Sunday July 6 2014

Advent of sweeper-keepers has the short ones revelling

By Robert Madoi

When one talks about a goalkeeper, the viewfinder always seems to register a picture of someone towering enough to make themselves big between the posts.

It may not be engraved in stone, but ‘short’ goalkeepers are often but not considered surplus to requirements. Why then have they thrived at Brazil 2014?

Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas doesn’t for instance meet that age-old stereotype of a goalkeeper that many have come to embrace. The Costa Rican stands at just six feet. The gold standard is height, and lots of it (preferably 6 ft 5 in and above).

Stalwarts like Edwin van der Sar (6 ft 6 in) and Petr Cech (6 ft 5 in) have always used their lanky frames to devastating effect, repelling everything imaginable - including the kitchen sink - thrown at them. These towering spider men are of course still pretty much in vogue.

Thibaut Courtois, standing at six feet and six inches, has been impregnable in goal for Belgium. He has, nevertheless, been a sideshow to much shorter goaltenders like Navas, Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama (5 ft 11 in), Chilean skipper and new Barcelona signing Claudio Bravo (6 ft 1 in), French skipper Hugo Lloris (6 ft 2 in) and Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa (6 ft 1 in). The shot-stopping abilities of all these ‘short’ keepers have not been in doubt at Brazil 2014.

Navas put on a goalkeeping masterclass in the round of 16 match against the Greeks that few of us will be in a hurry to forget. He superbly spread his body to thwart the Greek attackers, who were so keen on taking advantage of the one-man advantage they had. Enyeama’s heart-stopping saves off efforts by Paul Pogba and Karim Benzema in Nigeria’s 2-0 loss to France also linger on in the memory.

Counter productive
Evidently, ‘short’ keepers have pulled all the stops to put paid that tendency to pigeonhole them as counterproductive.
‘Short’ keepers now act like a Trojan horse of sorts. Their ability to sweep has also not been lost on many. Playing high lines is pretty much the norm in world football nowadays.

This has effectively seen goalkeepers act as sweepers. The ‘short’ breed has proven to be more adept at being comfortable with the ball at their feet than their towering cousins.

A case in point is France’s Lloris whose sweeping abilities have endeared him to many. Lloris has been widely described as the ultimate ‘playing goalkeeper’. Distributions from goalkeepers are increasingly having a telling role on the beautiful game.

This has made ‘playing’ goalkeepers the antithesis of a liability. Most of the sweeper-keepers, or ‘false 5’ as they are outlandishly branded, are, well, short -- Germany’s Manuel Neuer (6 ft 4 in) and the excellent American stopper Tim Howard (6 ft 3 in) being exceptions.

There are of course many lessons for Uganda to pick from this growing trend. ‘Short’ goaltenders have time and again been ostracised here in Uganda.

In the mid 1990s, Livingstone Kyobe was dropped for Abu Kigenyi ahead of an away Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Algeria.
Kyobe was deemed a tad too short. He would, the then Cranes back-room staff remarkably added, invite Algerians to have a pop at goal.
Kigenyi’s big frame would inspire a semblance of fear.

Recently, Benjamin Ochan - whose shot-stopping and sweeping skills are second to none here in Uganda - has been inviting frowns of disapproval owing to his height.
The strong performances of Navas and Co. should trigger a sea change.

Why raw deal offered to boxing boggles the mind

The Commonwealth Games returns to Scotland this month some 44 years after swaying the flame up in its picturesque capital of Edinburgh.

Your columnist is a big fan of this amazing city that sprouted around an 11th-century castle built by Malcolm III on a rocky ridge. The delightful views of Edinburgh’s undulating backdrop and the colonial cottages that dot its landscape (as indeed does the whole of its architecture) make calling it beautiful selling it short.

When the Commonwealth Games were held in Edinburgh back in 1970, Uganda’s entourage also seemed to warm up to the Scottish capital. Seven medals were hauled! As always, Ugandan boxers turned out to be terrifyingly beautiful beasts in the ring, winning a dizzying five medals. Mohammed Muruli, James Odwori and Benson Masanda led the way with gold. There were silver medals for Leo Rwabogo and Deo Musoke. The 400 metres hurdler William Koskei (silver) and fellow track athlete Judith Ayaa (bronze) won the other medals.

This year’s Commonwealth Games will not quite take place in Edinburgh. Glasgow, another sublime Scottish city, will have its moment in the sun. That the pull of a romantic history in the ring hasn’t compelled the powers that be to embellish the sweet science in the run-up the Games is quite counterproductive but not surprising.

Conventional wisdom suggests that boxing hold a powerful draw here in Uganda. The statistics certainly point to that. There is an undisputed comparative advantage when boxing is juxtaposed with other sporting disciplines.

Yet, alas, it has continued to get quite a raw deal!
There was a frisson of excitement when warring parties in Ugandan boxing’s administrative ranks buried the hatchet. A busy build-up programme that culminated in the National Boxing Open was put together. Ten boxers were set to be cherry-picked to hoist Uganda’s flag in Glasgow.

Given boxing’s illustrious past that has yielded - note this - nine Commonwealth Games gold medals, one would expect government to expedite plans to have as many boxers in Glasgow. It hasn’t.

The original tally - 10 - that Uganda Boxing Federation was hoping to work with has been halved. To worsen matters, these Glasgow-bound boxers have been forced to live off a shoe-string budget. It wasn’t until they pulled out the begging bowl that a shame-faced Sports Minister, Charles Bakkabulindi, decreed that the gates of Lugogo Hostel be opened.

Even with such an underwhelming buildup, don’t be surprised if boxing turns out to be Uganda’s safest bet for medals in Glasgow (especially with Stephen Kiprotich opting to skip the Games).

Ugandan boxers can still produce a visceral shiver of fear despite being forced to live off fumes. They could just as well float like butterflies and sting like bees in Glasgow.