I remember hanging out with some friends at a local football centre (Pitz Super Soccer, Sheffield) once, and one of the older teams needed an extra player. They called us over, and without hesitation chose me to play. “that half-caste kid [the accepted terminology of the day] looks good” they said, without having even seen me kick a ball.
I wasn’t a bad outfield player, but out of my friends there were certainly better. They chose me, no doubt, because of the long history of super skilled shit-off-a-shovel fast black midfielders and strikers that have entered the popular lexicon when we talk of great footballers; from Pele, to Henry, Ronaldinho to Drogba. I looked a bit like a young Patrick Kluivert, and people who looked like a young Patrick Kluivert never chose the least fashionable position of all, apart from me, it seemed, because I was proud to be a goalkeeper.
They say you also have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper, and there is no doubt that having leather spheres blasted at you at 100 kilometers per hour is a strange hobby. Add this to the lack of glory- you never score the winning goal, and only receive a little pat on the back after contorting your body, and hurling yourself in the air to pull of a gravity defying save. No, the only time a goalkeeper is in the headlines, is when he has made a mistake: one slight lapse of concentration and your team could be out of the cup, lose that title race, or even relegated.
Goalkeepers aren’t your usual footballers. They are outsiders. Take a good look at them and you’ll see that most goalies are quiet and eccentric men, who don’t fit the usual David Beckham/only-way-is-Essex aesthetic. The position of Goalie is closest to art. It is character building, develops leadership skills, teaches concentration and requires an incredible amount of creativity and improvisation. Goalkeepers are the intellectuals of football; when they aren’t bravely defending their goal, they are quiet observers, watching the tactics of each team play out before them, organising their defence, understanding geometry and angles. Evelyn Waugh, Arthur Conan Doyle, Albert Camus, my photography hero Henri Cartier-Bresson and many other noted artists and writers were goalkeepers.
After a trial with Sheffield United when I was 15, I spent a year training at the club, and felt like an anomaly. So, after a couple of standout man-of-the-match worthy performances by black goalkeepers Raïs M’Bohli and Tim Howard in the final 16 stage at this year’s world cup in Brazil, I have decided to make the list I always wished I’d had as young black goalkeeper. A collection of goalkeeping heroes to encourage a young generation of black sporting intellectuals…or, as the case may be, eccentrics.
10. Arthur Wharton
Wharton was a distinguished sportsman on many levels. Not only was he a talented cricketer, he also set the first recorded world 100-yard sprinting record with a time of ten seconds, and is widely considered to be the first black professional footballer in the world. He played in Victorian era Britain for Preston North End, which, believe it or not, were then the best team in the world, known unofficially as ‘The Invincibles’. He also played for Sheffield United, and only lost his place when the legendary William “Fatty” Foulke signed up to the club. Of upperclass Nigerian heritage, he angered his family by focussing on sports, instead of using his time in Britain to study. This, no doubt, contributed to some of the drinking problems that would later ruin his promising career. He died a penniless coal miner in the Northern town of Edlington, where, until recently, he had an unmarked grave.
9. Raïs M’Bohli
M’Bohli was born in France to parents of Congolese and Algerian heritage, and honed his craft at the French club with the biggest North African connection, Olympique Marseille. His rise to prominence at this year’s world cup has been a long one, as, until recently he has flown under the radar, flirting with huge clubs like Manchester United, but never quite making the cut. He first caught the attention of England fans in Algeria’s impressive 0-0 draw during the world cup in 2010, and currently enjoys success at Bulgarian club CSKA Sofia.
8. Vincent Enyeama
When Argentina played Nigeria in the group stage of the world cup this year, one of the first things Lionel Messi did, was shake the hand of Nigeria’s goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama with a wry smile on his face. Messi remembered all too well his old nemesis from the World Cup in South Africa, where Enyeama saved shot after shot of the then world footballer of the year. Known for incredible agility and spectacular acrobatics, Enyeama was instrumental in helping his country get through this year’s tough group stage, and is making a name for himself at French club Lille as one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
7. Joseph Antoine Belle
Josef Antoine Belle is from a long tradition of incredible Cameroonian goalkeepers, and enjoyed a 20 year career that included three world cups, two African Cup of Nations titles and success at some of France’s biggest clubs, including Marseilles, Bordeaux and St Etienne. He was one of the first African keepers to play in Europe, and is known as much for his great goalkeeping as for his outspoken criticism of the African Football Federation, for which he was banned from World Cup Italia ’90. During the 80’s in France, he repeatedly had Banana’s thrown at him, and was one of the first black players to tackle racism, forcing the French FA to crack down on racist fans.
