the equally agile Izham Tarmizi as a capable number two. Harimau Muda’s Farhan Abu Bakar first came to prominence when he made two penalty saves on his debut for the Young Tigers and his performance in the recent Under-22 AFC Qualifier against Japan marked him out as one to keep an eye on. 

Besides them, Felda United’s Farizal Harun has taken his time to become a really top goalkeeper and cut out the concentration lapses that bedevilled his time at ATM. Sharbinee Allawee at Terengganu is another good enough goalkeeper to have seen national team duty before a big blow-out with then-head coach Peter Butler forced him to join Selangor, where he lost his way. Now he’s back at Terengganu, just ask head coach Abdul Rahman Ibrahim if he’d swap him for any goalie in Malaysia.

Put a poor goalkeeper in your team, and your chances of being successful evaporate. So, this one is for the men between the posts. Izwan’s world class save prompted the article, and gave the chance to pay tribute to the unsung heroes constantly defying gravity and keeping strikers at bay week after week.

(Pictures: asiana.my)