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John Cloud: How Jan Oblak took his chance and became the best goalkeeper in LaLiga

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He was “born to be a goalkeeper” — and through a combination of natural talent, hard work and good fortune, Jan Oblak became one of the world’s best.

Atletico Madrid v Malaga - La Liga
Oblak against Málaga.
Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Note: Most quotes are pulled from UEFA’s excellent profile on Jan Oblak.

In the era of the Superhero Movie Boom, what fascinates me most about professional athletes is their origin stories. LeBron James learning to dribble a basketball on his Mom’s bed in the projects of Akron, Ohio. Stephen Curry being handed everything he needed to make it in the pros except physical gifts, rebuilding his jump shot during a sweltering high school summer, owning the moment at a tiny liberal arts school, and winning back-to-back MVP awards. Kevin Durant’s mom being The Real MVP. Lonzo Ball’s dad being...well, we all know that one.

Most of these players have had their wildest childhood dreams validated. Some must feel as though their stories were written, like they were born for this, like Jamal Malik in Slumdog Millionaire, like Ray Lewis after the Ravens beat the Broncos in his final season, screaming in an interview that no weapon formed against him shall prosper. I’m convinced this validation — making it in the pros — is why so many professional athletes are overtly religious. And since they’re literally one-in-a-million, professional athletes are bound to feel that fate or some higher power has smiled on them.

Danny Chau of The Ringer said it better than I can when he wrote about the idea of “chosen one-assuredness” -- Steph Curry pulling up from way deeper than he needed to when he hit an overtime game-winner against Oklahoma City or Chance the Rapper performing “Blessings” on Jimmy Fallon. Lionel Messi holding up his shirt as the Bernabéu crowd rained down torrents of abuse and deliriously tried to climb over the railing to give him a piece of their mind. Even Justin Bieber on “I’m the One.” I think it takes a little chosen one-assuredness to make it to the top, and all great players have a bit of it, perhaps retroactively or in hindsight once they’ve made it.

But there is another element to making it: that stroke of luck, that moment that lets you show what you can do. Maybe it’s an opportunity you seize, or a series of events that throws you into the fire before you’re ready. Maybe it’s Drew Bledsoe and Tony Romo getting injured, thrusting Tom Brady and Dak Prescott into the limelight. Who knows how long they would have languished as understudies if those injuries hadn’t happened?

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It is safe to say that Jan Oblak has a great deal of natural ability. You can’t do things like this without being born with certain gifts:

Oblak, when pressed about where he found the strength to deny three straight golden opportunities, was typically nonplussed and non-committal:

“Sometimes you make three saves, and sometimes they score a goal with the first attempt. It is difficult to explain. I saw the ball and went for it. I reacted quickly and everything went well for me.”

Oblak has also worked hard to make the most of that ability. Cholo Simeone, in typical fashion, praised Oblak for his dedication:

"I've always praised him for his commitment and hard work, especially the way he earned the place he has in the team. He arrived, didn't play at first and got injured. Moyá did really well so he waited his turn and worked hard – normally when you work hard you get your reward. He won his place in the team and we're delighted with him. He has an enormous future."

However, at some point in the 2013-2014 season, Jan Oblak was merely potential energy. Though still young, he was unfulfilled promise languishing on Benfica’s bench after multiple loan spells at lower-tier Portuguese sides. Just a year before, he was playing non-professional football on loan.

He needed something to fall his way. And when he got his chance, he took it.

I. Slovenia

Oblak is a fairly private guy, so not much is known about his formative years. He grew up in Škofja Loka, a picturesque mountain town of around 12,000 citizens nestled in the Southern Limestone Alps — all canals, plazas and those old-timey European orange tiled roofs. Fittingly for a man who grew up in the mountains, “Oblak” translates literally as “Cloud” in Slovenian.

John Cloud was born into an athletic family. His father, Matjaž, was a goalkeeper. His sister, Teja, eventually played for the Slovenian national women’s basketball team. Born and bred as a keeper, starting at age five, he tended goal for his hometown Ločan side before eventually finding his way to Olimpija Ljubljana, a club based out of the capital city. Olimpija maintained a training base about 25 km from the Oblak home, so young Jan would make the trip on his bike each day for training.

When he became a teenager, sharks in the water instantly appeared. He became the youngest-ever goalkeeper in the Slovenian top flight, making his debut with Olimpija’s first team at 16 years old and winning Man of the Match honors in his first appearance.

