There is a brief, tongue-in-cheek story that exemplifies the plight of the soccer goalie, and it comes from, of all people, novelist Albert Camus. Writing once about his own brief playing career for the University of Algiers, Camus recalled how the ground always seemed bumpier than "the {oft-kicked} shin of a visiting center-forward." And how "the ball never came where you expected it." And how the toughest team he played was Olympic Hussein Dey. As Camus explained: "The stadium there is beside the cemetery. They made us realize, without mercy, that there was direct access."

So it is in soccer, as goalkeepers shoulder the daunting, sometimes impossible expectation of preventing a ball traveling upwards of 80 mph from entering a yawning net measuring 24 feet wide by 8 feet high.

For all the talk about the Gargantuan scale of the month-long World Cup finals that begin in less than a week here in the United States, the truth is World Cup soccer is more about such moments. Famous, breathily repeated moments. Like the play in the 1990 World Cup when Cameroon's grand 38-year-old veteran Roger Milla pilfered the ball from Colombian goalie Rene Higuita during one of Higuita's ill-advised forays from the net and scored the game-winning goal. Or the stunning goal that Argentina's Maradona drove home in a '86 World Cup game after slaloming among six English defenders while dribbling the ball throughout a 50-yard sprint downfield.

Like those oft-cited plays, the most glory-shrouded save in World Cup history didn't even happen in a final. It came in 1970 in Mexico, when Gordon Banks of England found Brazilian great Pele before him with the ball. Journalist John Moynihan, who was behind Banks's net at the time, wrote:

"Pele hurtled in, leaping over Mullery, and all for one were shouting 'Goal!' and rising to acclaim the King. Then an outrageous flash of movement, a combination of sprawling arms and legs. Banks was suddenly over to the right of goal laying sideways with his left leg thrust out straight, his other bent at right angle, and his groping right hand scooping the ball up and over the crossbar. It tumbled over the bar and rolled slowly to the other side of the net with the sudden abatement of an ocean wave after breaking on a rock."

Replays showed Banks had flung himself from one goalpost to the other. Pele, whose team won, 1-0, would later compare the save to "a salmon leaping up the falls." Moynihan, on the spot, correctly said, "The moment had become a legend, a piece of unique folklore, a gymnastic impossibility." Gamesmanship Mentality

Given the unusual onus goalkeepers bear, the position requires a special sort of person. All-around athleticism -- agility, leaping ability, sharp reflexes and lateral quickness -- are obvious essentials. Having the right mind-set is a must too. It's not uncommon for a soccer goalkeeper to complete a 90-minute game without facing five shots. Or he may be peppered with 15 shots plus a couple of penalty kicks. Either way, the margin of error is minuscule.

"A midfielder can make 35 mistakes a game and score a goal at the end and still be a hero," says U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel. "If we make a mistake it's usually going to be a goal."

Because so many soccer games are low-scoring affairs, surrendering even a single goal can be emotionally devastating for a team. That's why U.S. goalkeeper Tony Meola boasts, "When the lights go up {a goalie} has to want to be The Man."

Or at least act like he wants to be The Man.

Some soccer experts -- the strategy wonks -- like to wax on about the myriad, split-second decisions all goalkeepers must make -- when to risk racing an attacker to the ball in the open field, when to go for the intercept of a crossing pass, how to distribute the ball to start a counterattack.

But keepers themselves tend not to discuss the game in such arid terms.

When University of Virginia goalkeeping coach Mark A. Newman was researching his new book "Save!", all seven World Cup goalkeepers he interviewed -- retired greats such as Dino Zoff, Sepp Maier, Pat Jennings -- dwelt on how playing the position requires attitude. And style. More traditional goalies, such as Sweden's Thomas Ravelli, stay close in, playing the angles and percentages; Latinos such as Mexico's Jorge Campos are famous for abandoning the goal area entirely to work as an extra sweeper back 30 yards downfield. But either way, Meola says, a goalie is required to be resourceful. Daring. Even a little nuts.

"I see a lot of the same mentality with baseball relief pitchers," says U.S. team general manager Bill Nuttall, a former goalkeeper in the defunct North American Soccer League. "A relief pitcher never knows if he'll be asked to throw one pitch, five pitches, or a whole inning. And they're always called upon in very critical situations.

"Soccer goalkeeping is the same thing. There's ego involved in it. You have to continually reassure yourself that everything's okay. You have to force yourself to concentrate, maintain your composure. As the game goes on, especially if you're not very active, you start to wonder, 'Am I ready for a big save? Am I warm enough? Is the ground a little hard over there? Will I get the right angle?' A lot of people can't deal with that anxiety, that not knowing if they can make the save. A lot of them resort to little things to relieve the pressure."

Some try to affect an aura of invincibility. Some invent shticks.

Shep Messing, one of Nuttall's NASL contemporaries, used to wear a turban and paint his fingernails for games. Tino Lettieri used to keep a stuffed parrot in the nets for good luck. But before long, Lettieri's habit of taunting rivals and crowds with the bird backfired. Some opponents started seizing the parrot and throttling its neck or punching it out to celebrate a goal -- sometimes with Lettieri in hot raging pursuit. Lettieri's mates would be compelled to stand up for him then, of course, and some nasty scenes ensued. Eventually the parrot was banned by the NASL because, says Nuttall with a laugh, "They said it was inciting trouble."

Lettieri's solution? He planted the parrot in a paid-for seat and continued to point to it after big saves.

Letting Off Steam

Though many goalkeepers revel in showmanship, their preening usually has a utilitarian purpose, particularly during penalty kicks -- those throat-constricting plays when the ball is placed smack in the middle of the field, 12 yards from the goal line, and the shooter and goalkeeper go one-on-one.

Friedel insists such shots are no-lose situations for the goalie because "no one expects you to make the save anyway." But rather than sit back and get skewered, some goalkeepers have run up to a penalty kicker to scream in his face or kiss the ball, spit on the ball, throw a fistful of dirt on the ball as he rears back to kick. Nuttall remembers a goalkeeper who banged his head on the goal posts to get psyched. Genially striding out to shake a shooter's hand, then adding a vicious taunt, is another stunt -- the verbal equivalent of a joy buzzer.

"Any competitive advantage you can get, you take," Nuttall says.

And if a World Cup goalie makes a great against-the-odds save? Then he's liable to go down in soccer history as gloriously as Banks has. Sergio Goycochea, a 1990 World Cup starter only after Nery Pumpido broke his leg, became known as the King of the Shootout during Argentina's run to the final.

The Scots, who always seem to be claiming mysterious happening in their mist-covered lochs and bogs, have long celebrated a goalie named John Thomson, who made his first international appearance in 1930 at age 22, then died a year later from injuries suffered diving at an on-rushing rival's feet.

The theme of the requiem at Thomson's memorial service was, "Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friends." Frank Keating in his 1984 book "Long Days, Late Nights," writes: "Scots maintain Thomson's ghost still haunts the six-yard goal box at Celtic Park. On braw and wintry full-moon nights you can still, apparently, hear the eerie, desperate high-pitched shriek."

Scots swear it sounds like the goalie is still shouting, "Mine!. ... Mine!. ... Mine!"