The World Cup often focuses on the outfield players – more specifically, the ones who get goals and create chances that become the most dazzling plays of the tournament. However, you can’t win football’s most coveted trophy without a solid man between the sticks, and in this list, we’ll be counting down the top 10 goalkeepers in the history of the world’s biggest footballing showcase.
Not all of these keepers have actually won the Jules Rimet trophy, but their inclusion on this list is based on their overall play over the course of their country’s World Cup campaign, and many of them have taken their nations to a stage in the tournament that was once improbable.
However, this list leaves off certain goalkeepers who had earned reputations with their clubs – eg. Peter Schmeichel and David Seaman – but whose play at the World Cup did not bring their countries to new heights. Therefore, we’ll be focusing on those who have garnered a solid reputation both on a domestic and international level.
Some of these keepers, such as Iker Casillas and Gianluigi Buffon, are still active in football today and are expected to be the man their countries rely upon as their first-choice keeper in Brazil this summer. Others are good enough to have had awards named after them: for a time, the Golden Glove Award at the World Cup was named after Soviet goalkeeping legend Lev Yashin before being renamed.
Either way, these goalkeepers have sealed their name into World Cup legend, and there will be several younger but also talented goalkeepers – Manuel Neuer of Germany particularly comes to mind here – hoping to do the same this summer when Brazil finally hosts the finals. But before we look ahead to June 12th, let’s look back on the 10 greatest shot-stoppers the World Cup has ever seen.
10 Oliver Kahn, Germany
The goalkeeper known as Der Titan never got to lift the trophy, but his performances at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan were nothing short of exceptional. Having been in the squad for the finals in 1994 and 1998, Kahn finally got his opportunity for the German national team in 2002, where he defied low expectations for the national team prior to the tournament and conceded only three goals druring Germany’s journey to the final. He was also named to the squad in 2006, but only played in the third-place match against Portugal after being second choice behind Jens Lehmann.
9 Rinat Dasayev, Soviet Union
Playing in three consecutive World Cups is an accomplishment only a handful of goalkeepers can lay claim to, but being the first-choice keeper for your country and arguably one of the best goalkeepers of the decade you played in is even harder to attain. For Rinat Dasayev, that’s exactly what happened: although he never did lift the World Cup trophy, he was the Soviet Union’s main man in goal, being team captain during the 1990 finals in Italy. The goalkeeper known as “The Iron Curtain” would only take the Soviets to the second round despite solid performances in the early stages of competition. More recently, Dasayev was part of Russia’s successful campaign to host the World Cup in 2018.
8 Gordon Banks, England
Arguably the greatest English-bred keeper in history, Gordon Banks’ biggest international accomplishment came in the World Cup his country hosted and won in 1966. Named the second best goalkeeper of the century by the IFFHS, Banks was best known in England for his days at Leicester City and Stoke City outside of his national team heroics, and helped lead England to their first and only Jules Rimet trophy. Banks would go to the 1970 World Cup in Mexico as well, but would not play in the quarterfinals as England lost to West Germany – the same team they beat in the final four years earlier.
7 Gilmar, Brazil
Though he may be best known by some as “Pelé’s goalkeeper”, Gilmar (born Gylmar dos Santos Neves) was an important ingredient of Brazil’s World Cup-winning teams both in 1958 and 1962, and owned the bragging rights of being the only goalkeeper to have won the trophy in two straight tournaments as the first-choice man between the sticks. Best known in his club footballing days for playing for both Corinthians and Santos, Gilmar played for the national team at the World Cups from 1958 to 1966, getting seven clean sheets to his name in the process. He retired in 1969.
6 Gianluigi Buffon, Italy
Likely to give his final World Cup hurrah for Italy this summer in Brazil, Gianluigi Buffon’s reputation as one of the greatest keepers of all time has already been sealed. Already one of the greatest in the world through his club exploits at Juventus, Gigi made World Cup history for only allowing two goals – one own goal and one penalty from Zinedine Zidane – and racking up five clean sheets on the way to helping Italy win their fourth World Cup trophy, making them the second most successful nation in the history of the finals behind Brazil. Whether or not Buffon can help the Azzurri tie Brazil’s record on their soil remains to be seen.
5 Fabien Barthez, France
Although it looks on the surface like Fabien Barthez’s record at the World Cup is a little bit mixed if only because of France’s disastrous, goal-less campaign at the 2002 finals, his number of clean sheets amassed in the finals (10) is a record only tied with former England keeper Peter Shilton. Barthez only allowed two goals in the 1998 finals as France won their first World Cup on home soil, paving the way for him to be named the tournament’s best goalkeeper. In 2006, Barthez and France made it all the way to the final until losing on penalties to Italy.
4 Sepp Maier, West Germany
Known for his fast reflexes, Sepp Maier played as the first-choice goalkeeper for West Germany all the way to third place in 1970, four years before winning it all in 1974 on home soil. Playing on a West German team boasting greats like Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller and Berti Vogts, Maier’s performance at the finals that year saw him allow only four goals and culminate in a 2-1 victory over a Dutch team featuring Johan Neeskens and Johan Cruyff. He would play in one more World Cup for Die Mannschaft in 1978, but Maier wouldn’t be able to lead West Germany past the second round of the tournament.
3 Lev Yashin, Soviet Union
To have the reputation as being arguably the greatest goalkeeper in footballing history despite never lifting the game’s most coveted trophy – and have the award for the best goalkeeper in the tournament named after you for a little while – is no mean feat, but that’s precisely how things went down for Lev Yashin. Although he dabbled in being a hockey goaltender in his earlier years at his club Dynamo Moscow, his footballing exploits speak for themselves: he was named the best goalkeeper of the 20th century by the IFFHS, he was the only goalkeeper to ever be named the European Footballer of the Year in 1963, and was the goalkeeper named to the FIFA Dream Team of all of the World Cups up to 2002.
2 Iker Casillas, Spain
Forget about his lack of playing time at Real Madrid this season, Iker Casillas will still be the man Spain relies on to help keep their trophy winning streak alive, following two straight European Championships and one World Cup trophy in South Africa in 2010. San Iker first got World Cup experience by replacing Santiago Cañizares through injury as Spain’s first choice keeper in 2002, and starting again in 2006. In 2010, Casillas garnered five clean sheets by conceding only twice in the whole tournament on his way to both the Golden Glove Award and the Jules Rimet trophy. With 153 caps to his name, Casillas will be looking to further cement his place as one of the best goalkeepers of all time.
1 Dino Zoff, Italy
Although he played internationally from the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s, Italian goalkeeper Dino Zoff still owns the record for the longest time without conceding a goal in international play (1,142 minutes), and his record in goal for the Azzurri during his playing career is dazzling. Outside of winning six Scudetti with Juventus in club football, Zoff went to four World Cups with Italy, winning it all in 1982 as team captain – at the age of 40. He racked up five clean sheets in his history at the World Cup, and went into coaching after retirement, eventually managing the Italian national team for a time between 1998 and 2000.