Karl Hein of Estonia saves the penalty shot from Roland Sallai of Hungary during the international friendly at Puskas Arena, Budapest, March 2023.

Karl Hein is Arsenal’s penalty-saving maestro that turns strikers to mush

The scenes just before a penalty is taken are football’s closest imitation of a medieval duel.

On one side, we have the penalty taker. The champion. Desperately trying to appear cool, calm and collected. Thousands of hours of practice with the singular task of making his next task as automatic as brushing his teeth. All the pressure on his shoulders.

On the other side, we have the goalkeeper. The challenger. An alluring mix of bravado and bullshit. Willing to resort to any level to distract his opponent, from creative arm gestures to the kind of intense eye contact that’d break the granite soul of Martin Keown.

Karl Hein, the young third-choice goalkeeper at Arsenal, is beginning to grow quite the collection of vanquished opponents. During Estonia’s friendly against Hungary last week, Hein dived low to his right and kept out Roland Sallai’s effort.

In truth, Sallai’s spot-kick was hit with all the pace of an asthmatic tortoise carrying a flatscreen television.

We reckon Hein nuzzled himself inside the subconscious of his opponent beforehand, tormenting the Hungarian with visions of kidnapping his dog or nabbing his protein powder.

“We need a strong goalkeeper. Of course, the others are also strong, but today Hein made great saves and he is our number one,” Estonia coach Thomas Haberli said afterwards. Hein’s international future already looks secure.

And the 20-year-old has managed to impress Arsenal supporters during his sporadic appearances this season.

Appearing during a friendly against Lyon in the World Cup break, Hein’s handling and communication suggested he’d be the perfect choice to handle the crown jewels, never mind play in goal for the Premier League leaders.

But his true moment of glory came during the bonus penalty shoot-out, saving four penalties from increasingly distraught Lyon players. Four penalties Karl? Four? That’s insane.

The first was kept out by a right arm stronger than a plank of wood, while the second demonstrated Hein’s cat-like reflexes as he sprung to his right to keep out a fierce effort.

With the souls of his opponents safely in Hein’s back pocket, the result of the final two spot-kicks was inevitable. The first rebounded away like a tennis ball flung at a brick wall, while the final Lyon penalty-taker was spooked into striking the most pathetic Panenka we’ve ever seen.

“It was so exciting for my whole family when I joined,” Hein told Arsenal’s official website this week.

“Very exciting, as a young Estonian boy, to go into a top club in Europe. It was surreal. My parents always, always backed me and we were all so happy to go to such a big club from Estonia. Just surreal.

“I had never been to England before so it was a massive change of culture, city, everything.

“I can’t lie, it was difficult at first. It was difficult to leave home. That moment when you realise, ‘Oh my God, I’m 16 and I’m not going to be at home anymore’.

“But when I had a bit of a homesickness coming, I always said to myself: ‘Come on Karl, you’re at Arsenal now, it doesn’t get better than that’. It was what I wanted, what I dreamed of, so it never affected me.

“I probably had homesickness for a few months when I was first here, but then that realisation that this is my dream to be here, so just crack on. That always motivated me even more,

“My parents come over every now and then but I’m completely settled here now. I have my own life here, my own apartment and all that, so I’m very settled now, very happy.

“I feel very natural to be here in London now, I know the system, how things work in the club and the city, I’m very at home.

“Especially I’m enjoying the football and everything right now.”

Hein remains behind Aaron Ramsdale and Matt Turner in the Arsenal pecking order, but his eye-catching ability to save penalties is sure to make him a cult hero at the Emirates.

Keep an eye on Hein during the early rounds of next season’s League Cup; his spot-kick prowess would make the most assured duellist tremble in their wake.

By Michael Lee

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