Goalkeepers. While many of the most successful have had the advantage of protection from a great defense, the best keepers in history have also made up for defensive shakiness in front of them by performing heroics. There is no other position on a soccer pitch where the slightest error can have as catastrophic a result to a team’s fortunes, not to mention a player’s confidence — keepers can fall into a slump (or even worse, lose their jobs) after just a single mistake or two.
While current world class shotstoppers like David De Gea, Manuel Neuer, or Marc-Andre ter Stegen may be gunning for this list by the time their careers eventually wind down, they don’t qualify yet. Instead, you present you this list of the best goalkeepers in the history of the beautiful game.
12. Jose Chilavert
Captain of Paraguay for their 1998 and 2002 World Cups, it’s fair to say that in terms of pure goalkeeping talent that Jose Chilavert shouldn’t be anywhere near the greats of that position. Chilavert was a fairly reliable shot-stopper, but what he lacked in world-class goalkeeping ability he made up for through his remarkable goalscoring record.
It wasn’t until he joined Vélez Sársfield that Chilavert truly discovered his firepower, regularly taking penalties and free-kicks for the Argentinian club. Overall he scored 54 goals in his career, including eight for Paraguay. His efforts included important goals in World Cup qualifiers against Argentina (in 1996) and Columbia (in 2000), in addition to a peach of a free-kick against Bolivia in 2001. He’s believed to be the first player to take a direct free-kick at the World Cup finals, narrowly denied a goal against Bulgaria in 1998.
11. Petr Cech
One of the best keepers still playing, Cech was dominant at Chelsea during a period where they emerged as annual title contenders. Possibly Claudio Ranieri’s best signing at Stamford Bridge, Cech has won four Premier League titles, four FA Cups, and was crucial to the Blues’ Champions League win in 2012. By 2015, though, he was ousted at Stamford Bridge by Belgian international Thibaut Courtois. The club allowed him to leave in search of a regular starting role, which he found with Chelsea’s cross-town rivals Arsenal. He’s been the regular starter for Arsene Wenger ever since, helping the team to an FA Cup in 2017.
At times, he’s had to deal with adversity too. In 2006, he nearly died from a fractured skull he sustained following a collision in a match against Reading, returning to action wearing a headguard that he’s worn since. Also, a costly error at Euro 2008 in the Czech Republic’s final group match saw Cech hand an equalizer to Turkey, before they went on to snatch a late winner – eliminating the Czechs from the tournament.
10. Lev Yashin
Yashin is championed as one of the key innovators in the fine craft of goalkeeping. Dressed from head-to-toe in black, nicknamed “The Black Spider,” Yashin is considered the first to truly dominate a penalty area at the highest level – repeatedly vocal, always active, while still being an extremely effective shot-stopper.
Yashin’s 78 caps overlapped with arguably the golden era of Soviet Union soccer — victorious at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, the 1960 European Championship in France, quarter finalists at the 1958 and 1962 World Cup, with a semi-final appearance in 1966. Yashin also had a truly remarkable penalty record, with an estimated 150 occasions where penalty takers suffered arachnophobia and missed their spot kicks.
9. Edwin van der Sar
With 130 caps for the Netherlands, eight league titles, and two Champions League medals from his 15 years at Ajax and Manchester United, van der Sar stands out as one of the best goalkeepers of his time, and as the best for his national side.
He was a regular thorn in the side of Chelsea penalty takers, which included saving three spot kicks in the 2007 Charity Shield and most notably the final penalty from Nicolas Anelka in the 2008 Champions League final shootout. One of Sir Alex Ferguson’s shrewdest signings, particularly given the difficulties he’d experienced in replacing Peter Schmeichel before they landed van der Dar – Massimo Taibi being the worst of the would-be successors.
Gylmar dos Santos Neves played in probably the most successful Brazilian side, winning the World Cup in 1958 and 1962 alongside the likes of Pelé and Garrincha, and playing at the 1966 World Cup as well. Known for his sharp reflexes, shrewd positional sense, and above all calmness, Gylmar also has the honour of being the keeper that Pelé scored the first goal of his career past.
His club football was spent at Corinthians and Santos, with Gylmar featuring in the latter’s greatest period, winning the Copa Libetadores twice, the World Club Championship twice, and five state championships. His finest save arguably came in a crucial time at the 1962 World Cup against Spain, with the score tied 1-1 late-on. He made a superb double-save to keep Brazil in it – they subsequently grabbed a winner and went on to win the entire tournament.
7. Oliver Kahn
While Manuel Neuer may eventually give Kahn competition for Germany’s finest keeper, at the moment that title undoubtedly sits with Oliver Kahn, who with 86 caps was a major part of the German side. Kahn was named player of the tournament at the 2002 World Cup finals, where Germany lost the final to Brazil – to date, the only keeper to receive the Golden Ball award.
