On April 25, 2021, Between the Sticks celebrated its two-year anniversary. In honour of the milestone, goalkeeper journalist Mouhamad Rachini is ranking the 10 best goalkeepers of all time from each of the big five European leagues: the German Bundesliga, the Spanish Liga Santander, the French Ligue 1, the English Premier League, and the Italian Serie A.
Goalkeepers are ranked based on a number of different factors, including team honours, longevity, peak, and statistical success, but only in their SPECIFIC DOMESTIC LEAGUES and relevant domestic competitions.
Performances in continental competitions (like the UEFA Champions League) and international competitions (like the FIFA World Cup) WILL NOT be considered. On the other hand, domestic cup successes (such as the DFB-Pokal) will be considered, but only to a small extent. Non-competition-specific individual accolades, such as Ballon d’Or votes and IFFHS top goalkeeper awards, will also be taken into account.
Furthermore, I’m only considering goalkeepers who played following the official founding of each league. In the Bundesliga’s case, I’m only looking at performances post-August 1963, which is when the Bundesliga was formed. If a goalkeeper played in a German league championship prior to playing in the Bundesliga, only his performances in the Bundesliga will be considered for this list.
Finally, because I’m only considering the Bundesliga for this list, performances in the DDR-Oberliga (East Germany’s top football competition between 1948 and 1991) will not be considered.
If you’re looking for a ranking that considers everything a goalkeeper did in their career, check out my “Top 50 goalkeepers in football history” project from last year.
Eike Immel (Germany): One of the Bundesliga’s most experienced goalkeepers, Eike Immel split 534 top flight appearances between Borussia Dortmund and VfB Stuttgart. After joining the latter for two million Deutsche Mark in 1986 — a then-Bundesliga record for a goalkeeper — Immel helped Stuttgart win the league over Dortmund in 1992.
Frank Rost (Germany): Frank Rost was a well-respected member of several Bundesliga clubs, including Schalke 04. Unfortunately, despite some domestic cup success, his career was largely defined by runner-up finishes. As a starting goalkeeper, Rost lost two DFB-Pokal Finals and two DFB-Ligapokal Finals, and he finished runner-up in the 2005 Bundesliga title race.
Hans-Jörg Butt (Germany): Hans-Jörg Butt holds the Bundesliga record for most goals scored by a goalkeeper with 26 goals. But Butt was just as adept at stopping goals as he was at scoring them. The former Hamburger SV, Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich shot-stopper won the Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal double in 2010.
Jens Lehmann (Germany): Jens Lehmann is one of a few players to attain cult-hero status for both Schalke 04 and Borussia Dortmund. He scored a famous equalizer for the former in a 1997 Revierderby, and won the 2001-02 Bundesliga with the latter. Lehmann also suited up for VfB Stuttgart between 2008 and 2010.
Stefan Klos (Germany): In eight years with Borussia Dortmund between 1990 and 1998, Stefan Klos made 254 Bundesliga appearances and backstopped the club to back-to-back Bundesliga titles in 1995 and 1996. Those league championships were the club’s first in the Bundesliga era, and their first top league titles in more than 30 years.
10. Andreas Köpke (Germany; 1. FC Nürnberg & Eintracht Frankfurt)
Seeing Andreas Köpke’s name this low on my list might surprise a few readers. After all, he was one of Germany’s top goalkeepers of the 1990s, and he starred in Germany’s 1996 European Championship win.
But keep in mind that I’m only ranking goalkeepers based on their domestic performances in Germany’s top competitions. Given Köpke’s lack of silverware — the only trophy he won at the club level was the 2000-01 2. Bundesliga title — he had to have been docked some spots for it.
Nonetheless, Köpke was a nightmare for attackers during the limited seasons he spent in the Bundesliga. The former 1. FC Nürnberg and Eintracht Frankfurt man was included in kicker’s Bundesliga Team of the Season three times. This includes an appearance in the TOTS in 1988, the same year he backstopped Nürnberg to 5th in the Bundesliga. It was Nürnberg’s first top-five finish since they won the league in 1968.
Köpke also won Germany’s Footballer of the Year award in 1993. In doing so, he became just the fourth goalkeeper to win the accolade.
9. Roman Weidenfeller (Germany; 1. FC Kaiserslautern & Borussia Dortmund)
Borussia Dortmund has seen many top-class goalkeepers represent its brand, but the greatest of them all is Roman Weidenfeller. Of the 355 Bundesliga appearances Weidenfeller made in his career, 349 of them came in the bumblebee colours of Dortmund — a club record for a goalkeeper.