It’s funny to see pretty much the same Oblak in those old Olimpija interviews as we see on the field with Atlético Madrid today: the unruffled demeanor, the quiet anger and shake of the head after his defense concedes a good scoring chance. The only real difference is that he can grow a better beard these days.

His manager at Olimpija concurred.

"He has everything that a modern goalkeeper needs. Moreover, I was always surprised by his maturity. Even though he was so young when he made it into the first team at Olimpija, he was eager to listen and follow all the instructions." — Janez “Jani” Pate, Manager, Olimpija

He soon received an offer to move to recently-relegated Serie B side Empoli and went on trial at Fulham, but rejected both and reaffirmed his commitment to Olimpija.

However, after appearing for the Slovenian U-21 side as a 17 year-old, Oblak could wait no longer. Europe was calling.

II. Portugal

In June 2010, Benfica bought Oblak for €1.7 million. This was Olimpija’s largest-ever sale.

It was at this point that Oblak — so much the Golden Boy, the son of a keeper, the brother of a national athlete, the 16 year-old who had taken the Slovenian top flight by storm — met resistance for the first time in his footballing life.

(An aside: it is important to understand that Benfica are pretty much THE club in Portugal. No matter what club people support, they’ll cheer for Benfica in Europe. The only Portuguese person I’ve ever met is Gil, an Ultimate Frisbee teammate when I lived in Madrid. One crisp April evening, after training, we all headed to a bar to watch the first leg of the Atleti/Barça Champions League quarters. Twenty or 30 odd people, sweaty, exhausted, looking forward to a teambuilding activity. On the way, Gil broke off from the pack.

“Who cares about Atlético or Barcelona?” He scoffed.

“Benfica are playing. All of Lisbon will be watching. Every Portuguese in this dumb city will be watching.”)

So Benfica is not the Slovenian PrvaLiga. Portugal is not Slovenia. And Oblak found that out firsthand during his first couple of years at Benfica.

After Oblak signed for Benfica, he immediately went out on loan for the 2010-2011 season to Beira-Mar, a second-tier club in a non-professional lower league of Portuguese football. He made two appearances. During the second half of the season, he moved up to Olhanense, a club in LigaPro, the second tier of Portuguese football. He made zero appearances.

“After his departure to Portugal, we were often on the phone. Jan had some very tough months as he was just sitting on the bench. Luckily, once Benfica sent him out on loan, he got a chance at some other Portuguese teams. Soon after he got the call-up to the senior national team. Jan is actually fearless, he puts his head where a lot of goalkeepers would not. He is really a diligent workaholic; he never talked back in training." — Andrej Kračman, goalkeeping coach, Olimpija

But despite his non-existent playing time, Oblak made an impression on his coaches in the lower divisions:

"He is one of those keepers that likes working; one of those who goes to training to work hard, learn even more and get better. It was so easy to work with him. Oblak reads the game well — he is good coming off his line, technically strong and very cool-headed and focused." — Carlos Pires, goalkeeping coach, Beira-Mar

The next year, Oblak actually moved down a level to U.D. Leirla, a team playing in the Campeonato de Portugal, the third tier of Portuguese football. He made 17 appearances, finally seeing the field consistently.

During the 2012-2013 season, Oblak finally made his breakthrough in the Primeira Liga, serving as the undisputed first choice goalkeeper for Rio Ave. Golden Boy status restored, the 20-year-old was ready to leave his mark on one of Portugal’s bigger clubs.

"Despite being quite tall, he is very agile and has good hands. We used to say that he had 'soft hands' because he catches the ball with incredible ease. In short, he is a kid that was born to be a keeper." — João Tomás, striker, Rio Ave

"Oblak is a keeper I appreciate, because of the technical ability he has, but also due to his character. He is a keeper that faces challenges in a very quiet way, without any stress or nerves, regardless of the opponent." — Nuno Espírito Santo, former manager, Rio Ave (current manager, Wolverhampton)

Benfica recalled Oblak for the 2013-14 season. He began the season on the bench. Artur was clearly the first choice option, and it looked as if Oblak was destined to go back on loan.

However, at this point in Oblak’s story, that seminal thing happened, that stereotypical Eminem “Lose Yourself” moment that’s up for grabs, (after you clean Mom’s spaghetti off your sweater, of course).

Artur failed to convince and got injured. Manager Jorge Jesus gave Oblak his chance, and he absolutely ran with it. Over the course of 24 matches, Oblak conceded only six goals, maintaining a clean sheet against Porto in one of his first matches and backstopping a 0-0 draw with Juventus in the Europa League semis. He was named the best keeper in the Primeira Liga and Benfica claimed a domestic treble.

