The world's greatest goalkeepers

Our sports writers, in the wake of the death of Gordon Banks, rank some of the greatest goalkeepers of all time.

Tom Hardwick
25th February 2019
Image- Wikimedia Commons

After the death of Gordon Banks on the 12th of February, which evoked grief across the nation, our sports writers pay tribute to his memory and to the careers of other goalkeepers whose performances and personalities alike earned them a place in footballing folklore. 

Gordon Banks- Tom Hardwick

Gordon Banks is undoubtedly one of the most renowned figures to have ever stood between two goalposts. From humble beginnings at Chesterfield FC he went on to make a colossal 679 professional appearances, winning the League Cup at both Leicester City and Stoke City. Stoke’s League Cup victory in 1972 remains the only trophy the club has ever won, with Banks writing himself into the history of the Staffordshire club.

However, it was at international level where Banks truly established himself as a legend. Acting as an integral cog in the 1966 World Cup winning side, Banks helped England towards her finest hour as a footballing nation, as well as staking his claim to the title of best goalkeeper in the world by maintaining the best minutes per goal conceded ratio (210 minutes) of any keeper to have played more than 8 World Cup games.

As if this wasn’t enough, Banks also managed to perform what is widely regarded as one of the best saves of all time. England faced Brazil in the 1970 World Cup, and Pele looked certain to have given his side the lead with a powerful, well-placed header. Any ordinary goalkeeper would have been beaten, but Banks defied the laws of nature to divert the ball as it bounced upwards towards the goal, with a display of reflexes matched only by the very best. Pele could only respond by saying "I thought that was a goal”, his disbelief mirrored by anyone who has seen that save.

Tragically, Banks lost sight in his right eye after an accident in 1972, yet he failed to lose his enthusiasm and talent for the game, winning the NASL with Fort Lauderdale Strikers in 1977 before eventually retiring. His death on the 12th February shook the nation, with countless people celebrating his incredible ability on the pitch and his remarkable kindness off the pitch. There has been talk of a posthumous knighthood for Banks, which would be a fitting final tribute to a man who, having given his all for club and country, is forever assured of a place among the pantheon of legendary goalkeepers.

Edwin Van Der Sar- Rebecca Johnson

Without a doubt Edwin van der Sar is one of the most iconic players to take up the position between the sticks. Standing at six foot five (ideal goalie height) van der Sar started his senior career at Ajax in his native Netherlands. During his time at Ajax, he won the UEFA Cup and the Champions League.

In 1999, van der Sar moved to Serie A club Juventus but after 66 appearances he moved to Fulham in 2001 after losing his place to a keeper from Parma called Gianluigi Buffon. Fulham were newly promoted and purchased the Dutch keeper for around £7 million.

Arguably though, van der Sar truly came into his own at Manchester United. At United he won four Premier League titles, three Community Shields. And who could forget that Champions League final in 2008 in the Moscow rain when John Terry fluffed his penalty and van der Sar pulled off an extraordinary penalty save from Nicholas Anelka for United to win the trophy.

Internationally, van der Sar played for the Netherlands. Van der Sar showed off his talent on the global stage. He was between the sticks when the Dutch came fourth in the 1998 World Cup and third in Euro 2000. The keeper is one of the most capped Dutch players, with 130 international appearances.

His CV only gets better from here. Van der Sar has won all manner of awards, including Golden Glove and UEFA Club Goalkeeper of the Year in 2009, the Best European Goalkeeper in 1995 and 2009 and IFFHS World's Best Goalkeeper in 2008. Furthermore, van der Sar holds the records for being the oldest player to win the Premier League, the oldest goalkeeper to win the Champions League, being the first goalkeeper to keep fifty clean sheets in the Champions League and arguably the most impressive, the world record for the most minutes without conceding a league goal (1,311 minutes for you keen staticians).

The Dutch stopper retired in 2011, finishing his career at United. However, he made a brief appearance for VV Noordwijk in 2016 to play one last game.

Bert Trautmann- Stanley Gilyead

One of sport’s greatest virtues is its ability to bring people together. Last year North and South Korea entered unified winter Olympics teams and the World Cup proved the Russian people aren’t defined by their government.

