Early Read on 10 Goalkeepers to Watch at World Cup 2014
It is the least fashionable of all the footballing positions, but also one of the most important. Any great side is, normally, based upon the reliable presence of an outstanding goalkeeper.
The World Cup next summer will provide an opportunity to see some of the very best goalkeepers in action, with 32 nations all gunning for global glory.
It may well be, as has been the case in several tournaments in the past, that it will be one of those in the No. 1 shirt who plays a decisive role in carrying his team to success. Indeed, Claudio Taffarel still dines out on his 1994 heroics in a Brazil shirt.
Let's, then, take an early look at 10 of the best goalkeepers set to be involved next summer.
Julio Cesar (Brazil)
Brazil goalkeeper Julio Cesar has much to prove at the 2014 World Cup, with his error against the Netherlands four years earlier still fresh in the mind of many in his homeland.
That competition was the cue for two indifferent seasons at club level with Inter Milan, which would eventually see him leave the San Siro on a free transfer. At Queens Park Rangers, though, he appears to have returned to somewhere approaching former levels.
Julio Cesar has always been a terrific shot-stopper and appears to have become more confident in coming and claiming balls into the area following a string of errors.
If Brazil are to perform to expectations at the competition, they will require Julio Cesar to be producing some of his best recent form.
David Ospina (Colombia)
For a 24-year-old goalkeeper, David Ospina has already been a regular on the international scene for quite some time. Currently with Ligue 1 side Nice, he has quietly developed into a fine all-round goalkeeper.
Ospina has played every game for his country since missing the 2011 Copa America through injury and will be doubly important for his side given the current uncertainty over who will occupy the centre-back positions.
Colombia are tipped by many to be a surprise package in Brazil next summer, after impressive performances in qualification over the past 12 months. Ospina has undoubtedly been a major player in that rise.
Manuel Neuer (Germany)
Is Bayern Munich and Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer the best in the world at present? There are many who would support that argument.
Neuer is a giant presence between the sticks for both club and country, building upon a rise to wider prominence at the 2010 World Cup to become one of the world's most revered glovemen.
The German may make the odd mistake, but he is generally unflappable in getting on with his job and boasts an exemplary record over the past 12 months.
He will have a chance to further boost his reputation this week, as Bayern play in the Champions League final against rivals Dortmund.
The Bavarian club's fans will no doubt hope for one of Neuer's semi-regular displays of goalkeeping brilliance, where he makes save after save against the odds.
Joe Hart (England)
It has not been the best of years for Manchester City and England goalkeeper Joe Hart, but the 26-year-old is still rightfully regarded as one of the best young goalkeepers around.
Hart has shown poor judgement this season, with his confidence clearly down on previous campaigns. He will hope, though, to set the record straight after the summer.
Few are expecting England to mount a major challenge at the World Cup next summer, but they will hope for a run into the knockout phases. Should they do so, it will be built upon Hart and a solid defence.
Nobody is doubting the ability of the Man City star. However, he will have some critics to lay to rest over the next 12 months.
Gianluigi Buffon (Italy)
Set to turn 36 next January, Italy and Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon will be the elder statesman of the goalkeepers' union at next summer's tournament.
Still in fine fettle, though, there is an argument to be made that Buffon is still the best goalkeeper around in world football. Many would disagree, but it is an indication of his continued excellence.
Buffon is still able to pull off fantastic reaction saves, but it is his organisation of the defence, positioning and decision-making that stands him out from the crowd. With years of experience to call upon, he is rarely found wanting.
As with all 'keepers, Buffon makes the odd mistake. It would be no surprise, though, to see him play an important role should Italy advance to the latter stages in 2014.
Iker Casillas (Spain)
Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas has seen better campaigns than the one just passed, in which a rift with manager Jose Mourinho and a late-season injury disrupted his untroubled progress of recent years as his club's No. 1.
Casillas, though, will almost certainly be firmly reinstated as first choice when a new manager comes in, and at international level, also, there is almost no debate as to his status.
The Spaniard has been in place for all of his nation's recent triumphs, and while some agree with concerns over his general management of the penalty area, his shot-stopping is on a par with the very best.
There are, then, challenges ahead for Casillas, who will feel he has much to prove after this season's travails. Few would bet against him succeeding, though.
Hugo Lloris (France)
Hugo Lloris arrived at Tottenham Hotspur last summer to a raft of reports that he was already unhappy at the club due to the continued presence of Brad Friedel as the club's No. 1.
However, it did not take the Frenchman long to depose his teammate from the starting lineup, and he has not looked back since. Indeed, there are some who would argue that Lloris has been the best keeper in the Premier League since coming to the fore at Spurs.
At international level, too, he has been a major figure for France for some time, and despite the competition from Steve Mandanda, he will almost certainly be in place as captain next summer.
Lloris combines excellent shot-stopping abilities with command of his area and impressive speed off his goal line to sweep behind the back four. His presence is a major plus point of the France side.
Eiji Kawashima (Japan)
Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima has been making his name in Belgium for the past three years, since completing a 2010 transfer to Lierse from Kawasaki Frontale.
Having since moved to giants Standard Liege, where he is first-choice, it is fair to say he is succeeding. Now 30, the 2014 World Cup will give him a first opportunity to show his talents on a global stage.
In 2010, Kawashima attended the tournament in South Africa as a backup for now retired Seigo Narazaki but has improved considerably for his time in Europe. He is a loud and authoritative presence in the area, while also proving a more than competent shot-stopper.
Kawashima's contribution to the Japan side is often overlooked amid a fine generation of talents ahead of him. He is, though, deserving of greater praise for his success with both club and country.
Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
On-loan Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois has wrestled the Belgium No. 1 shirt away from Sunderland's Simon Mignolet over the past 18 months, firmly establishing himself as one of Europe's brightest goalkeeping talents.
Owned by Chelsea since a 2011 transfer from Racing Genk, Courtois is yet to play for the Blues but has spent two highly impressive seasons with Atletico in Spain.
When he will return to West London, where Czech gloveman Petr Cech is currently king, is yet to be decided.
Courtois is a hugely impressive presence in goal, using his giant frame to great effect to both pull off great saves and to come and claim crosses into the area. The future looks incredibly bright for the 21-year-old.
Igor Akinfeev (Russia)
Having made his debut for CSKA Moscow a decade ago, 27-year-old goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev already has remarkable experience for a player of his age.
The Russian is a four-time winner of his country's league championship, a five-time Russian Cup winner, and, beyond that, a UEFA Cup winner with his club. He was also part of the Russia side that came third at Euro 2008.
Akinfeev has long been linked with moves to Europe's elite sides but has been an integral member of his club side as they fought to a league victory this past campaign, despite the huge money spent by several of their rivals.
An agile presence, Akinfeev is quick off his line and boasts lightening-fast reactions. Having flown past half a century of international appearances, it would seem he is highly unlikely to fall out of favour in the next 12 months.