Weidenfeller was initially a back-up to Jens Lehmann, but he was promoted following Lehmann’s 2003 move to Arsenal. His first few seasons as Dortmund’s number one were riddled with injuries, but Dortmund kept faith in Weidenfeller — and their patience paid off in the early 2010s.
Between 2010 and 2013, Weidenfeller won four domestic trophies with Dortmund. These include back-to-back Bundesligas in 2011 and 2012, Dortmund’s first league titles since 2002.
Weidenfeller was a key member of both Bundesliga championships, often captaining his squad and pulling off incredible saves at significant moments. One example came during Matchday 29 of the 2011-12 season. With Bayern Munich just three points behind Dortmund and playing BVB away, the Bavarians were awarded a penalty late in the game. But Weidenfeller denied Arjen Robben from the spot, securing Dortmund’s victory and eventually the league title.
Not bad for a goalkeeper who joined Dortmund on a free transfer in 2002.
8. Bodo Illgner (Germany; 1. FC Köln)
Like Andreas Köpke, Bodo Illgner is often remembered for what he won outside of the Bundesliga. But although his 10-year stint with 1. FC Köln didn’t produce any championships, he was well-respected by his peers.
Illgner was a product of FC Köln’s youth academy, and he made his first-team debut as an 18-year-old in 1986. Illgner’s debut came away against the reigning champions Bayern Munich, which ended in a 3-1 loss. But despite losing the match, Illgner was praised for his composure and hailed as the club’s successor to the great Toni Schumacher.
Illgner was made the club’s undisputed starting goalkeeper following Schumacher’s departure in 1987. Illgner made at least 30 Bundesliga appearances over the next nine seasons since the promotion. He backstopped the club to three top-three table finishes in each of his first three seasons, including back-to-back 2nd place finishes in 1989 and 1990.
The lack of domestic success didn’t stop others from recognizing Illgner’s quality as one of Europe’s elite goalkeepers. Illgner won Germany’s Goalkeeper of the Year award four times in a row between 1989 and 1992, and he became the inaugural recipient of UEFA’s Best European Goalkeeper award in 1991.
7. Oliver Reck (Germany; Kickers Offenbach, Werder Bremen & Schalke 04)
Frankfurt-born Oliver Reck is the Bundesliga’s king of clean sheets. He kept 176 Bundesliga clean sheets across his 20-year professional career, which is a record for non-Bayern Munich goalkeepers and good for 3rd all-time. Reck has also kept a higher clean sheet percentage (37.4%) than league legends like Oliver Kahn (36.6%), Sepp Maier (29.0%) and Uli Stein (28.5%).
Reck made his Bundesliga debut with Kickers Offenbach in 1983, and he retired in 2003 as a member of Schalke 04. But Reck is best known for his 13-year tenure with Werder Bremen, who he represented from 1985 to 1998.
Reck was a key catalyst behind Werder’s domestic dominance in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 345 of his 471 Bundesliga appearances were made in Werder’s colours, and he was the club’s undisputed starter in 11 of his 13 seasons there.
As Werder’s number one goalkeeper, Reck won two Bundesliga titles, two DFB-Pokals, and three DFL-Supercups. He made 32 appearances in each of Werder’s Bundesliga-winning campaigns, and he started in every domestic final Werder played in.
Additionally, Reck won two DFB-Pokals with Schalke. He started in both finals.
6. Jean-Marie Pfaff (Belgium; Bayern Munich)
The only non-German on this list, Jean-Marie Pfaff had a shorter Bundesliga career than everyone else here — he made just 156 appearances in the league between 1982 and 1988. But despite his brief stay, Pfaff left his mark as one of the league’s top goalkeepers in the 1980s.
Pfaff joined Bayern Munich off the back of his performances in the 1980 European Championship and 1982 World Cup. But despite the excitement surrounding his arrival, his Bundesliga campaign couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start. In his league debut, Pfaff accidentally directed a Werder Bremen throw-in into his own goal. His mistake held as the game-winner.
Thankfully for Pfaff, it was the only blemish in what was an incredibly successful tenure. He won three straight Bundesligas between 1985 and 1987, two DFB-Pokals in 1984 and 1986, and two DFL-Supercups in 1983 and 1987.
