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Germany have long had a reputation for producing fine goalkeepers. From the likes of Sepp Maier and Harold Schumacher, who played in the legendary German teams of the 70s and 80s respectively, to modern greats like sweeper-keeper Manuel Neuer. Die Mannschaft has never been short of a safe pair of hands but there was one goalkeeper who bridged the gap between old and modern football.
Oliver Kahn, with his old-fashioned physicality fused with modern athleticism, enjoyed a 21-year career, achieving unparalleled success. He is rightly recognised as one of the greatest ‘keepers to ever don the gloves.
After a quick YouTube search, I soon realised that Kahn is just as well known for his aggressive and dominating style of play, as he is his breath taking saves. But trust me, there is much more to Oliver than his short temper.
Titan; a person who is very important, powerful, strong and big. The definition really does fit Kahn like a glove. Nicknamed Der Titan by the German press due to his heroic, commanding and intimidating performances, the Big German really was one of the best of his generation. During his peak, his shot stopping ability, aerial presence and defensive organisational skills were matched probably only by the Great Dane Peter Schmeichel.
Having made his professional debut for boyhood side Karlsruher SC at the tender age of 18, Kahn was snapped up by German giants Bayern Munich in the summer of 1994. It was at Bayern where Germany’s future number one would spend the rest of his playing career, achieving great success while cementing his aggressive no-nonsense reputation.
One of Kahn’s greatest club performances came in the 2001 Champions League Final against Spanish side Valencia. Both teams went in to the final still nursing the wounds of previous defeats in the final of Europe’s pinnacle club competition. Bayern were still hurting from their infamous injury time capitulation against Manchester United in 1999, while Valencia were looking for instant redemption after their 3-0 drubbing by Real Madrid the year before. With both teams looking more concerned about not conceding than actually scoring, a cagey affair ensued. Strangely, given the Champions League’s reputation for scintillating continental football, this final was all about the goalkeepers.
In what became known as the final of penalties, Valencia’s number one Santiago Cañizares delivered the first blow in the battle of the ‘keepers. Having conceded from Gaizka Mendieta’s spot kick only three minutes in, Kahn watched as Cañizares saved Mehmet Scholl’s weak penalty just moments later.
But was Kahn, the winner of 2 UEFA goalkeeper of the year awards really going to be outshone by his Spanish counterpart in the biggest game of the season? Not a chance. Bayern equalised with their second penalty of the game, and the match went the distance to a shootout. The score was 2-2 but Valencia had taken one penalty less. Then Kahn happened. Zlatko Zahovič stepped up; saved by Kahn. Bayern were level – until Miroslav Djukić missed. Kahn was needed again. Carboni thrashed his penalty towards goal, and Kahn produced a simply stunning save. Already diving to his left, Kahn thrust up his right dinner plate sized paw as the ball careered down the centre of the goal. Somehow, Kahn managed to get a touch on the ball without straining every tendon in his right arm. Pure instinct, pure reaction. The Nike Geo Merlin smacked the underside of the bar, hit the ground and bounced harmlessly away. Kahn dropped to his knees, fists pumping the air with raw adrenaline. He’d just produced a stunner, but he wasn’t done there.
The shootout went to sudden death. Thomas Linke converted for Bayern and Kahn seized his opportunity. The ball at a comfortable height, the future Bayern captain dived to his right and palmed Mauricio Pellegrino’s effort away. Bayern were European Champions. They had exorcised the demons of 1999 and Kahn was their healer. That year Kahn was named both UEFA and World goalkeeper of the year while finishing 3rd in the Ballon D’or, a feat not achieved by a goalkeeper again until 2014, when Manuel Neuer took bronze. In short, Kahn was immense. A force of nature that was unstoppable on his day. He had conquered Europe. Next opponent; the world.
The events that unfolded in Ulsan, South Korea, on 21st June 2002 did nothing but re-affirm Kahn’s status as an all-time great. At the end of the 90, the Munsu Cup Stadium scoreboard read ‘Germany 1-0 United States’, but in truth ‘Oliver Kahn 1-0 United States’ would have been more fitting.
For much of the 2002 World Cup Kahn was superb, putting in top performance after top performance to propel Germany towards the Final. At a tournament where the Germans lacked real defensive quality, something of a rarity, his heroic showings provided the base for Germany to go on the offensive. Having made some crucial saves in the wins against Cameroon and Paraguay (look up Kahn’s superhero-esque save against Paraguay’s Jorge Luis Campos) and in particular the 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland, it was the quarter-final showdown with the United States where King Kahn really shone.
Bruce Arena’s youthful American side had wildly exceeded expectations by reaching the quarter-final stage, their nothing-to-lose style of play deserving of at least one goal against Germany. But this was a fairy-tale that Kahn was all too eager to crush in the palms of his big white gloves.
