Van der Sar’s longevity propels him amongst the greats
There are many cases in which footballers are talked up as being “the greatest in the world” or “the best player in this era”, but the true measure of a great of the game is longevity. Lionel Messi might be the talk of the town; he is currently recognised as the very best by many observers at this moment but he is no legend, not yet anyway. He is on the right path, however – he is surrounded, and appears to be directed well by, coaches with expertise, teammates and other key figures in his life and remains humble, hardly getting drawn into the whole fuss of who really is the best. He has a long way to go; for him to eclipse Maradona (something the great Ossie Ardiles believes will happen or has already happened) or the likes, he must continue to play in a similar manner for a large part of his bright future.
And when Messi takes to the field on Saturday night at Wembley for the Champions League final, he will certainly come up against an undisputed, seasoned great who will play the final game of his illustrious, decorated career. Edwin van der Sar has always been a winner. From his Ajax days in the nineties and still now some 21 years later. Even his brief spell at Juventus saw him regarded as one of the best goalkeepers to ever play in Italy; he eventually lost his place to Gianluigi Buffon through, what at least appeared, no fault of his own. Funnily enough, he might have ended up at Old Trafford as Peter Schmeichel’s replacement back in 1999 but the Italian outfit swooped first.
United’s attempts to replace the ‘Great Dane’ Schmeichel with a new number 1 never quite materialised at first, if ever. Indeed, they used 10 different goalkeepers between 1999 and 2005, before signing van der Sar who was then able to rectify any concerns United had in this position. One of his finest individual achievements was going 1,311 minutes of play over a three month period without conceding a goal in the 2008-09 season, keeping 14 clean sheets in the process.
How they compare – Van der Sar and Peter Schmeichel for Manchester United
Statistics courtesy of @NickCoppack
“There are certain criteria to be a goalkeeper here: good experience, personality and a track record,” Sir Alex Ferguson says. “Edwin has all of those qualities. He didn’t cost us a lot of money, about £2m, so he’s right up there with my best signings. I just wish we had signed him earlier, to be honest.” United’s manager shows great fondness for van der Sar – and such has been his worth to the club and the game that he could not find himself to say a bad word when he made a rare blunder to allow West Brom’s Somen Tchoyi to score back in October: “Here’s a lad with 130 caps for Holland, the most fantastic career you could imagine,” Ferguson said. “You couldn’t even criticise him because he doesn’t deserve that. He’ll probably make one horrendous mistake in his life.”
It sounds almost inconceivable that van der Sar has been at the top for so long, and yet still many believe that the Dutchman can go on for another a year or two. At 40, van der Sar has four previous European final appearances already in the bag and considers himself fortunate to represent United at such a tender age: “It’s great of course [to be here], I had an unbelievable six years and it’s unbelievable at my age and everything to still play for a team like this and it’s really been enjoyable.”
Goalkeepers are of a different species. They generally tend to last longer than their outfield counterparts. As to why, there are many theories. A simple answer would be that a veteran keeper knows the game better; a trait that naturally comes from experience. The notion that the goalkeeping position is where experience is most important is difficult to disagree with; as the great Italian World Cup winner Dino Zoff recognises as he told Champions magazine last year that the very best goalkeepers are those who have played for an age:
“In my opinion, the best goalkeepers of all time are Gordon Banks, Peter Shilton, Ray Clemence [he names a whole host of keepers here]…Edwin van der Sar, Peter Schmeichel, Ladislao Mazurkiewicz and Thomas Nkono,” Zoff says. “They all reached their best at around 40 years old, and that’s because mature men know how to deal with the severe pressure and responsibility goalkeeping brings. When a keeper reached 40 and is still at the top, it shows how he has lived and behaved professionally, taken care of his body and mind, overcome many obstacles. That strengthens your self-esteem and gives you the ability to react to the inevitable errors.”
Edwin van der Sar must go down as a great of the game, and not just labelled a great goalkeeper, because of his longevity; few players have played at the highest level for so long and so well. It is true that role of a goalkeeper is the most unforgiving, yet avoidable errors is not what you’d connote with the player who has been named Best European Goalkeeper four times in his career, rather match-winning saves (as Nicolas Anelka knows only too well) and a cool head. This will remain the case regardless of what happens on Saturday night. Edwin van der Sar, footballing legend.