Friedel: Doing His Bit For Yankee Relations

Like the Dutchman who can't control & the Italian with rubbish hair, Brad Friedel has helped us in merry England come to terms with the notion of the American footballer...

Last Updated: 09/11/12 at 14:19 Post Comment

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Cast your mind back to the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup. The USA had beaten Mexico 2-0, and Gary Lineker (or, more accurately, somebody whose job it was to prepare Gary Lineker's autocue) had hit gold; some hilarious commentary from a high-profile American website on the second goal. "Two soccer points to no score!" he chortled. "Eddie Lewis makes a cross-pitch play from the left zone, finding Landon Donovan alone in the danger area. He top-bodies the sphere into the score bag, and Mexico have a double-negative stat!"

All very amusing. Except it wasn't from an American website. It was, in fact, some light-hearted Yanqui-teasing from the minute-by-minute coverage of an obscure English newspaper website by the name of the Guardian, who had yet to begin their awkward transformation into an Atlantic-straddling digital-first organ. The Beeb, none the wiser, repeated it again later that evening, and no apology to the American people has been forthcoming. (That game, incidentally, is also notable for the inexplicable vendetta pursued by the Mexicans against the USA's Cobi Jones, which ended with Rafael Marquez being sent off for simultaneously headbutting the dreadlocked substitute, and kicking him up the arse.)

As well as being funny in its own right, Lineker helpfully if unwittingly provided a rather neat example of the hilarity that used to surround the very idea of Americans playing football. On the surface, both the Guardian's affectionate parody and Lineker's smirking mockery is a simple jibe: those Americans talk all funny-like. But the essence of the joke is that the linguistic buffonery shows, deep down, that the good people of the US of A don't understand; that they think that football - or soccer, as the tea-wasting barbarians insist on calling it - is just another sport like those strange ones with gloves and armour that they seem to enjoy so much and talk about so incomprehensibly. That they just don't get it.

With one allowed exception: goalkeepers. Not even the most freedom-hating flag-burning gun-controlling terror-apologising pinko hippy commie liberal vegetarian could do anything but salute the modern lineage. Decent goaltender after competent netminder after able gloveman, all the way back to Sylvester Stallone Tony Meola. Why this has been a position of consistent American excellence is a complicated question that's not for this column - perhaps those Other Sports that dominate American childhood are useful for developing hand-eye coordination - but it's fairly clear why it's penetrated into the collective British consciousness. One, it's the only position that allows the wearing of a baseball cap. Two, they had the courtesy to wear their baseball caps over here.

(As a random aside, I briefly went to school with a lad from Texas called TJ, who always ended up in goal because he was American and that's where Americans went. He then proceeded to leap about and whoop like a mad thing, high-fiving everything that moved; a kind of brand ambassador for the stereotypical Loud American. Wore a cap, too. But he stopped more than he let in.)

The best-named American goalkeeper was Shep Messing, who has nothing much to do with anything but should be mentioned wherever possible. The first to play in the Premier League was one Juergen Sommer - remember him? - who was relegated in 1996 with Queen's Park Rangers. The first really notable keeper, and perhaps the original safe pair of Yankee hands, was Kasey Keller, League Cup winner with Leicester City back when Emile Heskey wasn't beating Alessandro del Piero. But the archetype is Brad Friedel, who might have played in every Premier League season had work permit issues not snarled a move to Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest.

As we saw before the international break ruined everything, Friedel has been dropped/rotated onto the bench at Spurs, having kept one of the world's best waiting for a debut and the tabloids spinning for a story. While that ridiculous run of unbroken games - 310, from 14 August 2004 to 7 October 2012 - is over, and his career maybe not too far from the end, Friedel achieved the holy grail of goalkeeping: he reached a point of such consistency that everybody just took him for granted. This is unusual in a footballer of any position, but for a goalkeeper, where every mistake is magnified by the near certainty of punishment, it's generally reserved for the very, very good. And that's precisely what he's been, for a very, very, very long time.

There are basically three types of keeper: short and sproingy; long and lanky; massive and terrifying. Friedel, bald and hulking, fits neatly into the third, yet always has a curiously genial air about him. In a position that generally breeds shouty lunacy, he seems a gentle giant, like an old soldier at the beginning of a fantasy novel who comes back from a continent-spanning war called The Great Sundering (or whatever), settles down with his young family on a small farm, and tries to live a normal life of turnips and chickens. The only difference is that, as far as we know, no evil ninja (or whatever) sent by a vengeful Lord of Chaos (or whatever) has turned up and ruined this idyll. No, wait, perhaps the evil ninja (or whatever) represents a shot on goal. That means the save is him grabbing the sword from the chest by his bed and defending his children. Does that work? Not sure. This analogy's sort of run away with itself a bit, hasn't it? Yes, it has. Maybe abandon it now? Okay.

One of the few genuine positives of the Premier League has been the exposure of many of British football's lazy stereotypes as being, well, just that. Decades of careful myth-making blown apart by one unseemly scrabble for cash. Argentineans who don't foul, Netherlanders who can't control the ball to save their life, Italians with bad hair ... it's been an education.

The Premier League that Friedel leaves will be an open-minded place, more at ease with the idea that the Land of the Free isn't just the home of the saves. While his career path probably means he'll be overlooked in the 'Greatest Keepers of the Sky Era' conversations, he certainly passes the ultimate test of any footballer's worth; the reaction of opposing fans on seeing their name on the teamsheet. There can't be a Premier League fan in the land who hasn't preceded Friedel's name with an expletive, then followed it with "he always has a blinder against us".

Andi Thomas

Andi also writes for SB Nation and The Score, and is on Twitter. He also contributed to the Surreal Football Magazine #1, which is out now, and available here.

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