What goalkeeping feels like

All in a game's work.

When people find out I play as a goalkeeper at the second highest level of amateur club football in Sydney’s Northern Suburbs, they usually ask me “How did you get this number?” and to please never call again.

On the few occasions that the topic has been met with even feigned interest, the consensus is that standing around waiting for something to happen for 90 minutes on a Saturday must be rather boring. I suspect they would judge my weekend decisions even more ill-advised if they knew my team fines players who go out on a Friday night before a game.

There have been a few matches where I wished I could duck off to the toilets at halftime and never return, but those make up a slim minority of my Saturdays. Most of what I do is yell at the other players about where they need to be­—unlike the other players, goalkeepers can see the whole pitch, so this is probably the most important part of the job—but once or twice a game, an opposition player will do something that triggers a procession of physiological responses within me that are difficult to describe.

It’s 0-0 in the 37th minute of a preseason friendly, and the momentum has undeniably swung in favour of the bad guys. Their collection of middle-aged, Upper North Shore-based Englishmen have begun to dominate our collection of middle-aged, Lower North Shore-based Englishmen. The game is technically a friendly, but if you are within a 2km radius of Cammeray Oval and capable of deciphering a thick Brummie accent, you might beg forgiveness from a higher power for merely overhearing the irredeemable obscenities flooding from the mouth of our right-back Nate. He is 37 years old, married, and runs a reasonably successful plumbing business.

In the midst of his apoplexy, Nate is too busy composing a particularly distasteful character assessment of our 19-year-old referee’s mother to notice the opposition winger dissect our defence with a darting run. I try to warn Nate, but it seems his brain cells are already in overdrive conjuring up synonyms for intercourse.

The pass played to the winger is perfectly weighted, and I know that our ageing defence will not catch him. As this realisation sets in, so too does the beginnings of that physiological response I mentioned earlier. At this point, it is a slight buzzing sensation in my extremities, not unlike when you have a shower at someone else’s house, and—being unfamiliar with the temperature settings of their taps—you have to put your hand under the stream first. You know the feeling when it is just a little bit too hot but it took a few seconds to realise and now your fingers are tingling? That’s how this feels.

Since the winger will undoubtedly be having a shot at the goal, let’s have a look at the latest contestant on Goal or No Goal?. Before I became a veteran of the Northern Suburbs Football Association Men’s All-Age Division 2 circuit, I would have scoffed at this man’s inclusion on their team. We are hardly the English Premier League, but the standard is still high enough to humiliate former schoolboy stars who neglected their fitness after the HSC.

Bearing down upon my goal is a man our opposition calls ‘Chaos’. I hope it is his legal name, because I prefer not to think about the unspeakable depravity one must indulge in to garner such a title amongst this set of peers. Chaos is the posterboy of physical mediocrity with a particularly unforgiving form of male-pattern baldness – it looks like his follicles were sprinkled across his scalp by an absent-minded barista. Coupled with a heavyset frame that wouldn’t stand taller than 5’9 in heels, this is a man who would look more at home selling used cars than bearing down on a goal. Imagine Leonardo da Vinci had been snatched at birth and raised in seclusion by insurance salesmen. If, under those constraints, he had been asked to draw the Vitruvian Man, that is what Chaos looks like.

Given his unassuming appearance, I am terrified. We’re playing at a reasonably competitive standard, and for Chaos to be selected whilst apparently devoid of any athletic ability, he must be technically gifted and tactically aware. Indeed, he has just capitalised on Nate’s unaddressed aggression, and has also been hitting 40-metre passes for the past half-hour and is yet to make a mistake. When I see a man with a passing resemblance to a Federal MP playing at this level, I panic.

Growing up on the Lower North Shore, I have lived a relatively sheltered life, and as such my only knowledge of the fight-or-flight response comes from PSYC1001 and movies. Still, I wonder if maybe the streaks of electricity shooting from my hands to my shoulders are the result of a fear response.

With each step Chaos takes towards me, I can feel my capillaries expanding, my muscles coiling, ready to fire the instant that ball leaves his foot. The full body ASMR response that set in seconds ago when he split through our defence has now neared its apex. I am only tangentially aware of the crescendo on the field, made up of optimism and despair in equal measures. Shouts are the currency of football’s key moments, and while it is a sport sometimes derided for dull draws and time-consuming histrionics, few sporting moments can generate fervour quite like a goal-scoring chance.

Chaos is now ten metres away and has begun winding up to shoot. I am utterly fixated on two things: his posture and the ball. My heartbeat is no longer metronomic, and perhaps no longer healthy, as adrenaline and anticipation have forced my BPM to levels usually reserved for a law firm’s Christmas party. I know he can kick the ball hard, and I know that I don’t have much time to react. I can only hope that the stimulants my body just concocted can propel my hands in the direction of the ball.

His standing leg has planted, and his striking foot is swinging towards the ball. The ten metres has dwindled to about five. Chaos looks at me quickly, presumably to assess which side of me to place his shot. His right foot is his dominant foot, so chances are he will be shooting with that one. Based on his open stance, I think he will place it to my lower left, because you look like a real idiot if you kick it over the goal.

He shoots. The buzz within my body is at its climax, an intoxicating blend of chemical uptakes and engaged nerve endings. My weight shifts and my hands move before my eyes have registered where the ball is. When saving a one-on-one, I often feel as though some evolutionary predisposition enables me to move preternaturally. Football is the only avenue for me to flex the instincts that have enabled humans to compete with beasts for thousands of years. The evolutionary path of my ancestors has given me this chance to ruin Chaos’ afternoon with a single unthinking movement made in an instant, and I can suddenly feel the collision of inflated plastic and synthetic glove. There is no greater feeling than this.

Except I didn’t get enough on it, and the ball rolls unceremoniously across the goal line behind me, before carrying on through a hole in the patchy net that I helped attach to the posts ten minutes before kickoff. 1-0. Chaos celebrates like a twat, and Nate gets sent off for reciting the referee’s actual current home address, which is objectively the scariest thing I have ever heard another person say.

Oh well, it doesn’t matter, it’s just a stupid sport and it’s a pre-season friendly anyway.