One of football’s most famous unifying figures is Bert Trautmann. A German soldier in WWII, Trautman spent 4 years in a Prisoner-Of-War Camp before refusing repatriation upon his release to stay in England, still awash with anti-German sentiment, and play for St Helen’s Town.

He quickly drew the attention of First Division Manchester City, who signed him in 1949. However he wasn’t welcomed, as 20,000 protested his signing and the club were bombarded with letters of complaint. But Trautmann’s couragous, gritty performances won fans over.

His performance in the 1956 FA Cup Final epitomised Trautmann’s attributes as a keeper. A string of impressive saves from the FWA player of the year helped City to a 3-1 lead when, in the 75th minute, Trautmann collided with an opposition striker and was knocked unconscious. Unbeknownst to him, Bert had broken his neck, but with no substitutions allowed he played on, making more crucial saves as City won 3-1. The same crowd that had once cried “Nazi” serenaded the cup final hero with a chorus of “for he’s a jolly good fellow”.

Trautmann wasn’t only a great goalkeeper, “world class” according to Lev Yashin, but also paved the way for German sportspeople from Boris Becker to Jurgen Klinsmann to be taken to the nation’s hearts. For this, he’s rightly considered a footballing great.

Petr Cech- Dominic Lee

Petr Cech is undoubtedly one of the most iconic Goalkeepers of all time, having done incredible work over his career.

Cech is arguably the best keeper of the Premier League era- which has featured names such as Peter Schmeichel and Edwin Van Der Sar- winning 13 major trophies at Chelsea and one FA Cup at Arsenal. While many wouldn’t call Cech the best of his generation, there have been few keepers as pivotal to his team’s success as Cech was at Chelsea. This is most clearly shown in the 2011 Champions League Final, in which he made a pivotal penalty save against Arjen Robben in injury time and then saved 2 penalties in injury time- with his tip onto the post from Bastian Schweinsteiger setting up Didier Drogba’s winner.

Cech famously put his body on the line consistently for Chelsea, famously resulting in a horrific head injury which many claim set his career back. However, Cech’s greatest achievements came after his injury and those who claim he was never the same aren’t taking into account his importance in Chelsea’s success. Cech’s reflexes were perhaps his greatest advantage, allowing for spectacular shot stopping which made him excellent at close range saves.

Though his career at Arsenal has been far less impressive, only lifting one major honour for the Gunners, Cech is an incredibly well respected player amongst his peers. If Gianluigi Buffon believes him to be the best of his generation, then he is undoubtedly one of football’s most iconic keepers.

Gianluigi Buffon- Adam Williams

In 2016, When Gianluigi Buffon broke the Serie A record for the longest time without conceding a goal, he penned a wistful love letter to the net he defends:

"I was 12 when I turned my back on you, denying my past to guarantee you a safe future. I went with my heart. I went with my instinct. But the day I stopped looking you in the face is also the day that I started to love you, to protect you, to be your first and last line of defence"

I wonder how many other footballers could get away with such gushing poetry…

Although he plays the game with his hands, Gigi is the quintessential Italian footballer: the physical embodiment of reliability and composure, but also of passion and eccentricity. He remains the only goalkeeper to break the world transfer record after his move from Parma to Juve for €52 million in 2001 - an astronomical figure for a goalkeeper, even today. 11 Serie A and 4 Coppa Italia titles later, it's fair to say it was a bargain.

The highlight of Buffon’s career came on the international stage as his Italy side triumphed at the 2006 World Cup – Gigi conceding only through an own-goal and a penalty. One of the enduring images of that tournament is Gianluigi between the sticks, resplendent in gold, sporting his Alice band and trademark short-sleeves.

His heroic performances earned him runner-up in that year’s Ballon D’or, second only to Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro. Like Cannavaro, Buffon is surely one of the finest players never to have won the Champions League.

After 17 seasons with the Bianconeri, the 41-year-old Tuscan has moved to Paris in search of European glory. PSG are far from the most universally liked team but there are few who would begrudge Buffon were he to lift the elusive trophy with them after 20 years at the absolute pinnacle of world football.


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