In a world of physics engines and VR, where football is played by mind-bending players doing the physically improbable, Marc Andre ter Stegen is keeping it simple.
Technology, Bending Physics, and The Simple Things
2018 – it is possible to buy underwear that, when connected to a mobile device, can be used to stimulate your partner from across the globe. Technology has sure come a long way from being able to provide simple entertainment to being able to arouse us.
Let’s think about that for just a second. In the 90s, an 8-bit game was the norm. Today, we wear a pair of spectacles that truly immerses us into the experience of a battlefield. 30 years ago, simplicity and elegance in design were appreciated and today, we appreciate flash and awe just as much.
In the game we love so much, too, the beautiful is lauded and adored the world over. The admiration of the obvious fantasy leads us to throw plaudits like ‘world’s greatest’ and ‘GOAT’ at the feet of footballers more often than Mario jumps onto a turtle’s back and shoots it into the dark abyss. Whether the diminutive genius of Leo Messi or the towering powerhouse Cristiano Ronaldo, we admire the seemingly reality-warping skills of the deadliest goalscorers in world football.
They deserve the highlight reels that make us sit on the edge of our seats and stare in gawking wonder at a replay. Tell me how often you have seen this exact goal and marveled at the audacity of a man to engage in fantasy football, to blur the lines between reality and fiction so beautifully that all you can think is ‘holy s**t that is pure genius’.
Whenever I see such outward displays of magical ball control and unbelievable presence of mind, I am reminded of something the great Johan Cruyff was oft heard repeating –
‘Playing football is simple, playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.’
At FC Barcelona, the average cule is privileged enough to see both in regular, healthy doses. The physics and reality-warping skill of Leo Messi – and the simplicity and solidity of the back five that currently guards the Blaugrana goal. A defence that has now gone 30 matches unbeaten, and conceded just 13 goals in the league this season. A defence that is shepherded by a young, blond German, who is the antithesis of the complexity of his forward-running team mates, although he is no less technically gifted than the outfield players he starts attacks for.
With his clarity of thought and simplistic execution, Marc-Andre ter Stegen flies the flag of the modern goalkeeper proudly. An 8-bit character in the world of virtual reality fantasy football, players like the German international are few and far between.
Change Is Good, Confidence Is Key
Monchengladbach was home to Marc-Andre ter Stegen – a young, strapping lad who preferred to play striker. At age ten however, his coach pulled him aside after training and had a word with him. His commitment was never in question, but his ability to run at pace was. He was asked to change from striker to the duty that calls for the least glory on the football pitch, protecting the goalmouth. Fromhighlight-maker, he was set to become a heartbreaker. A man tasked with snuffing out astounding attacks that took 30 plus passes to create; that was ter Stegen’s job. Luckily for the entire youth setup at Borussia Monchengladbach, he was more than up to the task.
With his technique infallible and his frame large, ter Stegen was the vital bedrock on which the spine of a brilliant Gladbach side was built. Avoiding relegation in 2010, Gladbach continued to build, with Dante and Marco Reus being just two other stellar performers. However, the most plaudits were reserved for the future Barcelona number 1 as he made seven saves against a rampant Bayern Munich, kept a clean sheet, and was easily the best goalkeeper in Germany in 2011-12.
In the years that followed, Marc Andre ter Stegen would be understudy to Manuel Neuer as the Bayern goalkeeper scaled new heights and went on to win the World Cup with Die Mannschaft. In that same World Cup year, Marc Andre ter Stegen chose to move to Barcelona. Away from the looming shadow of Neuer, he was expected to grow and hone his craft. There, he met with stiff competition for the starting berth from Claudio Bravo, but once again, his simple approach and eerie calm prevailed.
From Atari to Augmented Reality
1983 – Alpha Denshi released the game ‘Exciting Soccer’ which allowed players to play as association clubs and even enter a penalty shootout in case the match ended all square.
In 1990, football gaming came on leaps and bounds with the introduction of the Nintendo-designed World Cup game, with 13 playable teams and, for its day and age, path-breaking interface.
Today, Lionel Messi and the Barca squad adorn the interface of ‘Pro Evolution Soccer’, with motion tracking technology letting you replicate the miracles of a Cruyff turn or a Diego Maradona run to absolute minutiae detail on your handheld device.
When those miracle moments happen too often, they turn to routine. FC Barcelona have been on the cutting edge of the hyper-realism in football. Magic has been sprinkled onto the Camp Nou turf for generations by forwards who range from stocky and smart to the smiling creed of assassins.
As the diminutive Argentine rewrites record and history books with a kiss to the ball, over at the other end of the field, ter Stegen puts his hands up to the ball to make a save with, seemingly, the simplest of technique. Standing in goal, like an 8-bit figure in a 4K world. Ter Stegen is a tribute to those who came before him – Valdes, Zubizaretta and players who executed the ‘simple’ things without breaking concentration or breaking into a sweat.
The Simplest Of Tasks
When you watch Barca v 2.0 – in the post-Guardiola era, you will often notice how deep they get pressed and pressured before unleashing a lightning counterattack. It must occupy hours of YouTube footage to see two, perhaps three passes leading to a Barca goal. However, just out of frame in those highlight reels you will notice the Blaugrana’s goalkeeper pumping his fists. His simple absorbing of pressure and calm release of the ball upfield started the move and he knows it. Smiling, he continues to go about his seemingly simple job of keeping goal at FC Barcelona.
The almost reckless abandon with which he plays around opposition centre-forwards and the technique he applies allows fantasy football to flourish in front ter Stegen. A rock solid 8-bit player in a Virtual Reality world, MATS is the building blocks/Tetris of a Barca side that seem to be gathering momentum with every passing week. In fact, some might even say he is the best in the world at protecting the goal opposite to the one being showered with otherworldly brilliance, three times a week, year after year.