"Duel of the Giants": Manuel Neuer (left) vs. Marc-André ter StegenPhoto: Michael Regan; Maja Hitij / Getty Images
When asked about the strengths of FC Barcelona, Hansi Flick had to laugh. You might as well have asked him if it was warm in Germany at the moment. Then the coach of FC Bayern began to list the names of the Barça stars. Messi and Piqué and Busquets and Griezmann and Rakitic and Suárez, Flick rattled down. Then, as if he had almost forgotten, he added: "And with Ter Stegen you have a world-class goalkeeper."
Perhaps Flick wanted to smooth things over, for which CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge had previously taken care of. The national team, he said, could "consider itself lucky to have two such goalkeepers in the ranks. Both are top, Manuel Neuer is world class, Ter Stegen is on the way to world class."
On the way?
"The Bavarians provoke," headlined the Spanish "El Mundo Deportivo" on Wednesday, two days before the duel between Marc-André ter Stegens FC Barcelona and Manuel Neuers FC Bayern that evening (9 p.m.; TV: Sky; live ticker SPIEGEL. de).
Barça may have had a weaker season, but Ter Stegen is not. The 28-year-old saved Barcelona from many impending defeat. So also with the 0-0 at Borussia Dortmund, when, among other things, he saved a penalty. "Anyone who plays like this can make demands," wrote SPIEGEL.de afterwards.
Neuer, ter Stegen in the friendly against Serbia (2019): Both goalkeepers are allowed to play one halfPhoto: Christian Charisius / picture alliance / dpa
The claims were for the post in the goal of the national team. In 2017/2018, Neuer only made four appearances for FC Bayern, in autumn 2017, and at the World Cup months later in summer 2018, national coach Joachim Löw still fielded him. The national team fared poorly historically. Löw rebuilt his squad with some delay, in defense and attack, 2014 world champions were eliminated. Neuer stayed in the gate, Ter Stegen outside.
When it became clear that even the biggest crisis in the history of the national team would not change the fact that Löw was betting on Neuer, ter Stegen did something unusual: He filed claims.
It is not easy to find an explanation for why he does not play, said Ter Stegen. He spoke of a "hard blow for me". Neuer warned that Ter Stegen was not helping the team. Whereupon Ter Stegen scolded Neuer that he should "say nothing about my feelings".
First quarrel, then only silence
The then-Bayern-President Uli Hoeneß stepped in and threatened that his club would no longer assign players to the DFB if Ter Stegen replaced Neuer (which he later relativized to SPIEGEL).
It was all last September. Germany finally had a goalkeeper feud again. Big duels between the national team's regular goalkeepers and their challengers are part of the history of the DFB. Oliver Kahn against Jens Lehmann, Andreas Köpke against Bodo Illgner, Uli Stein against Toni Schumacher.
But Neuer and Ter Stegen held back, even Hoeneß was silent. No tips, no quarrels. Just silence. Perhaps Ter Stegen suspected that only his saves would help him in the fight for the goal in the DFB team. Neuer has his parades and FC Bayern behind him.
Just in time for the duel in the Champions League, the topic is present again. "Duel of the giants", was the headline of the "kicker" on Monday. On the cover you could see Neuer on the left, Ter Stegen on the right, both of them looked into each other's eyes. Actually here too: silence. Because nothing was heard from the two goalkeepers that could be interpreted as a challenge.
So the reporting was mainly about statistics, meaningful and less meaningful. About the assessments of previous goalkeeping legends from Germany. The "Süddeutsche Zeitung" wrote about Ter Stegen's standing in Barcelona. The DFB published an interview with national goalkeeping coach Andreas Köpke. "Neuer and Ter Stegen are decisive for the outcome of the game," Köpke is quoted as saying. The DFB had refused a SPIEGEL request to an expert from the association's goalkeeping apprenticeship - simply not feasible because of many other requests, it said.
The interest in the goalkeeper duel goes beyond German borders. The British "Guardian" wrote on Thursday about the rivalry between the two.
May 2015, Champions League: The last meeting of the goalkeepers so far in a competitive gamePhoto: Matthias Hangst / Bongarts / Getty Images
The interest may be so great because two exceptional athletes struggle for more than victory and defeat. It's about getting ahead in the Champions League, but also about the status of the best goalkeeper in the self-proclaimed country of goalkeepers. Ultimately, it's about recognition.
And Neuer and Ter Stegen fight a duel at the highest level. They are goalkeepers of a similar nature, play the ball precisely with both feet, over short, medium and long distances. They are made for teams who always want the ball.
There are now quite a few goalkeepers who play along, and when developing goalkeeping talents, many clubs rely on them to also take part in exercises that deal with playing football and building up the game.
It's all about details. How do I position myself when my central defender is on the ball? Can I put the ball on top of my right foot with my left foot and vice versa in a flash? Do passes arrive reliably, even if a striker approaches? Only when a goalkeeper has mastered all these skills will he become the one team-mate the opposing team cannot cover - at least not without being outnumbered elsewhere on the pitch. His team becomes unpressible. Neuer and Ter Stegen are world class in this. The fact that their teams achieve such high ball possession figures is due to their footballing qualities.
Ter Stegen is currently one step ahead
In addition, there are her reflexes on the line, strong timing when coming out, the right body tension in one-on-one. Both also have qualities that cannot be measured in pass rates or parades: charisma.
Neuer may have gone through and overcome a crisis surrounding his injuries, but he has only gotten older, not worse, since the 2018 World Cup. Ter Stegen, on the other hand, has been playing consistently at the highest level for years. Neuer let a ball bounce against Chelsea, the action led to a (meaningless) goal. Ter Stegen looked extremely safe against Napoli. It seems that he is currently ahead.
Even if that were to be the case, even if Ter Stegen would bring his FC Barcelona to the semi-finals in the evening - or Neuer had a bad day: Ter Stegen will then play the leading role in the DFB team is quite unlikely. At the national coach, the roles seem too clearly distributed. And those who are very popular at Löw often stay there for a long time. Neuer recently extended his contract with Bayern, it will now run until 2023, when he would be 37. Until then, there are still two European championships and the World Cup in Qatar.Icon: The mirror