Oliver Kahn left a polarizing impression on fans. Some loved watching strikers continually halted by the enraged German. Others point to Kahn’s sloppy play and needless aggression, and wonder if Kahn’s eccentricity was worth it.
The 2002 World Cup final, of all places, was not the time to give up a soft rebound to Brazil. “It was the one mistake I have made in our seven games here, and unfortunately for me it was brutally punished by Ronaldo,” says Kahn.
Whatever questions there were about Kahn’s play, he had conceded just one goal in the six games leading up to the final, including multiple clutch saves to snuff a stellar American performance in the quarterfinals and preserve a 1-0 win.
And so the losing goalkeeper of the 2002 World Cup final, whose error gifted Brazil the winning goal, won the 2002 Golden Ball for not just best goalkeeper, but best player in the tournament.
What was it that made Kahn so tough to beat? One cannot deny his mechanics and aggressiveness proved often to be a thorn in his side. He relied more on his forward play than he needed—it is a wonder that Kahn himself didn’t become a sweeper keeper— because he wanted to pressure the shooter and not give them the luxury of another millisecond to make a decision.
Kahn was more focused on getting his body to the ball than on playing percentages and holding shots or putting more responsibility on his defenders. And so If Kahn was ever off by the slightest, he would be exposed and beaten by elite teams—as he was by Brazil and Ronaldo.
For all his flaws, Kahn’s lateral dive is to be desired. Yes, every premier goalkeeper is a great shot stopper. It is an insult to label a goalkeeper as a good “shot stopper”. To do so, you are merely implying that he is not remarkable at anything and he only does the primary task of a goalkeeper decently enough. However, Kahn’s dive is better.
The video below is set to play at 4:44, with Kahn facing a David Beckham free kick. Watch Kahn’s back leg and see if you notice anything different.
Did you catch it? Watch how Kahn’s left thigh parallels the ground at one point. For lower saves, this is not a problem for goalkeepers. But as a goalkeeper ascends towards the crossbar, the thigh typically becomes more vertical. As for Kahn, he mimics the movement of an ollie on a skateboard. The power is transferred from one foot to the other, instead of the sole focus on one foot. Before Kahn leaves the ground, his trailing foot pushes off its toes so much so that his entire leg elevates. The thrust not only strengthens Kahn’s leading push-off, but the raised trailing leg actually pulls Kahn’s body up, giving him the illusion of hang time. This type of dive helps a goalkeeper raise higher while still reaching out, covering every part of the top half of the goal. Where most goalkeepers would have to get most of their body under the ball, Kahn is able to raise up next to the ball to make the save.
For all Kahn’s achievements—World Cup Golden Ball, eight Bundesliga titles, the 2001 Champions League winner—he’ll be remembered first and foremost for his ferocity. For that famously angry face. But for every time he kicked the goal post in rage, or bellowed a yell with a terrifying scowl, or whenever he smashed his head into the woodwork, there was a save of equal value. And that’s what makes him one of the best and most memorable goalkeepers of all time.