Franco an example of how cruel goalie's job can be
BERLIN - Leonardo Franco walked slowly off the field, his head bowed, oblivious to the jubilant German players rushing past him.
In the best of circumstances, being a goalkeeper can be the loneliest job in the world. For Franco, the pressure was 100 times greater. A reserve who rarely sees playing time, he was given Argentina's World Cup fate and asked to guard it tightly. In a penalty shootout, no less.
But he couldn't deliver. Argentina is on its way home and, fairly or not, Friday's heartbreaking loss to Germany is on Franco's hands.
"You cannot say this penalty shootout is wrong because the goalkeeper doesn't have sufficient experience," Argentina coach Jose Pekerman said. "You cannot simply crucify anybody or the goalkeeper for not having stopped the penalty."
At 29, Franco is hardly a rookie. He's been playing professionally for more than a decade, and he was on the Argentine team that won the world youth title in 1997. He starts at Atletico Madrid, one of the most renowned teams in Spain.
When it comes to Argentina's national team, though, Franco is a distant backup to Roberto Abbondanzieri. He'd made only two appearances before Friday, none at the World Cup.
But in the 64th minute, with Argentina nursing a 1-0 lead, Abbondanzieri leaped to grab a ball and was kneed in the ribs by Miroslav Klose. The goalie lay writhing on the ground for several minutes, clutching at his left side, before getting up.
Grimacing in pain, he tried to stay on the field. Five minutes later, though, he fell to the ground again.
Team officials later said Abbondanzieri had felt a shock in his legs and then lost feeling, leaving Pekerman little choice but to call on Franco. The coach sent Franco onto the field in the 71st minute with an encouraging pat, and Franco looked confident as he pounded first one fist into a palm and then the other.
"You just have to be ready when they call your name," Franco said. "I was relaxed. I gave my everything."
Nine minutes in, he got his first real test — and failed it.
Michael Ballack crossed a ball into the box in front of the goal, and Tim Borowski nudged it forward with his head. With a diving header, Klose drove the ball past Franco and into the net to tie the game 1-1.
After 120 minutes, that's still where the score stood. The game was going to penalties, and it was clear who had the advantage. Germany would have veteran Jens Lehmann trying to turn back the Argentineans, a situation he's faced many times before.
"We have a strong belief in Jens Lehmann," Germany coach Juergen Klinsmann said. "As a former striker, I don't want to face him, and he proved that."
Argentina would have Franco.
"Abbondanzieri," Pekerman said, "was our ace of spades."
Germany's Oliver Neuville struck first. Franco dived, but the ball sailed just beyond his fingertips.
Argentina matched it, with Julio Cruz lifting a spectacular shot over Lehmann and into the upper left corner of the net.
Then it was Ballack's turn. Germany's captain had spent much of the final minutes of the game on the sidelines, getting treatment for cramps. But as Ballack approached the ball, Franco moved to his left — only to see Ballack drive the ball into the right corner.
Lehmann showed why experience matters on the next shot. Anticipating Roberto Ayala's shot perfectly, the savvy goalkeeper timed his leap to catch the ball effortlessly.
The pressure on Franco, already crushing, became even greater. Again he faltered. He moved left, and Lukas Podolski put the ball in the opposite corner for another score.
Maxi Rodriguez got Argentina within 3-2, but Franco had no more margin for error. As Tim Borowski's foot struck the ball, Franco leaped to his right and watched as the ball curved the other way.
Lehmann then finished Franco and the Argentineans off, stretching out to deflect Esteban Cambiasso's shot.
"He played long enough in the game to feel totally involved in the game," Klinsmann said when asked if Franco's inexperience played a role. "We believe in our penalty takers, no matter who was in goal on the Argentine side."
As the Germans celebrated, Franco trudged off the field, his eyes fixed on the ground. He didn't even look up when a team official reached out to give some encouragement. As he neared the tunnel, he almost walked into a group of ball kids.
"Very bad. Very sad. Very devastated," he said. "I think we deserved something better out of those 120 minutes."
But that is the life of a goalkeeper. For all the talk about goals not scored or defensive breakdowns, it is the goalkeeper who determines whether the ball stays in or out of the net.
And who wins and who goes home.