Pfaff’s performances at the club level earned him plaudits as one of the world’s top goalkeepers. Pfaff won Ballon d’Or votes in 1983 (he finished a career-high sixth in voting), 1986 and 1987, and he was the inaugural winner of the IFFHS’s World’s Best Goalkeeper of the Year award in 1987.
5. Harald “Toni” Schumacher (Germany; Multiple bundesliga clubs)
Harald “Toni” Schumacher is one of Germany’s all-time greatest goalkeepers, both at the international level and the club level. A testament to his legend is the fact that he’s the only goalkeeper in Bundesliga history to have played for Schalke 04, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
Although he suited up for some of the biggest German clubs in football history, Schumacher’s mythical club status is not defined by those stints. Rather, his brightest days came as a member of 1. FC Köln. Of the 464 Bundesliga appearances Schumacher made between 1972 and 1996, 422 of them came in FC Köln colours.
Schumacher’s first FC Köln appearance was made as a 19-year-old in 1972, and in the following 15 years he spent with the Müngersdorfer Stadion-based club, Schumacher built a reputation for himself as one of Germany’s most consistent goalkeepers.
Schumacher made 213 consecutive Bundesliga appearances between 1977 and 1983. During that run, he backstopped the Billy Goats to their second ever Bundesliga title in 1978 and top-five finishes in 1980, 1982, and 1983
A two-time winner of the German Footballer of the Year award and three-time DFB-Pokal champion, Schumacher also holds the distinction of being the oldest player to win the Bundesliga. On the final matchday of the 1995-96 season, Schumacher, then just a goalkeeper coach, was subbed on for the champions-elect Dortmund in the 88th minute, giving him the record and his second Bundesliga title.
4. Ulrich “Uli” Stein (Germany; Arminia Bielefeld, Hamburger SV & Eintracht Frankfurt)
In a professional career that lasted more than two decades, Ulrich “Uli” Stein racked up 512 Bundesliga appearances, spread across tenures with Arminia Bielefeld, Hamburger SV and Eintracht Frankfurt.
Stein made his professional debut with Arminia in 1976. At the time, Arminia were recovering from a 1971 match-fixing scandal that had initially relegated them to the Regionalliga. With the young Stein in goal though, Arminia were promoted back to the Bundesliga in 1978, and though their stay only lasted a season, they had left their mark through a shock 4-0 away win over Bayern Munich.
Though Stein’s Bundesliga tenure with Arminia was short-lived, his hometown club Hamburg, who were then one of Germany’s top clubs, were impressed enough to sign the young goalkeeper in 1980.
In seven years with Hamburg, Stein backstopped the club to through its most successful period of all time. As the club’s undisputed starting goalkeeper, Stein won back-to-back Bundesliga titles in 1982 and 1983 — the first and only time Hamburg has achieved that feat. He was also a key member of the Hamburg squads that finished runner-up in the league in 1981, 1984 and 1987, and the one that won the DFB-Pokal in 1987.
Stein would eventually be kicked out of the club for punching Bayern’s Jürgen Wegmann, but he found a new home in Frankfurt with Eintracht. There, he made another 224 Bundesliga appearances, and backstopped the club to winning the 1988 DFB-Pokal and finishing in the Bundesliga’s top 5 in five straight seasons between 1990 and 1994.
One of the Bundesliga’s all-time leaders in clean sheets with 146, Stein would return to Hamburg for the 1994-96 season before retiring as a member of Arminia in 1997 — one year after setting the record for oldest goalkeeper to play in the Bundesliga.
3. Sepp Maier (Germany; Bayern Munich)
As this list has shown, the Bundesliga’s golden goalkeeping generation came in the 1980s and 1990s. But before Uli Stein and Toni Schumacher, before Oliver Reck and Oliver Kahn, before Bodo Illgner and Andreas Köpke, there was Josef Dieter “Sepp” Maier.
Maier is one of the most well-respected one-club men in German football history. The native of Metter spent his entire 18-year career with Bayern Munich, including 15 seasons in the Bundesliga.
The Bayern youth academy product was the first star goalkeeper the Bundesliga (which was founded in 1963) could build their brand around. He was agile, flexible, had quick reflexes, and could make the most difficult saves look routine, hence his nickname ‘the Cat from Anzing.’
