Listen to this article
It is always sad to mark the death of a goalkeeper and, thus, far better to celebrate a goalkeeping life. There were few more accomplished than that of Pope John Paul II.
For those many millions of people who believe that god is our backstop - and, indeed, for those who may not - the “Kracow Cat” was a formidable exponent of the art.
His tendency to play to the crowd drew criticism from traditionalists that he was “riskily continental”. At the time of his ascent to the position, even the usually extroverted world of Italian goalkeeping was dominated by the dour and grey-shirted figure of Dino Zoff. But John Paul II would achieve that supreme benchmark of goalkeeping - “spectacular, but safe”.
Was he always a goalkeeper? Significantly, the evidence suggests not.
The young Karol Joseph Wojtyla was “very popular with his schoolmates”, notes Lord Longford, one of his biographers. “Powerful of build, he was one of the best footballers,” Longford adds, “usually playing in goal.” This indicates that, as both an act of pastoral service and in keeping with many boys who seek the approval of their peers, he volunteered to play in goal, a position shunned by those who wish for membership of that larger, safe and anonymous community out on the field.
In his early days in Wadowice, he played for a local synagogue team. This heralded his later role as a promoter of understanding between the faiths but, like so many players of his generation, his progress was halted by the second world war.
It was possibly at this time that he received that tap on the shoulder familiar to so many initiates, and accompanied by the quiet yet firmly delivered message from the head coach: “sorry, my son, this game’s not for you.” He went on to achieve success in his principal calling in Poland, however, through hard work and dedication to an embattled cause - the customary goalkeeper’s lot - which eventually saw his transfer from Kracow to Rome.
It was an appointment welcomed at the time from a world that had tired of endless promotions from within the Vatican boot room. The choice of the previous incumbent was thought to have sparked internal dissent and it was John Paul II’s first task to lift morale from the level of the treatment room table to which it had slumped.
The issue of the Polish custodian’s style was a controversial one. “E un buffone, (he’s a clown),” pronounced the formidable Cardinal Cluffi, who was believed to want the big job himself.
Many fans forget that when in 1978 John Paul assumed the papacy it was five years, virtually to the day, since the miraculous appearance at Wembley of the Polish patron of goalkeeping St Tomas Chewski.
There was no doubt that the visiting keeper was blessed that night with a celestial gift. Knees, elbows, anything it seemed but the laying on of hands were used to keep the ball from the Polish net and stem the tide of the English attack. Effectively executed, it was entirely unorthodox, and as if the established rules of the position had been cheerily ushered out of an upper floor window; it was the style that John Paul II would adopt.
Of technique and his ability in the air, who knows what weaknesses he suffered when confronted with the questions asked of all goalkeepers by the perplexities of the cross. Highballs from left and right were lobbed his way, but it was those from the left that exposed that trait required of all keepers, outright stubborness.
Latin America proved his trickiest testing ground, a problem for any north European keeper unfamiliar with its poor sun-baked goalmouths and rules which sometimes fail to follow rigorously disciplined lines.
He appeared contradictory, leaving doubts among defenders and attackers alike whether he was about to advance or stay on his line. Those loyal to him chose to see him as ambiguously diplomatic, a “very political pope”, affirmed Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, in an interview I was privileged to be given in 1979.
But while under regular pressure from teams promoting the underdog cause, John Paul’s ability to appeal directly to his audience often won the day. Arguably, his Banksean moment came with his first visit to Mexico in 1979 when, while many of his junior team wondered whether he lacked the goalkeeper’s ability to read the game, he drew enormous crowds.
His charm was infectious, and the Irish team invited for an audience during the 1990 World Cup in Italy were ecstatic for days afterwards. At their meeting, he reserved a special word for Ireland’s goalkeeper Packy Bonner, and its coach “Saint Jack” Charlton, a fisherman.
His distribution and presence could rarely be faulted; he got around his area in a way not previously seen. His tenacity, as shown by his determination to play on after injury, was rivalled only by the great Bert Trautmann, who saw out the last 15 minutes of an FA Cup Final with a broken neck. That said, he was not from the strong, silent school of keeping; neither a Jennings nor a Seaman, he was a “talking goalkeeper”, and in many languages, too.
As a thinker, he never avoided the great philosophical issue of goalkeeping: “is there a god?” Field players, normal team members, are people of faith, comfortable in their belief that whatever their error, there is always someone behind them to make that final save (or to assume their blame). Goalkeepers sense there is no one but themselves, and tend towards the humanist. The pope was unstinting in challenging this view. In adopting the dissenting position, however, he proved himself once again to be a goalkeeper.
Though not infallible - in an increasingly difficult position, who is these days? - the ultimate tribute to be paid him is that he played the goalkeeper’s “long game”. He saw it through, and did so in true Tomaschewskian style: neither to victory, nor defeat, but to a glorious draw.