The Bayern keeper and the cardinal question: old new man or new old man?

At the moment when the past, present and possible future collide, Manuel Neuer sits in an armchair against a dark backdrop. He’s wearing a stylish black and white oversized top with black trousers and white shoes, and it’s a bit strange because everyone who follows football for a few days has seen a thousand Manuel Neuer interviews. Just not a current one. Which is because there hasn’t been one in forever.

And bang! Are we on topic?

In the Amazon Prime documentary “Generation Wembley,” which outlines FC Bayern’s path to the 2013 Champions League throne, Neuer is one of the protagonists who remembers what happened in interesting details. For example, the goalkeeper assures that he would have “certainly” prevented the equalizer in the legendary final between Bayern and Chelsea in 2012 if he had not been so busy in the previous 88 minutes.

2012. This is the part about the past. In the documentary, Thomas Müller asks: “Was there already WhatsApp?”

Manuel Neuer about to make a comeback after almost a year

Besides Müller, Neuer is the only one left who brings Munich’s past into the present: “Sure, I’m an oldie now. I look back and think that I was still on the pitch with players like Ivica Olic and Daniel van Buyten. But that’s the nice thing: there are always new players coming in, it’s always a new team, and I’m still here.”

Neuer doesn’t say that in the documentary, he said it in the “Süddeutsche Zeitung”. And not at the end of October, but at the beginning of February, as the first and only statement after he broke his right lower leg on a ski tour on December 9, 2022. Then Neuer’s public figure disappeared from the scene, apart from television panning shots that showed him as a spectator in the stadium stands. His last appearance was on December 1, 2022 at the World Cup; He was last active for FC Bayern on November 12, 2022.

Almost exactly a year ago.

And now, in Saturday’s Bundesliga game against Darmstadt, it should actually happen.

Did you think so?

Old new or new old

After 747 competitive games, including 488 for Bayern and 117 for Germany, we see the five-time world goalkeeper again in his natural habitat. “I quickly became confident that it would all work out again,” Neuer told “Süddeutsche” at a remarkable time, shortly after the fall on skis. He has a lot of experience with injuries “where I have been away for a long time”, including three metatarsal fractures (two on the left, one on the right), an acromioclavicular joint sprain, a meniscus operation, malfunctioning muscle fibers, the calf, the pelvis.

Essentially, the cardinal question boils down to who will return to the Bayern goal – the old new one or a new old one?

Thirty-seven-and-a-half-year-old, toughened, but battered by all the effort that comes with throwing yourself on hard surfaces and in constant confrontation with opposing strikers and your own defenders over three decades. A goal tour, just for those fleeting fractions of a second that turn people with gloves into mythical creatures – by holding a ball that, in sports reporter’s jargon, is reverently an “unstoppable”. Oliver Kahn belonged to the species at the turn of the millennium. Neuer has been part of it since he made his debut for Schalke in 2006.

On YouTube, the goalkeeper saint Neuer brings together a number of epoch-making best-of videos, accompanied by heroic music, he raises his paws up like an action figure to parry shots that were sure to go in. Neuer flies and fists and celebrates, and sometimes he straddles the halfway line. Maybe it wasn’t Manuel Neuer at all, but most of the time it was. A sporting institution.

Neuer’s aura of invincibility crumbled in 2022

In “Bild” the 1974 world champion Sepp Maier said before Neuer’s comeback: “All the discussions about him will fall silent and no one will notice that he was missing for ten months and is 37 years young.”

However, you definitely noticed it a bit when he was 36 years old and without a broken lower leg, in the half-series before the World Cup. Neuer only made an obvious mistake in Frankfurt, where he conceded an (insignificant) goal after losing the ball. Nevertheless, the curse of the brilliant deed was fully applied: the saint suddenly played earthly, and it was noticeable.

Neuer made some great saves in 2022, of course, but he rarely saved one of the mystical unstoppables and sometimes not the balls that maybe, possibly and under certain circumstances were not unstoppable. Goals conceded in Dortmund and Berlin, for example. The halo of invincibility crumbled. In addition, his otherwise clinically precise foot play seemed irritatingly erratic – always based on the standards of his own history.

The “kicker” data confirms this: In the 2013/14 season, at Neuer’s absolute peak, he saved 81 percent of the shots on goal in the Bundesliga and completed 69 percent of his long passes. In 2022/23, until the end, the success rates were only 63 percent (shots on goal) and 58 percent (long passes).

“Then I will vacate the post,” said Neuer

At the World Cup in Qatar, Neuer was responsible for at least one of the five German goals conceded, the 2-1 loss against Japan. In the 4-2 win over Costa Rica, he was extremely unhappy and generally lacked the incomparable action figure charisma of his yore. Strictly speaking, this already applied to the 2021 and 2018 tournaments, so that in Qatar, amidst all the debates about human rights, captain’s armbands and national coaches, there were occasional whispers: Man, would the new guy have held the ball earlier…?

Spoiler alert: These questions will resonate, now then.

Therefore a final reference to the interview at the beginning of the year. Less than two months after the skiing accident and around nine months before his comeback, Manuel Neuer presented himself clearly, reflected and self-confident. In the sense of: self-aware.

Looking at the national team, in which Marc-André ter Stegen became the undisputed number, and at FC Bayern, where Sven Ulreich was to represent him formidably, the man who changed the goalkeeping game said: “It doesn’t help me to lie to. When the time comes, I’ll look in the mirror and tell myself the truth. If I want to play, I have to be the best. If I don’t perform, I will leave the post. But don’t count on it!”

Jean Harris

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