The long shadow of Zamora
© AFP

Controversial and acrobatic in equal measure, the chain-smoking, brandy-loving Ricardo Zamora made the position of goalkeeper something of a glamour role in the early quarter of the 20th century. Since then Spain has gone on to produce a long string of highly effective No1s.

A quick glance at the top sides in La Liga and even the English Premier League attests to an unprecedented glut of outstanding Spanish keepers that have become the envy of Europe.

Through the glory days of Zamora - for whom the best goalkeeper award in the top flight is named - Spain has produced a steady line of talented keepers. From Luis Arconada in the 70s and 80s and then on to Basque legend and all-time national team record appearant Andoni Zubizarreta in the 80s and 90s, a new generation has given way to an almost impossible number of potential starters for Spain.

Unlike some other big leagues in Europe, the vast majority of Spanish top-flight teams are backstopped by native Spaniards. Chief among them would, of course, be Iker Casillas of league leaders Real Madrid. Still only 26 years old, Iker's odd name is on top of every pundit's list of the world's top keepers including a recent FIFA.com poll.

Famously stepping into the Real Madrid first team in 1999 (while still a teenager and taking public transport to the Bernabeu), Casillas has become a huge idol at a club known for producing goal-scoring stars rather than shot-stopping ones. Many say that, in a team known for conceding goals, Casillas' reflexes and leadership (he is vice captain) have saved Los Merengues' bacon on more than a few occasions.

Though he has had one or two famous howlers, 25-year-old Victor Valdes of Barcelona has covered himself in glory over the last three seasons. Powerful and agile, the Catalan-born man has become a hero of the Camp Nou. Helping the club to their first league title in six years in 2005, he picked up the Zamora trophy before performing a decisive function in his team's UEFA Champions League-winning campaign the next year. Valdes then went on to break a long-standing club record held by Zubizarreta by starting in 38 rounds of La Liga and going 466 consecutive minutes without conceding a goal in Europe.

The 'big two' get most of the accalim, but Spain's 'lesser' clubs boast some magnificent talent between the posts as well. Valencia's Santiago Canizares, although ageing and embroiled in a duel for a starting berth with Timo Hildebrand, has been one of the country's top keepers since 1998.

It was then that he went to Valencia to replace the retiring Zubizarreta, and he is still beloved, even at 37, by the Mestalla faithfhul. The national team's perennial number-two behind Zubi and then Casillas, Canizares has put in blinding perfromances at moments in his career and will be remembered accordingly.

Similarly, UEFA Cup champions twice running, Sevilla have a large debt to pay to their wonderful goalie Andres Palop, once an understudy to Canizares at Valencia. Aside from being a brilliant shot-stopper and penalty-saving specialist, Palop even knows a thing or two about scoring, making headlines by grabbing a crucial goal against Shakhtar Donetsk in last year's UEFA Cup run.

The foreign brigade
The ability of Spain's goalkeepers has not gone unnoticed overseas either. Two of England's biggest clubs are currently balanced on the shoulders of Spaniards in the form of Jose Manuel 'Pepe' Reina at Liverpool and Arsenal's Manuel Almunia, who recently unseated long-time Gunners starter Jens Lehmann.

Reina was Spain's third-choice keeper at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ (behind Cassillas and Canizares), but he is the head man in charge of the rearguard at Rafa Benitez's Reds. In addition to his reflexes and huge frame, Reina is also renowned for an uncanny ability to drive a low drop-kick out of his box and up to the forwards.

One of his booming outlet passes actually opened the door for a goal for his countrymen Fernando Torres at the weekend to seal a late win over Fulham in the league. "A modern goalkeeper needs to be able to read the game, and Pepe does this," Benitez said. "You can save 100 shots, but if you don't do something more you will not be a top class goalkeeper."

Almunia is currently holding a firm grip on the reins at Premier League forerunners Arsenal. Some are saying that his position may not be permanent at the Emirates, but Arsene Wenger and all the world's top managers can soothe themselves in the knowledge that a quick look at La Liga may well offer the answer to any goalkeeping questions.

Diego Lopez of Villarreal and Tomas Martinez of Racing Santander are looking like stars for the future, keeping the endless procession of Spanish keepers marching on.