Keylor Navas is a man of faith. This becomes patently clear every time he answers questions after a game. The leading one might be about his hair, or the latest goalkeeper linked with Real Madrid, or his latest save, or his latest blunder. The Costa Rican always answers first with some rendition of thanking God for the good fortune to be standing where he is. But the kind of faith that is more important to his profession, at least, is the faith he has in himself.
It’s not so much a faith in his abilities. It’s more a belief in his own willingness to keep fighting and keep focused regardless of how heavily the odds are stacked against him. “We won’t drop our hands,” is another regular refrain from Navas. And he has stayed true to his word.
The way Real Madrid keep you entertained is new to even this group, and their ability to fight when all hope seems lost is becoming the stuff of legend. Their opponents, too, don’t know what to expect, because to take them too seriously and sit back is to miss the point that it’s futile, and to not take them seriously enough is a prelude to an attack. Their games are frantic; they play a high defensive line, and while it’s fun to watch for the neutral, as the team’s goalkeeper, it must be frightening. Jesus Vallejo admitted after the Sevilla capitulation recently that “playing for Real Madrid, you are always a little bit more exposed, because we play with such a high line.”
Navas is also asked to build the attack from the back with his passing, something that might come naturally to someone like Marc-Andre ter Stegen, but Navas has warmed to the new feature in his game and continues to develop his skills and whatever is required of him. With his position constantly under threat, the shot-stopper also keeps answering critics, of which there are plenty.
Real Madrid are seeming in constant search of a goalkeeper to take their No. 1 jersey. There are links every week with David De Gea, Thibaut Courtois or whatever world-class goalkeeper is ruminating over a new contract with his club. The constant idea being pushed that Navas is not worth his salt and is just holding the jersey for its eventual and rightful owner is one of the greatest follies around.
With his performances under the most powerful of microscopes every week, his job is not just to do his job but to do it with style. Being competent is not enough; he has to convince over and over again.
Lionel Messi was rejected by Navas on so many occasions in the most recent Clasico that at one stage, just after Navas had reached out with his left hand to deny the Argentine from a razor-sharp angle at his near post, Messi looked up and smiled at the Costa Rican. It was a look as if to say, “so, you have superhuman powers, too.” They might not be at Messi levels yet, but they are certainly elite.
The mistake against Juventus might be thrown around as a reason why Navas will never be mentioned among the very best. On the contrary, it proves his excellence, his professionalism and his ability to keep his fists up and remain in the fight even when the whole world is crumbling around him. If excellence is what you do 99 percent of the time, Keylor Navas is excellence personified.
He might be outside of the world’s top three or even five goalkeepers, but it’s more because of the noise around him than anything he is doing wrong. Real Madrid were very close to signing Kepa Arrizabalaga in January, but Zinedine Zidane preferred to stick with Navas, and the 31-year-old himself didn’t demand any assurances. “I never told them not to sign a keeper,” he said as he welcomed the potential addition and the chance to prove himself again.
Madrid will most likely be linked with a goalkeeper this summer. It might be De Gea or Courtois, or Gianluigi Donnarumma. It might even be someone new. But if they do spend a big wad of cash on upgrading the position, they’ll be throwing their money down the toilet, because Navas is as good as it gets.
Navas is set to star for Costa Rica this summer at the World Cup, and we might get another look at the shot-stopper in his purest form, where his position as the No. 1 and a team leader is not under threat and his importance to the team is explicit. “Keylor is our star player; he’s a reference in our country, as a player and as a person,” Costa Rica teammate Giancarlo Gonzalez said recently.
At Real Madrid, it is likely to end in tears at some stage, but wherever Navas does go, his faith won’t be too far away. And not just his belief in God.
Robbie is based in Madrid and is one of ESPN FC’s Real Madrid bloggers. Twitter: @robbiejdunne