The Mindgame of the Substitute Goalkeeper

The practice of subbing on a new goalkeeper just for penalties is new in the World Cup but it’s been going on elsewhere for decades

At the very end of the Netherlands’ quarterfinal against Costa Rica, with the score tied at zero, Louis van Gaal substituted his first choice goalkeeper just as the game went to shootouts. Tim Krul, the sub, guessed the correct direction of every Costa Rican kick and the Dutch won the game. Van Gaal is the first coach to make such a gamble at the World Cup, but similar tricks have been tried before around the globe, with varying success.

A similar substitution took place in the later stages of the African Champions League ten years ago. Vincent Enyeama, now the standout starter for Nigeria, was a young keeper at Enyimba International back in 2004. When the semifinal clash with Esperance of Tunisia went to penalties, coach Felix Okey Emordi chose to replace him with Dele Aiyenugba, even though Enyeama himself is has a very decent record stopping penalty kicks. Enyimba won, and Emordi made the same move when the final, versus another Tunisian team, Etoile du Sahel, also went to penalties. Enyeama, who had scored from the spot in regulation time, was replaced with Aiyenugba, and Enyimba prevailed. “I have no idea why the coach did that, but it worked for us,” Enyeama later said.

Veteran German coach Hans Meyer looked like a genius when he substituted his goalkeeper ahead of penalties when he worked at 1.FC Nurnberg in 2007. Second choice keeper Daniel Klewer was absolutely brilliant in the German Cup Round of 16, stopping four penalties against Unterhaching in the shootout. When the quarterfinal game versus Hannover also went to penalties, Meyer once again took out his star keeper Raphael Schafer after 119 minutes and put in Klewer. The sub saved two, and Nurnberg went on to with the Cup.

At the 1990 World Cup, the late England manager Bobby Robson considered replacing Peter Shilton with a back-up. When the semifinal against West Germany went to overtime, he told an interviewer in 2003, “that idea passed me by. Shilton was probably not so great at penalties, so bringing on Beasant crossed my mind. The thing is if you do it and you succeed you’re a genius, but not so if you lose.” (As it happened, Beasant was actually the third-choice keeper during the tournament, and only the second-choice Chris Woods was available to be a substitute that day. Perhaps Robson mis-remembered.) Robson didn’t make the change and England lost. “We stuck with Shilton and as it turned out every penalty the Germans took was a cracker that no one would have saved,” said Robson.

Guus Hiddink most certainly intended to make such a substitution when coaching Australia in the 2006 World Cup qualifying playoffs against Uruguay. He wanted to bring on Zeljko Kalac to replace of Mark Schwarzer before realizing that he had already made three substitutions. Good thing: Schwarzer proceeded to save shots by Dario Rodriguez and Marcelo Zalayeta, and Australia made it to the tournament.

Remarkably, Kalac had already been involved in a very bizarre goalkeeping substitution a decade before. It was 1996 and Leicester City was playing Crystal Palace at Wembley. The winner would be promoted to the Premier League. With the game tied at one, Leicester City manager Martin O’Neill sent Kalac on after 119 minutes for the penalty shootout. Turned out he wasn’t necessary. Palace players, perhaps distracted by the unusual substitution, allowed Leicester City’s Steve Claridge to score a very late winner.

Fate was much crueler for Jasmin Fejzic, who made the Bosnian squad for the current World Cup and was the substitute keeper at Greuther Furth in 2012. They were playing Borussia Dortmund in the German Cup semifinal. The Bosnian had spent all season on the bench, but coach Mike Buskens promised to put him in goal if the second division underdogs could take the game against the Bundesliga champions to penalties. When the clock hit 118 minutes and no goals had been scored, first-choice keeper Max Grun, who had played an exceptional game, was taken out.

Fejzic took his place in goal and the game made its way to the final whistle. With the clock at 119:55—five seconds left in extra time—Dortmund’s Ilkay Gundogan took a shot. The ball hit the post, rebounded onto the outstretched Fejzic’s back, and went into the net for an own goal. Dortmund won 1–0 on the only touch the unfortunate goalkeeper would record all season.