SL Benfica v Tottenham Hotspur FC - UEFA Europa League Round of 16 Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

In what was becoming a trend, Oblak was once again too big and too ascendant for his surroundings. He’d make his next big move in the summer of 2014.

III. Madrid

When 21 year-old John Cloud signed for Atlético on July 16, 2014, his €16 million price tag made him the most expensive keeper in LaLiga history and one of the 10 most expensive keepers football history. His purchase occurred in the same window as one of the most intense keeper arms races in recent memory, where Real Madrid and Barcelona signed Keylor Navas, Marc-André ter Stegen and Claudio Bravo. Three years later, it’s safe to say that class of keepers acquitted itself particularly well.

But Diego Simeone initially stuck with a steady veteran in lieu of letting Oblak get his feet wet. The fact that Oblak had gotten hurt in the preseason didn’t help, and some pundits thought Oblak would be sold without having a chance to fully prove himself.

To be fair, Oblak was far from convincing during his first couple outings, and Miguel Ángel Moyà actually seemed the better option. Oblak got his first real chance away to Olympiakos in the Champions League, and a comedy of errors ensued as the young keeper and Simeone’s title-winning defense both struggled mightily. It’s pretty surreal to see Olympiakos left back Arthur Masuaku fire a tame change-up past Oblak from nearly 25 yards out. It’s also pretty strange to see substitute Antoine Griezmann pull one back at the end.

The damage from this poor outing was so significant that Cholo didn’t give Oblak another shot until a meaningless Copa Del Rey fixture against third division foes L’Hospitalet three months later.

Outlets like Bleacher Report lauded Moyà and criticized Oblak in the meantime. This article is quite the historical document knowing what we know now. Writer Allan Jiang actually posed the following question: “Did Simeone ever want Oblak?”

Benfica President Luis Filipe Viera didn’t think so.

"It was a surprise that Oblak ran away again, but life is full of surprises and they [Atleti] have offered us the player again. We don't want him. Twice bitten, thrice shy." — Luis Filipe Viera, President, Benfica

Eventually, Oblak saved Cholo from himself by doing what he does: taking advantage of his opportunity to play and playing really, really well. After his first leg performance against the Eternal Rival in the Calderón - during which Los Blancos constantly peppered his net - Oblak won the fans, the club and the coach over. Moyá would not play again that season, having initially ceded his place after leaving the second leg of the last 16 tie against Bayer Leverkusen injured. Oblak, of course, kept the clean sheet and stonewalled the Germans in the penalty shootout.

Oblak has been world-class pretty much since that first leg against Real Madrid, and he’s never really backslid. President Enrique Cerezo certainly understands what he has in the Oblaktopus:

"I think that if he's not the best goalkeeper in the world he's the second best. He's proved that throughout the season." — Enrique Cerezo, President, Atlético de Madrid

IV. What’s Next

In keeping with his career trajectory, Oblak has probably arrived at a point where he’s too elite even for Atlético, just as he became too elite for Olimpija and Benfica. He hasn’t committed to Atleti’s project beyond this year, and Paris Saint-Germain are among the sides circling. With a number of other familiar faces on the way out and a reboot likely, we may be seeing the last of John Cloud at Atleti.

While we hope that’s not the case — Oblak has been an incredible servant to the club, typifying the quiet intensity that Cholo expects — los rojiblancos know a thing or two about developing goalkeepers. You could argue that Oblak, Thibaut Courtois and David are the three best in the world right now.

A case in point: Bendita Afición is a mega-cheesy, super-partisan, fan-operated Atlético de Madrid Facebook page. A typical post goes something like this:

“Juanfran says he’ll take a penalty if he has to at Euro 2016. Give us a LIKE for our BOLT of LIGHTNING!!”

Recently, the site posted the following poll:

“Courtois, De Gea, Oblak. You can only have one during his time at Atleti. Who do you want?”

The top comment: “Oblak is amazing. But Courtois was THE SHIT.”

Look, Atleti know keepers. They will probably develop another one after Oblak. And although he’s awesome, if they can get his full €100 million buyout clause, that may be just as awesome. (Plus, the less money owed to shady Mexican billionaires, the better.)

That said, we should cherish all the time we have left with Oblak. The Frente sing about how every day they come to love Oblak more, and that’s been true for the entire fanbase. Though he was always marked for greatness, Oblak is still a man who went from tending goal for a non-professional Portuguese side to a Champions League final penalty shootout within three years. And if nothing else, his story means we can invest a modicum of faith in the club that scouted him, signed him and developed him into what he is today.