In praise of Sarah Bouhaddi, Lyon’s penalty-scoring goalkeeper

The treble winner is not here to make you feel at ease

Lyon (Maya Mans/Twitter)

Sarah Bouhaddi is good at soccer. That is not something you’d normally have to say about a player who just scored the decisive penalty to win the Champions League. Nor is it something you’d say about a World Cup veteran. It is definitely not the kind of thing that normally has to be said about a player who has completed consecutive trebles for one of the world’s best teams. More than a decade into her career, however, such basic declarations still need to be made about Bouhaddi.

Some of this is a function of goalkeeping’s inherent unfairness. All but the most convincing of keepers will be remembered for their occasional missteps as opposed to their routine saves. That does not fully explain the Bouhaddi experience. She is capable of a remarkable gaffe, but only the mean-spirited would describe her as an average player bringing up the back of all-star teams in the mode of Cote d’Ivoire’s Boubacar Barry. Goalkeepers may be the most visible culprits when a team underwhelms, but France’s failures on the international stage have been significant and generational.

Lyon won all but one of its 22 games in France’s first tier this year, conceding just six goals along the way. Bouhaddi started 17 of those matches. A goalkeeper will never be the emblematic figure of a team with a +97 goal difference, but the extent of Lyon’s dominance suggests that she is doing more than hang on for dear life. In fact, Sarah Bouhaddi is an integral part of Lyon’s greatness.

She doesn’t behave like it, mind you. Watching Sarah Bouhaddi can be a profoundly unsettling experience. She doesn’t yell or impose her will in keeping with one’s mental image of an elite goalkeeper. That is not an obvious problem; the imperious Wendie Renard, who plays in front of her for club and country, can organize a backline all on her own. (Heck, Renard can be a backline on her own.) Viewers, however, seem to expect that Bouhaddi’s work should be more visible during matches. This is a largely actuarial conception of soccer, wherein more positive contributions can outweigh the periodic drop or gaffe on some imaginary ledger. That the sport doesn’t really work this way — gaffes have the same impact no matter how nonchalant Bouhaddi is the rest of the time—is immaterial. In this sense, a keeper’s unofficial job is to stabilize viewers as much as her defenders.

I kept thinking about this auxiliary function of the goalkeeper during Thursday’s Champions League final. It was the kind of game that soccer fans describe as tight, technical affairs and neutrals to deride as two hours in which very little happens. Both of those interpretations can be simultaneously true. It is, on the one hand, fair to say that neither Lyon nor PSG could really string together passes—especially in the attacking third. At the same time, one could reasonably argue that this was a function of the sort of risk aversion that renders all finals tedious, defensive affairs. The combination of these factors served as an ever-present reminder that the game —and Lyon’s second treble in a row— could come down to a momentary lapse from Bouhaddi. There was no reason to believe that a gaffe was now more likely, but one has time to worry about such things during a match that long ago devolved into midfield pinball. One more tentative PSG shot from distance—by Cristiane, say—and, well…that’s your game. Bouhaddi was giving her team everything it needed, but what if that wasn’t enough?

Bouhaddi’s nonchalance reached new heights in the penalty shootout. When she has guessed the wrong direction for a penalty, she doesn’t even bother to dive. This, as with most of her game, does her team no disservice. The lack of performative heroics, however, is particularly glaring when all eyes are on the keeper. It was all the more glaring because Bouhaddi’s counterpart, Katarzyna Kiedrzynek, took the maximalist approach to defending penalties. She stalled and jumped around and dove towards the corner even when going the wrong way. It was a heroic performance that, going into the eighth round of penalties, had netted the exact same outcome as Bouhaddi’s mellower goalkeeping.

It is fitting, then, that Bouhaddi didn’t actually save the decisive penalty. Kiedrzynek made poor contact with her shot and it went wide. Still, it was an opportunity for Lyon to seal the title. The scoreline mattered and the question of whether Bouhaddi had stretched for the ball did not. She stepped up, scored, and did a striker’s knee-slide in celebration before being mobbed by teammates. As ever, Sarah Bouhaddi was the decisive player in the most unusual of ways.

I watched the shootout while filling out HR forms for a new job. If you’ve quit smoking, one form said, that changing risk factor can affect your benefits. As a France and Lyon fan, I was briefly compelled to disclose that I will likely die younger and of a weakened heart because of Sarah Bouhaddi. Adjust my health plan accordingly. That says more about me than her, mind you. It’s just another way of disclosing my various anxieties. For more than a decade, Bouhaddi has been an elite performer on some of soccer’s best teams. My unease—or that of fellow fans whenever Bouhaddi plays—is a function of our neediness. There is not much more that we could ask of her, but when has that ever stopped a fan?