Exploring England's World Cup goalkeeping problem

England heads to the World Cup as one of the favourites, but all is not sweetness and light, as coach Fabio Capello faces a major dilemma, namely who will start in goal.

Three Lions don't have a world-class 'keeper they can call upon for World Cup duty.

Portsmouth star David James could start for England at the World Cup. ((Julian Finney/Getty Images))

Forty-four years of hurt could finally come to an end for England this summer at the World Cup.

The Three Lions will head to South Africa justifiably touted as one of the tournament's favourites and full of self-belief that they can claim their first World Cup crown since winning it on home soil in 1966.

England cruised through the qualifiers, winning nine of 10 games and out-scoring opponents by a whopping 34-6 margin, thanks to a balanced offensive attack led by the dangerous Wayne Rooney and a strong midfield anchored by the likes of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

Where have all the great English goalkeepers gone?

It wasn't that long ago that England was the envy of the soccer world when it came to producing top-notch goalkeepers.

But long gone are the days of Peter Shilton and Gordon Banks who used to stand between the posts for the Three Lions. Today, England must rely on players the calibre of David James.

"Certainly back in the day, the attitude the English national team had was it never had to worry about goalkeepers because they were solid," explained Craig Forrest. "Historically they've been very strong in that department and I think they have some good goalkeepers today but I don't think it's cut and dried who is their No. 1."

It begs the question: where have all the great English goalkeepers gone?

Forrest believes that the proliferation of foreign goalkeepers at Premiership clubs over the past 10 years has stunted the development of their English counterparts.

"There have been a lot of foreign goalkeepers coming over and taking spots from English players in net," Forrest offered. "It stops their progress and halts their progress to a point where they're not going to be able to reach the international stage.

"I think that's a major factor, that they're not getting the same opportunities that foreign keepers are getting."

Forrest knows what he speaks of. The Canadian, who enjoyed stints in England with Ipswich Town and West Ham United during his career, was one of only 12 foreigners playing in the Premier League during the 1992-93 season. Today, foreigners make up the majority.

"It's great to play with all of these foreign players, for the English players who get a chance, because they're going raise their game to play alongside these technically gifted players," Forrest said.

"It's just that not too many Englishmen are going to get an opportunity and you don't have that trickle effect of players moving from the lower divisions up to the top like you used to."

But all is not sweetness and light in the English camp, and coach Fabio Capello faces a major dilemma, namely who will start in goal.

Portsmouth goalkeeper David James, who has served as England's No. 1 the past few years, has been battling injuries this season and might not be fit to play in South Africa. Plus, even at the best of times, James has proven to be error-prone.

Blackburn's Paul Robinson hasn't played for the national team since 2008, having been dropped after making a mistake in a Euro qualifying game against Russia.

Robert Green (West Ham United), Ben Foster (Manchester United), Joe Hart (Birmingham City) and Scott Carson (West Bromwich Albion) are all inexperienced at international level, boasting a meagre 31 caps between them.

The standard of goalkeeping was one of predominant themes at the past two major soccer tournaments. Italy's Gianluigi Buffon (at the 2006 World Cup) and Iker Casillas of Spain (at Euro 2008) led their teams to glory in those competitions, beguiling opposing forwards with their stellar play.

Buffon and Casillas are generally regarded as the best shot-stoppers in the world. England doesn't boast a goalkeeper that comes close to matching the quality of the Italian or Spaniard, and that could be their undoing in South Africa.

"You look at the last two tournaments, Buffon and Casillas, they were outstanding and you need to have that," Henry Winter, chief soccer correspondent for The Daily Telegraph newspaper in England, told CBCSports.ca.

"I know Greece won Euro 2004 without a great goalkeeper, but England lacks a quality goalkeeper, and that's troubling, because they don't have that overbearing fire power that's going win them games five-nil. That's a big problem."

Like a lot of English soccer fans, Winter has little faith in David James, and doesn't believe the Portsmouth star falls in the same class of great English goalkeepers from the past.

"David James is a nice guy, but he's an average Premier League goalkeeper and he's not in the same league as David Seaman or Peter Shilton, and certainly not in the league of Gordon Banks. So England has an issue there," Winter stated.

Conventional wisdom suggests James will be England's starter in South Africa, provided he returns to action and sees first-team action for Portsmouth over the next few months.

But if James can't recover in time, who Capello will start in net for England?

Foster isn't a viable option, as he's currently a third-stringer at Manchester United. Carson plies his trade in the Championship, England's second division, against an inferior class of strikers, which effectively rules him out. Robinson is conceding goals by the truckload this season. Green is playing for a West Ham United that sits in 16th place in the Premiership standings.

Maybe the answer is Hart, who is enjoying a stellar campaign with Birmingham and is a major reason why the Blues are currently riding a 15-game unbeaten streak.

But handing the starter's role to Hart could be dangerous. The 22-year-old has virtually no international experience, his lone appearance for England coming in 2008 when he was used as a substitute in a friendly against Trinidad and Tobago.

"It would be a big gamble, because if Hart fails Capello opens himself up to criticism; that he put in a 'keeper in there that's not used to the international stage and he couldn't handle it," warned Craig Forrest, a former goalkeeper with Canada's national team.

The best thing that could happen to Capello is that a clear candidate emerges as the Premiership season winds down.

"I think he's hoping that someone just plays extremely well over the next few months and makes his decision for him," Forrest said. "He wants someone who gives him confidence and inspires the kind of confidence that every manager wants in his goalkeeper."