At the time of the Bundesliga’s founding, Bayern were far from the world-beating, elite-level club they’re known as today. But that changed during Maier’s tenure. Between 1966 and 1974, Bayern and Maier won eight domestic trophies. These include four Bundesliga titles, three of which were won back-to-back-to-back in 1972, 1973 and 1974. The Bavarians were the first club to achieve such a feat in the Bundesliga era.
By the time Maier retired in 1980, he was considered an all-time German sporting legend. He was a three-time recipient of the German Footballer of the Year award, retired with the then-Bundesliga clean sheet record of 137, and his run of 442 consecutive Bundesliga appearances between 1966 and 1979 still stands as a German record today.
In 1999, the IFFHS recognized Maier as Germany’s top goalkeeper and the world’s fourth-best goalkeeper of the 20th century.
2. Oliver Kahn (Germany; Karlsruher SC & Bayern Munich)
“Impatient, disciplined, ambitious.” That’s how Bayern Munich’s website describes former goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, who suited up for the club between 1994 and 2008.
It’s a fitting description for a man who was nicknamed ‘the Titan’ and ‘Vol-Kahn-o’ during his career. But Kahn was far from just a temper tantrum with gloves on — he’s also one of the greatest goalkeepers to grace the game of football.
Contrary to what some might believe, Kahn isn’t a one-club man. In fact, Khan is a product of hometown club Karlsruher SC’s youth academy, which he joined when he was just 6 years old. Kahn rose up through the ranks of the academy, and he eventually made his professional debut — and his Bundesliga debut — with Karlsruher’s first team in 1987.
Though Kahn was just a young adult during his Karlsruher tenure, he was seen as the club’s leader and motivator. His vocal passion inspired his teammates in both league play and in continental competitions, and the club never finished lower than 8th in the Bundesliga with Kahn as their undisputed starting goalkeeper (30+ appearances).
But it’s with Bayern, who he joined in 1994, that Kahn cemented his place as a goalkeeping legend. Kahn made 429 Bundesliga appearances for the Bavarians across 14 seasons, and he backstopped Bayern to eight Bundesliga titles. This run includes seven Bundesliga championships between 1999 and 2008.
Six of the club’s record 20 DFB-Pokals were also won with Kahn in goal, and Kahn conceded just four goals combined in those finals.
A seven-time winner of the Best Bundesliga Goalkeeper award and three-time winner of the IFFHS World’s Best Goalkeeper award, Kahn is the only goalkeeper ever to finish in the Ballon d’Or’s top three multiple times — he was third in 2001 and 2002.
1. Manuel Neuer (Germany; Schalke 04 & Bayern Munich)
Manuel Neuer’s place in sporting history is already guaranteed. The 35-year-old has won everything there is to win at every level, and his perfection of the sweeper-keeper position is a significant reason why ball-playing goalkeepers and sweeper keepers are such a hot commodity these days.
After rising through Schalke 04’s youth ranks, Neuer was handed his Bundesliga debut on Matchday 2 of the 2006-07 season via a substitution for the injured Frank Rost. Though initially a backup, the 20-year-old would swipe starting duties away from Rost later that season, due in large part to a strong performance in a 2-2 draw against the defending champions Bayern Munich.
Neuer would eventually depart Schalke for Bayern in 2011, but not before making 156 Bundesliga appearances in Schalke colours and captaining the club to the 2011 DFB-Pokal championship, their first since 2002.
Though Neuer was already one of Germany’s top goalkeepers at the time of his Bayern move, his play reached new heights following his transfer. In 10 seasons with the Bavarians, Neuer made 280 Bundesliga appearances and has overseen the club’s most successful domestic tenure. With Neuer as their starting goalkeeper (25+ games), Bayern have won seven Bundesliga titles — with an eighth title likely coming soon — five DFB-Pokals, and four DFL-Supercups.
But Neuer will not only be remembered as a highly successful goalkeeper; he’ll also be remembered as a key architect behind the popularization of the sweeper keeper and ball-playing goalkeeper roles. His speed off of his line, comfort under pressure and consistent successful sweeps are significant reasons behind Bayern’s domestic dominance, and it’s his intelligent play that other teams and goalkeepers have tried to replicate in recent years.
Neuer was the world’s rarely-disputed top goalkeeper at his peak, and it’s hard to argue against him being the best Bundesliga goalkeeper of all time.
Do you agree with my list? Are there other Bundesliga goalkeepers who you think should’ve made the cut? Let me know in the comments below or through Twitter via @BlameTheKeeper.