Great goalkeepers aren’t often the most popular figures in French football.
Take Fabien Barthez. Despite being the record-holder for all-time World Cup clean sheets (10, with Peter Shilton), French World Cup appearances (17), and fewest World Cup goals conceded as a championship-winning goalkeeper (2 in 1998, with 2006 Gianluigi Buffon and 2010 Iker Casillas), Barthez is often most remembered for his disastrous spell at Manchester United. A key part of France’s defensive efforts, you say? No, he was just the bald head Laurent Blanc kissed for good luck in ’98.
Another example is Hugo Lloris. He’s the most capped goalkeeper in French national team history, but the 32-year-old has been treated as a passenger of France’s 2018 World Cup triumph. While everyone talks about the impact of Kylian Mbappé and Paul Pogba, Lloris’ countless saves against Uruguay and Belgium have been swept under the rug. No, let’s focus instead on his failed dribble against Mario Mandžukić in the final; an error that ultimately cost France nothing.
Individual acclaim for a goalkeeper is rare, but it’s even rarer in France.
Why is that?
Is it down to the stars that adorn French football history? It’s unlikely for any national team goalkeeper to overtake Raymond Kopa, Michel Platini, or Zinedine Zidane.
Is it down to the national team’s insistence on playing technically sound football? If a French goalkeeper isn’t confident playing a ball-handling style, they’ll likely be put at a disadvantage.
Is it down to a lack of a national goalkeeping icon? France doesn’t have a number one to worship like Spain’s Iker Casillas, Italy’s Dino Zoff and Gianluigi Buffon, or Russia’s Lev Yashin. Maybe that has discouraged them from glorifying their goalkeepers?
Whatever it is, the reception is no different for Sarah Bouhaddi.
To say that the 32-year-old has her fair share of critics would be an understatement. Bouhaddi is no stranger to fan censure. In lighter terms, she’s been described as the “most fun women’s national team goalkeeper” to watch. In blunter terms, her doubters have suggested that she’s, at best, “high school junior varsity quality”. Even praises of Bouhaddi tend to be followed by a comment of how likely she is to err.
For fans of Olympique Lyon and France’s national women’s team, that makes her a love-hate figure to follow. When she’s off her game, she’ll cost her team goals, points, and maybe even a shot at a championship.
When she’s on her game, though?
Simply put, she’s the queen of French goalkeeping.
Few starting goalkeepers in women’s football are more accomplished than Sarah Bouhaddi. She started off small, backstopping France to a UEFA Women’s Under-19 Championship gold as a 17-year-old in 2003 and silver in 2005. Not surprisingly, she was praised as one of the top goalkeeper prospects in women’s football shortly after.
Bouhaddi has since accomplished bigger and greater things. In 2010—not long after she joined Olympique Lyon from FCF Juvisy (now known as Paris FC)—she started in her first Champions League final. Lyon lost to Turbine Potsdam on penalties, but Bouhaddi had a chance at redemption in 2011. She came out on top this time, with Lyon trumping Turbine Potsdam by a score of 2-0.
That triumph was Bouhaddi’s first of six Champions League titles; a joint-record for a single player. She was also part of Lyon’s wins in 2012, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019. No club (let alone player) has won more Champions Leagues than the French goalkeeper, and she’s played significant roles in all six of Lyon’s continental crowns.
Bouhaddi has been noted to be a clutch player, and the 32-year-old’s success has translated into individual silverware too. She was named to the Guardian’s top 100 female footballers list of 2018, coming in as the third best goalkeeper behind Germany’s Almuth Schult and Chile’s Christiane Endler. Furthermore, she’s been voted by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics as the best women’s goalkeeper for three years running between 2016 and 2018; an example of her consistent excellence and dominance. With her sixth Champions League title in the bag, don’t be surprised if she extends that streak to four years.
In that case, why is Bouhaddi criticized so often? Most of the criticism she receives has to do with her style of play. Bouhaddi is a prototype of what the modern goalkeeper should be; a dynamic shot-stopper who enjoys playing the ball with her feet. In this regard, Bouhaddi will often move into positions within her box to receive passes from pressured teammates, and it’s not uncommon to see her drop the ball from a catch so that she can play a ground pass or take an extra touch.
Bouhaddi can be described as a proactive goalkeeper. She’s much more active in her box than the average women’s goalkeeper, and she’ll read plays in a way where she can react to danger before danger takes shape. This means she’s usually situated somewhere along the edge of her six-yard box, ready to charge at approaching attackers or sweep oncoming crosses.
There are a lot of risks with playing this style, though. Playing as a sweeper ‘keeper—while giving the goalkeeper a greater chance of breaking up a play—puts the goalkeeper in a situation where they’re more likely to mess-up. It’s easy for a passive goalkeeper to escape criticism when they play a shy, stay-at-home style, because it keeps them away from the increased risk of erring. But when a goalkeeper rushes off of their line to intercept a pass, or attempts to cut an attacker off by playing off of their line, the goalkeeper is opening themselves up to more highlight-worthy errors and thus more criticism.
In Bouhaddi’s case, because she’s so adamant on being a ball-playing, sweeper ‘keeper, she’s more likely to commit high-profile errors than the average women’s goalkeeper. As a result, she’s more likely to be criticized for making a mistake, even if it doesn’t result in a goal.
The criticism Bouhaddi faces isn’t that far off from that which fellow French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris deals with. Like Bouhaddi, Lloris favours himself as a sweeper ‘keeper and he doesn’t shy away from playing the ball with his feet. Unfortunately, this style has resulted in a number of well-documented errors, such as against Croatia and Barcelona.
But even with his errors, Lloris serves as an important piece in Tottenham and France’s set-ups. For Tottenham, because Mauricio Pochettino loves to have his Spurs play with a high defensive line, Lloris’ sweeper ‘keeping serves as a fail-safe to protect against long balls that catch the Tottenham backline off guard. As for France, it’s his comfort on the ball which allows the team to express their true technical quality. He links up with the other 10 players not just as a goalkeeper, but as an 11th outfielder. That’s why, despite his errors, Lloris has always had the backing of national team manager Didier Deschamps.
Similarily, Bouhaddi’s style of play—while putting her more at risk of the highlight-worthy gaff—is essential to the success of Olympique Lyon and France’s national women’s team. It’s what allows them to play their style to its fullest potential. I mean, it’s tough to argue against that when her trophy cabinet includes six UEFA Women’s Champions League titles; all of which she was the starter in.
Next month, Bouhaddi will be hoping to emulate Lloris in one more regard; the Women’s World Cup. It’s a competition France have never medalled in (their best showing was a fourth place finish in 2011), but there’s hope that will change this summer. Bouhaddi’s Olympique Lyon—champions of the last four Women’s Champions Leagues—boast other core French NWT players, including Wendie Renard, Amandine Henry, and Eugénie Le Sommer. The 2019 Women’s World Cup is also being hosted in France, so the atmosphere will be considerably bleu, blanc et rouge. Add in the euphoria of the men’s team winning the 2018 World Cup and the possibility of French football completing a World Cup double—something no country has ever managed—and the odds lean in France’s favour.
If France do win the Women’s World Cup, don’t expect Bouhaddi to be treated any differently. Like those before her, the accomplishments of her teammates—their goals, assists, and tackles—will be highlighted, praised, and likely revered for generations to come. Her saves will be forgotten, her performances will be erased, and if she’s lucky, her errors will be spotlighted.
But just like those before her, there’ll be a special throne awaiting her presence, a special crown awaiting her attendance, and another trophy with her name engraved into its history.