On August 21, 2020, Sevilla etched their names into European club history once again. The Europa League veterans came into the final as the competition’s most decorated club, and they concluded the match by adding a sixth to their record tally.
Inter Milan, once a proud treble-winning club, could not keep up with the competition’s veterans. Though the first half was exciting with a lot of back-and-forth scoring — Inter scored first in the 5th minute, Sevilla responded in the 12th, Sevilla took the lead in the 33rd but Inter tied it in the 36th — Sevilla proved their mettle in the second half. An own goal by Romelu Lukaku in the 74th minute sealed the match and the title for Sevilla.
The loss stung Inter, but it probably didn’t hurt anyone more than it hurt Samir Handanović. The Inter goalkeeper had come the closest he had ever come to winning a major trophy. In all of his playing days, Handanović had failed to taste the glory of a championship, and with the loss to Sevilla, his streak extended to 17 trophyless years.
It’s uncommon for a goalkeeper of Handanović’s quality to go a full career without winning a major trophy. Most top goalkeepers win something along the way, even if that something is as minor as a second division title. Few goalkeepers have ever been so unlucky to hit the highest of highs on an individual level but fail to see it translate into silverware success.
But, they are out there. Below are just some of those goalkeepers who had excellent careers from an individual standpoint but had nothing to show for it in their trophy cabinet.
Before we proceed, some clarification on what I mean by “major trophy”:
-I define major trophy as any competitive trophy won at a professional level. This includes now-defunct trophies such as the Full Members Cup (apologies to Nigel Martyn) and league titles from the second and third divisions. Not included are friendly or pre-season trophies such as the Joan Gamper Trophy or the Umbro Cup.
-I’m not counting individual accolades such as goalkeeper of the year or team of the season awards as major trophies. These honours prove a goalkeeper’s worth, but I’m looking specifically at team trophies.
We might as well start with the inspiration behind this piece.
Samir Handanović may be the most decorated trophyless goalkeeper in history. The Slovenian has accumulated a multitude of individual trophies across his 17-year career. He’s a three-time Slovenian Footballer of the Year, having won the accolade in 2009, 2011 and 2012. He’s also a three-time winner of the AIC Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year award — he first won the honour in 2011 and last won it in 2019, with a win in 2013 wedged in between. In all three years, Handanović was also included in the Serie A’s Team of the Year.
But despite being the Italian league’s most decorated foreign goalkeeper of the 2010s, Handanović is yet to find success in Italy. Though his five-season stint as Udinese’s starter between 2007 and 2012 can’t be downplayed — Handanović established himself as a top goalkeeper and Udinese achieved consecutive top 4 finishes in 2011 and 2012 — it didn’t result in any major silverware.
A 2012 move to Inter Milan — two years removed from a historic European treble — might’ve looked like the changing of tides, but Handanović was actually joining the club on the sunrise of what would be a disappointing era. Between the 2012-13 and 2018-19 seasons, Inter never finished higher than fourth and finished lower than sixth three times. In cup competitions, Inter only qualified to the Champions League group stage once, and they never made it further than the round of 16 in the Europa League.
This was not Handanović’s fault. The Slovenian played at a consistently high level, constantly earning praise for his agility and world-class ability. He earned a Serie A Team of the Season appearance in his first season with Inter — a season in which the club finished ninth — and equalled Júlio César’s record for most league clean sheets kept in a season with Inter (17) during the 2018-19 season.
And while trophies had escaped him previously, it seemed like that was about to change. The 2019-20 season was Inter’s finest in about a decade. Powered by the dynamic attacking duo of Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez, the Handanović-captained Nerazzurri terrorized the Serie A. They scored a goal in each of their first 14 league matches and lost just one of their first 23, winning 16 of them. Following a 4-2 win over local rivals AC Milan on February 9, Inter were sitting atop the Serie A
As that was going on, Inter was finding some success in Europe too. Although they faltered in the Champions League group stage, a third-placed finish saw them qualify to the Europa League’s round of 32. There, they went on a 5-0-0 (wins-draws-losses) run, beating the likes of Bayer Leverkusen in the quarter-final and Shakhtar Donetsk in the semi-final on their way to their first European final since 2010.
Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. Following their incredible 23-game run in the Serie A, Inter dropped points in seven of their final 15 games to move out of the top spot, settling on second. And in the Europa League, the Nerazzurri were no match for Sevilla FC — the competition’s most successful club — and dropped a 3-2 result. Handanović and Inter had come up short.
Handanović is the only active goalkeeper on this list, but for how long will that be the case? The Slovenian is 36 years old, and his current Inter contract expires in June 2021. And while he is expected to extend his deal an extra season, Inter have been rumoured to sign another, younger goalkeeper for some time, with Udinese’s Juan Musso being their most notable link.
Inter do seem to be returning to top form, so a trophy could be on the horizon for Handanović. But only time — which Handanović has a limited amount of — will tell.
Sticking in the 21st century, René Adler is another familiar goalkeeper who never won any silverware.
A product of VfB Leipzig and Bayer Leverkusen’s youth academies, Adler made his Bundesliga debut with the latter’s senior team in 2007. His debut was one he’ll likely never forget. Not only did he keep a clean sheet in a 1-0 win over Bundesliga leaders Schalke 04, but he also made 10 saves in the process. The inexperienced 22-year-old stifled Schalke’s offence and broke their 13-game unbeaten streak.
Adler would make 10 more Bundesliga appearances that season, earning praise for his excellent play between the sticks. His performances helped Leverkusen play spoiler that season — Adler and Die Werkself broke Stuttgart’s five-game unbeaten streak and Hamburger SV’s four-game winning streak.
If 2006-07 was just the appetizer, then the 2007-08 season was the main course. That season, Adler cemented himself as Leverkusen’s starting goalkeeper after Hans-Jörg Butt’s departure to Benfica. He made 44 appearances across all competitions, including 33 appearances in the Bundesliga, as Leverkusen finished with their lowest goals conceded league total in four years. Adler was a key part of Leverkusen’s European push, and his excellent play between the sticks saw him earn the season’s Best Bundesliga Goalkeeper award.
Over the next few seasons, Adler would make a strong push for a German national team spot. He made his international debut in 2008 and was part of the German team that finished runners-up at that year’s Euros. He was also given the team’s starting duties during 2010 World Cup qualification and was tipped to start for the country in the tournament.
Unfortunately, this was the start of Adler’s downfall. A serious rib injury prevented him from attending the 2010 World Cup. A year later, problems with his patella forced him to sit out almost the entirety of the 2011-12 season. By the time he returned in mid-March 2012, a young goalkeeper named Bernd Leno had taken his place.
From there, injuries kept up with the German. While his first season with Hamburger in 2012-13 looked promising, his second season was marred by an ankle injury and a near-relegation. These were followed by several hip and muscle-related injuries, which limited his playing time for both club and country.
Injuries hit Adler’s international career especially hit hard. He made zero appearances for Germany in 2011 and 2012, and while he saw minutes in two games in 2013, he was ultimately excluded from Germany’s World Cup-winning squad in 2014.
Adler joined Mainz 05 in July 2017 but only made 17 appearances for them across two seasons. Hamstring issues, abductor problems and the flu limited his minutes in the 2017-18 season, and severe cartilage damage kept him out for the entirety of the 2018-19 season.
That proved too much for Adler to handle. In May 2019, a 34-year-old Adler announced his retirement from professional football. He had made 328 professional appearances for club and country, but had won zero cups.
René Adler isn’t the only former Bundesliga goalkeeper to retire trophyless. In 1984, FC Kaiserslautern‘s Ronnie Hellström called it a career with no silverware to show for it.
Born in Malmö, Sweden, in 1949, Hellström was always destined to be a goalkeeper — his father, Rolf, was a goalkeeper himself. And although local club Malmö FF refused to sign him on the basis that he was “too small” — funnily enough, he would grow to be 6 feet 4 inches tall — he pushed on and eventually signed for Stockholm-based Hammarby IF’s youth team.
