The Best FIFA Football Awards
15 Dec 2020
- FIFA giving Goalkeeper of the Year award for fourth time
- Slovenian Jan Oblak one of the nominees for 2020
- “I’m a keeper because I copied my father as a kid.”
In any discussion about the world’s best goalkeepers, the name Jan Oblak invariably comes up. The Slovenian, now in his seventh season at Atletico Madrid, where he is captain and one of the pillars of Diego Simeone’s side, has been nominated for The Best FIFA Men’s Best Goalkeeper for 2020.
Oblak always cuts a restrained and composed figure between the sticks, even in the most difficult moments, perhaps most memorably his performance at Anfield in the last edition of the UEFA Champions League.
FIFA.com chatted with the 27-year-old who shared with us his childhood dreams, the key to those ‘miracle’ saves, and his desire to win titles with the Los Rojiblancos.
FIFA.com: Despite a population of just over two million, Slovenia has produced many elite athletes, including NBA stars, cyclists like Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic, and you… What’s the secret?
Jan Oblak: It’s true that we have some very good athletes in both individual and team sports. We’ve always had great basketball players, as well as footballers who’ve excelled… I think it’s down to our real love of sport and our mentality. We don’t lose our heads easily, which is a very good asset in sport.
When did you start playing football?
As a child I practiced many different sports, but football was always my priority. My father played, though not as a pro, and he too was a goalkeeper. So, I imitated him because I wanted to be like him. That’s why I wanted to be a keeper from a young age. Initially, I played up front for a few games, but I always wanted to be in goal.
I still love other sports like basketball, tennis… I practice them and enjoy watching them too, and before I turned professional, I also skied a lot.
Did you grow up admiring any particular keeper or outfield player?
When I watched games involving Europe’s top teams, I always studied the goalkeepers. And since a player’s form can vary from season to season, one year I might like Buffon and the next year Casillas, or Schmeichel or Dida when at AC Milan… They were all keepers I admired, but my first idol was my father.
Was being the best goalkeeper in the world a childhood dream?
When I was little there wasn’t that much international football on TV, so my first dream was to play for the club where I was training. Then you progress and begin fulfilling dreams, as new ones take shape. When I realised I could become a professional and play at a high level, I started dreaming about being the best and winning as many titles as possible. That’s what you train for every day.
How do you feel now that there’s a dedicated category recognising the work of goalkeepers at The Best Awards?
People usually focus on who is scoring the goals and not on who is stopping them. There are great goalkeepers who’ve never been recognised as the best. And in the end, on the field of play, we’re all the same: some players have to score goals and some have to stop them, so it’s good to have a goalkeeping award. That way, some keepers can be recognised not only with plaudits like ‘you’re performing well’, but with the chance to pick up prizes when awards are given out. It’s good for football, for us and for the fans.
This year you’ve been nominated for The Best alongside Alisson, Courtois, Navas, Neuer and Ter Stegen. What would it mean to you to win this trophy?
It would be very nice. Being nominated already shows you’re on the right track. Yes, they’re individual awards, but they go hand in hand with collective achievements. In the end, the goalkeepers and players who have the best chance of winning The Best are those who’ve won the Champions League, their national league, etc. Winning team titles is what gives you the best chance of picking up these individual awards.
We didn’t manage to do that last season, but I’m still happy to be nominated. Winning would be a spectacular thing both for me and Atleti, because the goalkeeper doesn’t play alone. In order to be nominated and have a chance of winning, you need the help of your team.
Some of your stops in recent years could be called ‘miraculous’, as they prevented certain goals, such as your triple save against Bayer Leverkusen. Do you have any favourites?
For sure that triple save is the one most-mentioned when my name comes up, and it’ll probably continue to appear on tv or the Internet for many years. However, I’m not someone who fixates on a specific save. Each one is important because you prevent a goal (laughs).
Also, frequently you have saves that might appear easy but, as the goalkeeper, you know that they were harder than one perhaps at full stretch that looks very nice in a photo. It has to do with positioning.
Speaking of positioning, what would you say is your most significant goalkeeping skill?
Placement is one of the most important. If you’re always in the right place, or at least try to be, then your job is easier, and you have less work to do. Every team plays a different way, so each coach will task his goalkeeper with something specific, and in the end you do what the coach asks of you. If he asks you to play with your feet, then you play with your feet; if he asks you to send the ball a long way up-field, then you do that too… But of my particular qualities, I’m sure one of my best attributes is my positioning.
Being in goal you have a unique perspective of the action taking place on the pitch. Given that, are you the kind of keeper who communicates a lot with team-mates or only on certain occasions?
I’m fairly good at anticipating, so I talk a lot during games. It’s not that I’m the ‘clever one’ at the back who sees things better than anyone else (laughs), but I try to help my team-mates, especially the centre- and wing-backs, and defensive midfielders. Sometimes I see gaps that they don’t realise they’ve left, or others behind them that they can’t see. The more you talk and communicate on the field, the easier it is for everyone. We all help each other in that way.
You’ve won the Zamora Trophy four times for conceding the fewest goals in La Liga and this season have conceded only four goals in 11 matches. Is picking up that prize again among your goals?
I don’t focus on specific stats, because things can change very quickly and suddenly you’ve let in multiple goals in consecutive games. Rather than focusing on that prize, I try to concede as few goals as possible, because it gives you a better chance of winning.
Atleti have started well in the league and currently sit second, three points clear of Real Madrid and nine ahead of Barcelona. There’s also the Champions League, which you came so close to winning in 2016. If you had to choose one title for this season, which would it be?
I can’t pick one, because I’d like to win them all. It’s very complicated, because we play in a league where there are top teams, and the same goes for the Champions League… We’ve been close to the Champions League without actually winning it, but I have faith we can realise our dream of claiming it. So no, I don’t have a preferred title. As long as I’m at Atleti, I’m going to try to win everything I contest, and hopefully this year we can win something. In the league we’re on the right track, but there’s a long way to go. We’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing.
Fans usually idolise attacking players, but the Atleti supporters adore you and have dedicated songs to you. Do you feel like you’ve found your place there?
When I first arrived, there were some tough months, but when I began starting games, I always felt the public’s affection. I miss not having them in the stadium these days. I know I’m appreciated by the people here, and my job here is to help the club. A player never knows how long he’s going to be at a club, but I’ve been here seven years and, so far, everything’s gone well. Everything is easier when the fans like you, because it gives you confidence and helps you be the best you can.
We started by talking about your country’s amazing ability to produce top athletes, but obviously it’s more difficult to qualify with Slovenia for a major national-team tournament. What would it mean to reach a FIFA World Cup or EURO?
When I was a boy, I saw Slovenia qualify for EURO 2000 and then the 2002 World Cup. We later reached the 2010 edition too. Having seen how happy people were, I’d love to bring that joy back to the country – and not just for them. For me, playing at a World Cup or EURO would be the fulfilment of a childhood dream, so I’m going to do everything I can to achieve it.
All winners, including those of the FIFA Fan Award and the FIFA Fair Play Award, will be crowned on 17 December 2020 in a TV show broadcast live, starting at 19:00 CET.
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