A love letter to Gregory Coupet and the best save of all time

Nostalgia

Lyon‘s golden generation might have been defined by the likes of Juninho Pernambucano and Michael Essien, but Gregory Coupet was just as important.

The Frenchman played more than 500 games for the seven-time French champions in just over a decade at Stade Gerland and was between the sticks for each of their titles, but one moment stands out to a lot of fans and casual observers.

When we talk about the best saves of all time, a couple of big ones stand out: Gordon Banks against Brazil, David Seaman against Sheffield United. However, not only should Coupet be part of that conversation, he should be the conversation.

Coupet was on his way to the first of those seven titles when the moment arrived, during a defeat to Barcelona in the 2001-02 Champions League group stage.

With the game still goalless, Claudio Cacapa attempted to play the ball back to his goalkeeper on the stretch, only to get things very wrong and send it looping over Coupet’s head.

Now, genius often requires a person to go beyond the realms of logic and work within their own separate reality. Often, this takes the form of redefining the possible. In Coupet’s case, it begins with him redefining the backpass rule.

In situations like this, the smart move would be to tip the ball over the bar using your hands. At best, the referee will recognise you can’t really be expected to treat the touch like anything close to a regular backpass and let you off. At worst, you’ll concede an indirect free-kick rather than a near-certain goal.

However, self-confidence is one hell of a thing. It can inspire you to ask out your crush, or try the spiciest curry on the menu. Or, on occasion, it can inspire you to do this.

 

“I was sure I could get the ball over the bar,” Coupet would later say of the diving header. To which our only response is: “Why?”

What made you so sure you could pull off the kind of move which would see any coach labelled a time-waster if they attempted to let you practice it? What gave you the idea this was a situation which could be solved be a rapid change of pace followed by a diving headed clearance?

To then get up and pull off a phenomenal reflex save from Rivaldo – almost certainly a better interjection than the original header – well, that requires your mind to operate several levels above anyone else, or perhaps several levels below.

It’s instinct disguised as planning, blending the product of years of coaching with something too preposterous to even come up in thoughts about training sessions, and to move between the two so seamlessly is just impossible for any normal mind to comprehend.

There’s even an argument that a better goalkeeper would have conceded a goal in this situation, but Coupet was stupid enough to believe he had a chance to keep it out and that is admirable in its own right.

There’s a lot to be said for the ability to deny an opponent through sheer confusion. If we’re hypnotised as viewers more than a decade on, imagine what it was like for those on the pitch at the time.

What should be a simple finish for Rivaldo proves to be anything but, as Coupet simultaneously implants the idea that he has too much to do and too little.

He has time to bring the ball down and finish before Cacapa can get back, but Coupet’s unorthodox behaviour has frazzled his brain. Suddenly, due to the inexplicable urgency and desperation of the goalkeeper’s header, the Brazilian becomes convinced that he too only has a fraction of a second to convert.

Ignore, for one moment, that he still has 80% of the goal to aim at: with Coupet behind the line, he has the full 100% if he connects before the goalkeeper has dragged himself up from behind the line. There is a time for calm reflection and picking your spot, but this is very much not it.

And yet, even with that pressure, Rivaldo heads the ball into an area which shouldn’t be reachable. For Coupet to get there, he still has to anticipate the direction and throw himself almost as his opponent makes contact. For this phenomenal instinct to coexist with whatever mental calculation inspired the first ‘save’… well, that should be extremely confusing to everyone, not least Coupet himself.

Some of you will claim it’s possible for another goalkeeper to produce a better save than Gregory Coupet in the future, but it’s hard to see how.

No goalkeeper has an obvious way of even putting themselves in a position to make such a stop, and those who do have that chaotic streak don’t have the power to switch it off during the gap between the first and second phases.

After all, if you can’t conceive of a way to outdo something which made no sense to begin with, how are you supposed to compete with something which made the opposite of sense?

By Tom Victor


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