Hellström soon became the youth academy’s starting goalkeeper, and after four years in the minors, Hellström was called up to Hammarby’s senior team. He made his first team debut at the age of 17 in 1966 — the same year he made his international debut with Sweden — and never looked back. He’d eventually represent the club for eight seasons, making over 160 appearances and winning the 1971 edition of the Swedish Golden Ball. He was the first goalkeeper to be recognized as Sweden’s player of the year since Bengt Nyholm in 1961.
Though he was just a part-time footballer with Hammarby, Hellström made the switch to professional football when he signed with FC Kaiserslautern of the German Bundesliga in 1974. His signing came a few weeks after he had heroically backstopped Sweden to their best World Cup finish in 14 years. The 1974 World Cup took place in West Germany, so Kaiserslautern fans knew they were getting something special.
Hellström would go on to spend the final 10 years of his career representing the Reds. He built a respected reputation as a reflex specialist and incredible shot-stopper, and he helped the club finish in the Bundesliga’s top 8 seven times. This includes four top 4 finishes.
In 1978, Hellström won his second Swedish Golden Ball. In doing so, he became the first goalkeeper to win the accolade twice. Seven years later, Hellström called it a career at the age of 35.
History has been unkind to Hellström, for despite being one of the top goalkeepers of his era and one of the top goalkeepers of all time (according to some), Hellström is often overlooked in modern-day discussions surrounding great goalkeepers.
This is likely due to his lack of silverware. Despite a distinguished career that saw him represent Sweden in three consecutive World Cups and play in the Bundesliga for a decade, Hellström never won a single trophy. Hammarby were never trophy challengers, and while he did play in two DFB-Pokal finals with Kaiserslautern in 1976 and 1981, he failed to win either of them.
At the international level, the closest Hellström ever came to silverware was a second round appearance in the 1974 World Cup. Sweden never qualified for the Euros while he was active.
Hellström may be Sweden’s greatest goalkeeper ever, but he’s certainly not its most decorated.
To end things off, let’s look at a goalkeeper who represented one of England’s most successful clubs ever but still retired without a cup to his name.
Arthur Riley was born in modern-day South Africa in 1903. Not much is known about Riley’s childhood years, but it is known that he had taken up playing football at some point in his life. When he was just a kid, Riley joined local club Boksburg FC, also known as Transvaal.
It’s unclear how many years Riley spent with Boksburg, or whether the club was professional or just an amateur side. What we do know is that on October 1, 1925, Riley and Boksburg travelled to England and played an exhibition game against Liverpool FC. Liverpool had won the English First Division only two years ago, so they were expected to beat Riley’s South African outfit. But Boksburg and Riley shocked the English club by walking out 5-2 winners.
Boksburg’s performance was quite impressive, but it was Riley that caught the attention of Liverpool’s seniors. According to a line attributed to a Liverpool Echo correspondent, Riley was described as “a tall, keen fellow who has reach, anticipation and a safe pair of hands, is only twenty, but he looks more like thirty-five.” Riley, who was actually 21 years old at the time, was signed by the Reds for the 1925-26 season.
Riley made his Liverpool debut 11 games into the season, though it took a while before he saw extended action. Initially signed to back up the well-respected Elisha Scott, Riley made a handful of appearances in October 1927 before securing the starting position from Scott during the second half of the 1928-29 season. Scott would regain the spot between the 1931-32 and 1932-33 seasons, but Riley would win it back for good in February 1933.
Despite representing a four-time First Division champion, Riley never found success with the Reds. The 1930s were a shaky time for the club, and they even flirted with relegation here and there. In both 1936 and 1937, the Reds came dangerously close to returning to the Second Division for the first time since 1905. But thanks to the exceptional play of Riley, who saved Liverpool’s tushie on more than one occasion, Liverpool survived. And while other clubs enquired about Riley’s services, the South African remained loyal to Liverpool.
Unfortunately, the Reds never paid Riley back for his loyalty. Riley made 338 appearances as a Red, but the highest finish Liverpool achieved in his tenure was fifth in 1929.
In 1939, Riley made the final appearance of his career in a match against Manchester United. He was 35 years old at the time of his swansong. He retired as one of the club’s top goalkeepers from the first half of the 21st century, as well as one of its least decorated.
Can you think of any other trophyless goalkeepers? Let me know on Twitter by tagging @BlameTheKeeper.