Four days after the 2018 Champions League final, Jürgen Klopp received a call from Franz Beckenbauer. Like everyone else, the legendary former captain and manager of Germany watched the game in Kiev, watching Liverpool lose 3-1 to Real Madrid after two mistakes by goalkeeper Loris Karius. And something about it just didn’t feel right. After a conversation with a doctor, he picked up the phone for Klopp. “Your goalkeeper has a concussion,” Beckenbauer told Klopp.
An armchair diagnosis, to be sure, but one that intrigued Klopp enough to do further investigation. The next day, Karius flew to Boston, where he underwent rigorous testing at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. The concussion assessment consists of a checklist of 30 symptoms, including headache, light sensitivity, memory loss, and nausea. Five days after the biggest game of his life, Karius still had 26 out of 30 clinical signs of concussion.
The fateful events in Kiev – in which Karius rolled the ball to Karim Benzema’s foot, before deflecting Gareth Bale’s shot into his own net – shaped and marked the goalkeeper for years. He received death threats. He was questioned by opposing players. After leaving Liverpool, he went on a merry-go-round of unfulfilling moves, first to Besiktas, then to Union Berlin, and finally to unemployment. And the game that started this whole sad spiral was played under the cloud of a severe head injury.
Sunday’s Carabao Cup final offers Karius the opportunity for a remarkable comeback. It’s Newcastle’s first cup final for 24 years and with Nick Pope suspended and Martin Dubravka tied for the cup, their hopes rest on the third goalkeeper, snapped up in the summer and nearly dropped in January. It may very well be the only game Karius plays for the club. And yet he knows, perhaps as well as anyone in the sport, the potential for one game to change the trajectory of a career forever.
Karius returned to Liverpool for pre-season in the summer of 2018 determined to restart his career and make a fresh start. Klopp was also willing to give him another chance. And yet, a series of mistakes in friendlies were evidence of a mind still distracted, confidence still shaky. Karius has always been an aggressive and risk-taking goalkeeper, and a certain amount of error built into his game. But with Liverpool gearing up for a title challenge, an update was clearly in need. Alisson arrived from Roma that summer and the club haven’t looked back.
Then Karius moved to Besiktas where, after a decent start, the mistakes started to creep in again. “Something is wrong with his electricity, motivation, enthusiasm,” said coach Senol Gunes. “It has been that way from the beginning.” Against Slovan Bratislava in a Europa League game at the end of 2019, he came out of his penalty area to try to head a long ball and misjudged completely. After hounding the club for alleged unpaid wages, he left during the pandemic.
The move to Berlin was equally unsuccessful. Hired to compete for the number 1 shirt with veteran Andreas Luthe, Karius had his game time limited and later became irritated with the treatment of coach Urs Fischer. “In hindsight I wouldn’t switch to Union now”, he later said. “I was sure I would be in goal and gain game time straight away. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. I never got a fair chance to excel there.
Union, on the other hand, paints a slightly different picture. They insist that no guarantees were made to Karius and that, with Luthe running strong, there was simply never enough justification for making a change. And while Karius’ professionalism has never been questioned, there is a lingering suspicion that he never quite fit in with the club’s mediocre, hard-working ethos. His profile and celebrity girlfriend made him a staple of gossip columns, a fact Karius later admitted to as a source of regret. Above all, it was simply a move that never quite made sense.
And if there’s a lesson in Karius’s story, it’s that the factors that determine the course of a career are never based on performance alone. This is doubly true of goalkeepers, where the opportunities are minimal, the stakes are invariably astronomical, and the role itself is in part a leap of faith: not just a faith in one’s own ability, but the ability to pass it on to others.
Had Karius played in a Champions League final a few years later under current concussion protocols, he might never have taken the field to make these mistakes. Had he played a few years earlier, he might have been spared the brutal judgment of thousands of internet meme artists and could have suffered in peace. His most serious flaw, if you can call it that, was timing.
No one really knows how Karius will fare on Sunday. He hasn’t played a senior professional game in two years. Nobody knows where his head is, what battle scars remain, how he will fare in the melting pot of a cup final with Marcus Rashford charging into his goal. The redemption arc is a seductive narrative, and many neutrals will wish you well. But this is a brutal profession and the margins are often thin. So it’s probably fair to say that for Karius, the moment of greatest opportunity also represents the moment of greatest risk.