PARIS — In the 11th minute against Germany, Michael McGovern, Northern Ireland’s chosen keeper, made his second point-blank save. It was on a falling Mesut Ozil, who still managed a dangerous shot from close range. The first German chance had come three minutes earlier, when Thomas Muller charged into the box, struck the ball off the bounce, and delivered it straight into McGovern’s delicates. After the Ozil shot, McGovern climbed to his feet, pressed his hand to his heaving side, and registered a look of abject horror.
It’s not enough to say that McGovern looked scared. He looked like someone who had come to the most terrible realization about his future. He was a sailor alone in the middle of the ocean in a boat that had just sprung a leak. He was a man who had told the woman of his dreams that he loved her, and she had just told him that she didn’t love him back. He was the No. 1 for Northern Ireland in a game against the Germans.
Somehow, the 31-year-old McGovern shook himself free of whatever fear had momentarily gripped him. He found it within himself to play one of the games of the tournament; heroic is too strong an adjective for most athletic achievements, but perhaps not this time. He was helped along by his desperate defense and Muller’s almost cosmic magnetism to posts and crossbars. The swarming German attack combined for 26 shots, nine of them on target, and only one of them made it past McGovern. It was one of the most uneven 1-0 victories imaginable.
“What do you say to him?” Michael O’Neill, McGovern’s manager, marveled after. “The players gave him a round of applause when he came in the dressing room. When you get that, you don’t really need the manager to say anything more. It was a phenomenal performance.”
The essential stress of the match was that goal differential was critical for both teams. Not only the foregone result mattered; the score did, too. Entering the game, Germany were tied with Poland at the top of Group C, and they couldn’t risk falling to second if the Poles ran things up against bottom-dwelling Ukraine. And the Northern Irish, with three points in third place and only four of six third-place teams advancing, faced nearly certain elimination if they allowed too many goals. Four against, for instance, would see Albania, Group A’s third-place hopeful, vault them.
For a stretch of the first half especially, Germany scoring that many seemed more likely than not. “We dominated this game,” Joachim Low said after. “We had so many one-on-one situations with the goalkeeper, we could have been up three or four at halftime.”
Germany’s only realized goal came in the 30th minute in the middle of a sustained barrage, bracketed by a Muller header off the post and a Muller shot off the bar. Ozil put the ball to Mario Gomez, who fed it to Muller, who carried it deep into the box. He turned and pushed a lovely little leave back to Gomez, who ripped at the ball with his left foot. It struck a stretching Gareth McAuley and looped over the helpless McGovern, on the ground and draped by his own Aaron Hughes.
Otherwise, he made save after save. In the 52nd minute, with a light rain falling, Mario Gotze thundered a shot from not far outside the 6-yard box. McGovern blocked it with a strong right hand. Seven minutes later, Sami Khedira took a long, low shot that McGovern had to dive to stop. In the 82nd minute, he made another terrific diving save, parrying a Gomez header with the tips of the fingers of his left hand.
“He’s an exceptional goalkeeper,” O’Neill said. “I’m delighted for him, because he’s a very humble lad, he’s a very hardworking lad, and he’s been very, very patient to get this opportunity.”
McGovern is currently out of contract — not for long — but he played his club football last season for the wonderfully named Hamilton Academical, marginal even by the forgiving measures of the Scottish Premiership; his home ground has a capacity of 6,000. (“He’s used to making a lot of saves,” O’Neill deadpanned.) Against the Germans, at the storied Parc des Princes, shivering with nerves and filled with song, he played like a far more accomplished keeper, as though he were Manuel Neuer opposite him.
In some ways, this match could be used as evidence in the case against the expanded Euro. Northern Ireland never really looked as though they belonged on the same pitch, let alone in the same tournament. But the gift of expansion is a performance like McGovern’s. We get the chance to see someone more like ourselves than the giants of Europe do something extraordinary. We get to see Michael McGovern face down his worst fears, and in his strength perhaps we can find a little of our own.