In one of the greatest World Cup goalkeeping performances, Kahn called on his famed qualities of athleticism, bravery and one-on-one ability. It was in the opening stages when he made a career-defining save. Diving low to his right, Kahn’s outstretched right hand grazed the ball, sending Landon Donovan’s vicious curling strike out for a corner. After a shimmying solo run that included a nutmeg on the helpless Didi Hamann, the German had no right to save such a brilliant effort. Replace Kahn with any other goalkeeper and Donovan has scored a goal of the tournament contender. The image of Donovan punching the turf in annoyance proves just how good a save it was. When Landon Donovan goes to sleep, he must have nightmares about Oliver Kahn. Moments later, he thwarted the US striker again, this time rushing out to smother a one-on-one attempt. Utilising his big frame and imposing figure, Kahn adopted the Schmeichel-esque ‘starfish’ technique. Spreading his arms and legs in a fashion that reduced Donovan’s shooting options to nil, Kahn blocked the goal bound effort and preserved his clean sheet. A Michael Ballack header gave Germany the lead just before half-time and proved to be the winner, but not without further intervention from his goalkeeper. Kahn dived in bravely at the feet of Donovan to assertively punch clear a Tony Sanneh cross, before showcasing his sweeper-keeper abilities by heading clear a dangerous through ball.
Thanks to Kahn, Germany weathered the USA storm and progressed to the semi-finals, where another Ballack goal was enough to dispose of co-hosts South Korea. The world-beating Samba Boys of Brazil were the only challengers left between Kahn and the greatest prize of all. More on that later.
Despite tales of his heroic performances and video reels of his greatest saves, Oliver Kahn often seems to be remembered for the less positive aspects of his game, namely his aggression. Kahn wore his heart on his sleeve, which was clear to see. In fact, that is putting it mildly. The ex-German number one was a special breed of player. He cared immensely about the performance of himself and the team, to such an extent that from time to time he would express his passion and determination in an unsavoury manner. Sometimes unable to channel his titanic abilities in a productive way, Kahn’s desperation to succeed would spill into acts of unprovoked violence, as a way of release. Similar to Roy Keane, Kahn struggled to keep his emotions in check, earning him the perhaps unfair reputation as a thuggish player.
Of course, there is evidence to back up this reputation. During a 4-2 victory over 1860 München in 1996, Kahn was sent off after lashing out at striker Olaf Bodden. After collecting an aerial ball while under pressure from Bodden, the goalkeeper took exception to the Munich striker falling into him (completely accidentally) and proceeded to kick his compatriot in the gut. Kahn was ridiculed for his actions, but this didn’t seem to change his behaviour. Fast forward a few seasons and on-field altercations with Thomas Brdaric (whose neck felt the full force of the ‘keeper’s grasp) and international teammate Miroslav Klose (who received a jab in the nose for his troubles) had been added to Kahn’s growing repertoire of violence.
Such incidents did not exclusively involve opposition players either. As former Bayern Munich defender Andreas Herzog will tell you, having an irate Oliver Kahn shove you from behind before bellowing in your face, is probably one of the less pleasant experiences one could have on a football pitch.
Unfortunately for Kahn, it’s not just his ‘over-enthusiasm’ that has distracted from his obvious talents. A high profile error on the biggest stage of all has cast a huge shadow over his undeniably stellar career.
Ronaldo. The original, not the current imitation, was to be Kahn’s undoing. Germany’s captain carried his excellent form into the 2002 World Cup Final, making a number of fine saves. As Brazil saw the better opportunities on the night, Kahn saved brilliantly with his legs to deny R9 before reacting sharply to keep out Gilberto Silva’s header. But in the 67th minute, the German let down his guard. As Rivaldo unleashed a driven dipping shot, Kahn dived forward to scoop up the ball, a fairly routine save. But this was far from routine. The ball ricocheted off his arms and into the path of the best striker in the world.
Ronaldo’s eyes lit up as the gift was presented to him and he eagerly snatched it without hesitation. Kahn hauled himself from the turf and desperately scrambled to try and block the rebound, but to no avail. The damage was done and the unbeatable had been beaten. As Ronaldo wheeled away in jubilant celebration, the TV cameras panned to the smouldering face of Kahn. A stern frown was etched across the goalkeeper’s face. But it was no surprise that he looked calm and contemplative, if not bitterly angry, a stark contrast to his infamously animated post-goal inquisitions. Who is there to shout at if the blame lands at your feet?
Der Titan’s nemesis added a second with ten minutes to go and the final was lost. In what would prove to be Kahn’s last world cup appearance, he had made the mistake that cost his team the ultimate prize. Without watching the rest of the tournament, one would assume that he would be cast as the villain. But in reality, the opposite was true. Without Kahn’s other-worldly saves and inspiring leadership, it’s debateable whether Germany would have survived their quarter-final tussle with the US, never mind made it to the final. Kahn was named the player of the tournament, ahead of the Brazilian striker who shattered his World Cup dream.
Still today, in the year that marks the 10th anniversary of his retirement, some decide to overlook the brilliance of Oliver Kahn. They like to peddle the myth that all there was to him was anger and thuggery. But that is simply not true. Yes, at times his passion could be mistaken for unnecessary aggression, but he managed to find a balance between physicality and excellent performances. He is one of the all-time greats. “Goalkeepers need an element of insanity”, was an excuse once offered up by Kahn to German publication Spiegel. I think that most goalkeepers would agree with him.