Back in 2002, Oliver Kahn was credited with dragging a limited Germany side all the way to the FIFA World Cup final, becoming the first goalkeeper to win the Golden Ball as the tournament's best player.
'The Titan' could not prevent a Ronaldo-powered Brazil prevailing in that 2002 final in Yokohama, but having assumed a similarly talismanic role, Manuel Neuer may yet do what his FC Bayern München predecessor could not in tonight's semi-final – only Germany's second finals meeting with Brazil.
A fundamentally different kind of goalkeeper to Kahn, Neuer took centre stage in the round of 16 meeting with Algeria. With Joachim Löw's team playing a high line and the African side dropping deep and aiming to hit high balls forward to their speedy attackers, Neuer was forced to hurtle out of his box as a sweeper-keeper. Tellingly, he had 59 touches of the ball – 19 outside his area. Only four Algerian players saw more of the ball than the 28-year-old, who ran 3km further than his opposite number.
"Manu simply is the best keeper in the world," said defender Jérôme Boateng after the game, with Kahn – now a television pundit – agreeing: "Everyone knows he can play the ball, but the crucial thing is that he is there in the important moments to save his team."
That was true of Kahn, yet Neuer's function is considerably more free-ranging than his predecessor's. Comfortable with the ball at his feet, his mission is to launch attacks – for example, his assist for Miroslav Klose in the 2010 World Cup round of 16 match against England – as well as to man the defences, with his brilliance in one-on-one situations, standing tall long after most of his contemporaries have committed themselves, a key attribute.
If some have mistaken his supreme confidence for arrogance, Neuer is merely doing what comes naturally. Showered with praise after the Algeria victory, Neuer looked mystified. "It was exactly the way I play for Bayern, so it was nothing new to me," he said.
Fundamentally, Neuer likes being at the heart of the action – something obvious even in his earliest days at FC Schalke 04. At 21, he put in a memorable performance in a 2007/08 UEFA Champions League round of 16 decider at FC Porto, steering a side who were being comprehensively outplayed to a penalty shoot-out success with string of outrageous saves. In a derby against Borussia Dortmund, he showed similar energy, racing 30m off his line to to block a shot with his chest before chasing back to catch the ball after the rebound was lobbed goal-wards by a Dortmund player.
"Germany is goalkeeper's country; here, the keeper is always holy," wrote Süddeutsche Zeitung, summing up the nation's fondness for safe pairs of hands. "At the same time, Neuer is still something of a rascal; it seems like he is in the schoolyard when he grins after letting a throw slip."
In Brazil, such blips have been rare. After he shot out his right hand to stop a Karim Benzema effort against France on Friday, fans photoshopped Neuer's face onto a picture of the Statue of Liberty, its pose oddly mimicking his save. Should he follow Kahn in leading his team to another World Cup final, he could find a real statue erected in his honour when he comes home.
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