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Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Updated: June 16, 1:14 PM ET
How to go from goalkeeper to goatkeeper

By Chris Jones
Special to ESPN.com

JOHANNESBURG -- The loneliest man on earth must be wondering why suddenly he has so much company.

On Saturday, when English keeper Robert Green fumbled a routine Clint Dempsey shot to give the Americans a 1-1 tie in their opening group match, not one of his teammates offered a consoling word. He had to look to the man in the opposite box, Tim Howard, for his only sympathy.

"It's very, very cruel," Howard said of his chosen profession. "You have to be strong and have broad shoulders to be a goalkeeper."

Now, Green can find further comfort in the men who have suffered since. On Monday night, Paraguay's Justo Villar joined the growing ranks of goat goalkeepers at the 2010 World Cup, after his misjudged corner allowed Italy to equalize 1-1.

That followed Algerian keeper Faouzi Chaouchi's botch of a harmless-seeming shot against Slovenia, leaving the Algerians 1-0 losers and with little hope of advancing out of the group stage.

In South Africa, the rash of errors from world-class keepers has been followed by an extended search for the reasons: the Jabulani and its optical wobble; the conditions of the field; the weather; the wind; the dust; the elevation; even the blaring of vuvuzelas.

But the hard truth is, World Cups have always witnessed their share of goalkeepers trying to hide in the grass under their feet: Colombia's Rene Higuita in 1990 or, more memorably, England's David Seaman in 2002, followed by Germany's Oliver Kahn -- arguably the best keeper in the world at the time -- handing that year's final to Brazil.

Aside from the sick feeling in their stomachs, these men are united by one common denominator: Most of their mistakes have come on long shots -- looping free kicks or corners, stabs in the dark by strikers from well outside the box.

"The goalkeeper had a very, very good match," Mohamed Raouraoua, president of the Algerian Football Association, said of Chaouchi. "He stopped far harder shots -- but not that one, alas."

That's a nearly universal truth of goalkeeping blunders. The hard shots aren't the trick.

Most of their mistakes are a function not of nerves or physics but of time.

And the problem with time is, it gives keepers time to think.

Athletes are forever being asked what they were thinking during a particular play or moment, and their answers almost always disappoint. That's because they aren't thinking. They're relying on years of muscle memory and natural ability and instinct to allow them to do the amazing things they do. Thinking has nothing to do with it. Their games are too fast, their movements too quick-fired, for their brains to keep up. The best athletes play their games almost entirely within their subconscious. They're beautiful inside there. They're unstoppable.

There's never been a football player who's suddenly forgotten how to tackle. There's never been a hockey player who inexplicably loses his ability to hit a slap shot.

The games where players "choke" -- where everything gets ugly and falls apart -- are the games that give players time to think. Ian Baker-Finch suddenly can't hit a drive to save his life; Bernhard Langer can't sink a 3-foot putt. Chuck Knoblauch forgets how to throw the ball to first base; Mackey Sasser can't even toss it back to the pitcher.

And in faster games, it's the quiet moments that can leave even the best athletes looking mortal. Why can't Shaquille O'Neal hit a free throw? What happened when Scott Norwood tried to kick a field goal? Why did he go wide right?

All of them were given time to think. They were nudged out of their subconscious and into the realm of conscious thought, and that's a terrible place, where bad things happen.

One of the best illustrations of the divide rolls around every spring at TPC Sawgrass -- specifically at the 17th hole, the famed island green. It's a shot that every pro -- and most amateurs -- can hit in his proverbial sleep: a 132-yard chip shot onto a big, forgiving green.

But by surrounding that same green with water, architect Pete Dye created a hole that sees those same professionals hit ball after ball into the drink.

That's because the water pushes them out of their subconscious -- out of "the zone" that athletes talk about, that blessed, almost mythical place where the game seems like an extension of their truest self -- and into their clumsy, conscious incarnations. They think. And they think things like, "Don't hit the water."

And that's when it all goes wrong. Our brains aren't wired to think in the negative. Our brains can't transmit words like "don't" through all those synapses and wires. "Don't hit the water" becomes "Hit the water," and the brain obeys.

In soccer, it's the keepers who have time to think. Only during a penalty kick are the roles reversed: The shooter is the thinker, the keeper the reactor. That's when someone in short sleeves finally gets to be the goat. But it's a rare moment of relief.

Robert Green, Faouzi Chaouchi, Justo Villar -- they all made good saves in their respective games. Terrific reflex saves, tips over the bar and parries off the post. They just let nature take its course. But once their opponents gave them a little time to think about what was happening, about the possible paths, their bodies failed them. Their bodies failed them because they had time to think: "Don't mess this one up."

Mess this one up.

And so they did.

Chris Jones is a contributing editor to ESPN The Magazine and a writer-at-large for Esquire.