An amazing 13 seasons with Bayern Munich saw him part of eight Bundesliga title-winning teams and a successful Champions League campaign in 2001. What perhaps held Kahn back at times in his career were crucial errors at key moments for his teams. In the Brazil final in 2002, he fumbled a Rivaldo shot leading to Ronaldo opening the scoring. Bayern were once knocked out of the Champions League after Kahn failed to deal with a soft Roberto Carlos free-kick. No wonder he was always so angry.
6. Michel Preud’homme
Most recently the manager at Club Brugge, the former Belgian keeper had a decent career, which perhaps doesn’t fully reflect the talents he so regularly displayed. His great reflexes helped Belgian club side Mechelen to win the Cup Winners Cup and European Super Cup in 1988, but at the international level he also appeared 58 times, which feels surprisingly low for a keeper of his class. He was also absent from the 1986 World Cup where Belgium were beaten in the semi-finals, this coming at a time when Jean-Marie Pfaff was still first-choice.
Preud’homme was named UEFA Goalkeeper of the Year in 1994, as well as receiving the Yashin Award for best goalkeeper at the World Cup the same year – not bad considering Belgium fell in the Round of 16. This award ironically came after Preud’homme had to abandon his usual lucky charm for the tournament. He always used to wear the shirt of his first club, Standard Liege, under his national kit, but the Florida heat forced him to rethink his superstition.
5. Iker Casillas
Casillas has already cemented his place among the goalkeeping greats, and bulldozed through the record number of caps for Spain back in 2011 (he currently sits at 167). He’s won a World Cup, two European Championships, five La Ligas titles, and three Champions Leagues – all before the age of 35. He made over 700 appearances for legendary Spanish club side Real Madrid, before departing for Portuguese side Porto in 2015.
The first Spaniard to lift the World Cup, Casillas was superb in South Africa, keeping a clean sheet in all four of Spain’s games in the knockout stages – including against the free-scoring Germans, who came into the semi-final having blasted four goals apiece past England and Argentina. Against Paraguay in the quarters, he saved a crucial penalty with the score 0-0. In the final, Arjen Robben looked set to score the winner for the Netherlands, but was brilliantly denied by the feet of Casillas in a one-on-one situation.
4. Dino Zoff
Simply a brilliant keeper with a fantastic record. Zoff was a European Championship winner with the Azzuri in 1968, and he became the oldest ever winner of the World Cup at 40-years, four months in 1982. His medal in 1968 is particularly remarkable when you consider that going into the tournament he wasn’t first choice, nor had he had his Italy debut. He made his debut at the quarter-final stage against Bulgaria, before continuing through to the final and subsequent replay – conceding just one goal in four games.
In a career where he also won numerous club hours with Juventus, his crowning achievement was certainly the World Cup medal, and in particular his wonderful save from Zico late on in Italy’s 3-2 win over Brazil to progress to the semi-finals.
3. Gordon Banks
Gordon Banks was England’s greatest ever goalkeeper, and the only English keeper to win a World Cup final. Domestically, he’s a player with a small list of honors — a League Cup medal both with Leicester City and with Stoke City are the main highlights. But internationally he will forever be remembered as one of the best. FIFA’s Goalkeeper of the Year on six consecutive occasions, it’s understandable that when Banks’s name is mentioned, the finals in 1966 are what most will think of first.
His time at Leicester was called short due to the emergence of the man that was to also succeed him in the national team, Peter Shilton – also considered one of England’s finest. Banks made what many consider to be one of the greatest saves, right on the money, to claw a downward header from Pelé out of the net during the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico.
2. Peter Schmeichel
Manchester United’s finest goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel was the key component of one of the meanest defenses of United’s history. Physically intimidating, highly vocal, and with the positional awareness of a sweeper, Schmeichel hit the national stage at Euro 1992. With Denmark only at the tournament due to replacing the war-torn Yugoslavia, little was expected of them. Yet they left as winners, in large part due to the Great Dane’s heroics – particularly his crucial penalty save in the semi-finals from Marco Van Basten.
At United, he helped the club to five Premier League titles, ending his career at Old Trafford in 1999 with a league title medal, an FA Cup, and a Champions League medal. In the spectacular end to the 1999 Champions League final, Schmeichel did one of his classic late surges into the box for a United corner – causing confusion in the Bayern defense that led to United’s late equalizer.
1. Gianluigi Buffon
The greatest keeper of all-time? Gianluigi Buffon combines pure goalkeeping talent, a career packed full of individual awards and domestic success at Parma and Juventus, with complete reliability at the highest level. While the 2006 Italian World Cup winning team may not have been the greatest, there are few players more deserving of a World Cup winners’ medal than Buffon, who was repeatedly called upon to bail out the Italian defense.
Part of a great Parma side that included Ancelotti, Cannavaro, and Thuram, he was particularly loyal to Juve – sticking with them after the 2006 World Cup win despite relegation to Serie B. He became the most expensive goalkeeper in history in 2001 when he joined Juventus from for €45 million, a fee he never appeared to be phased by. His shot-stopping, power, and overall presence, has made him worth every Euro. In 2018, he’s still going strong despite crossing the 40-year-old mark. Sadly, his career may eventually end without seeing him claim a Champions League winners medal — he’s been thwarted three times so far.