6. Rene Higuita
Rene Higuita, known in his native Colombia as ‘El Loco’ needs little introduction. Whether inventing one of the greatest football tricks of all time, the Scorpion Kick, showing signs of footballing schizophrenia on the pitch (…was he keeper, a sweeper or a striker? He scored 42 goals in his career) or being involved in kidnapping controversies with drug tycoon Pablo Escobar, there is no doubt that Higuita is one of the most entertaining footballing characters of all time. Though he would get punished for his antics every now and then, and concede a needless goal, it is easy to forget that, ultimately, Higuita had the perfect “I don’t give a fuck” attitude needed to stay calm under pressure and criticism, and more often than not, he proved his critics wrong.
5. Bernard Lama
Lama grew up in French Guiana, and, against his father’s wishes, left for France with dreams of being a professional footballer in the early 1980’s. It must have seemed like a preposterous idea to a father, looking at his young African son with wanting to hit big time in Europe. Years later Lama has the three most coveted medals it is possible to have in football, winning domestic league, champions league and World Cup honours amongst many others. Lama cut an elegant figure in goal with his slick back hair, his slim goalkeeper trousers (instead of shorts), and his tall, agile frame, and he was a goalkeeper who rarely got caught in embarrassing situations. His solid performances during ‘La Belle Epoche’ of French football in the 90’s has ensured he has gone down as one of the legends of Paris St Germaine.
4. Tim Howard
Of African American and Hungarian heritage, Tim Howard grew up in New Jersey excelling in both basketball and ‘soccer’, two sports which helped him deal with his affliction of Tourettes syndrome. Despite winning the MLS player of the year in 2001 for his home side, the New Jersey Imperials, it must have been a surprise when Alex Ferguson enquired about signing him for the greatest footballing franchise in the world, Manchester United. It became clear, early on, that the Premier League was where he belonged, and it was only when Manchester United signed Edwin Van Der Sar, one of the greatest keepers of all time, that Howard struggled to keep his number one shirt. He currently enjoys his soccer as part of the ever improving Everton side who will be looking for Champions League football next year, and his recent performance against Germany caught so much recognition that female emcee Jean Grae tweeted “8 million “Tim Howard” rap lines were just written”.
3. David James
David James (MBE), along with Shaka Hislop, who just missed out on this list, was one of my few points of reference as a black goalkeeper in Britain. As a Liverpool fan my feelings were mixed about this mixed-race giant between the sticks. On the one hand he was capable of pulling off the best saves imaginable, on the other hand, his ambitious attempts at catching corners often cost Liverpool some huge defeats, earning him the moniker of ‘Calamity James’ in the mid 90’s. Having recently retired, it is only now that we can looking back at James as one of the greatest British goalkeepers of all time. The statistics don’t lie: James is third on the list of all-time Premier League appearances, having played in 536 games at the top-level and also holds the Premier League record for most clean sheets.
2. Jacques Songo’o
Cameroonian legend Jacques Songo’o often lived in the shadow of team mates Joseph Antoine Bell and Thomas Nkono on the international stage, but was instrumental in helping Spanish club Deportivo La Coruna in their surprising La Liga win in the 96/97 season, the first in the club’s history. A solid shot stopper who made few mistakes, Songo’o was the undisputed No.1 for the Spanish side for four years, and won the coveted Ricardo Zamora trophy for best goalkeeper in the Spanish league.
1. Thomas Nkono
Here it is: The Indomitable Lion at the top of the tree. I first heard of Thomas Nkono in a Trans World Sport Special about African Goalkeepers, and it was clear he was the reason behind the great legacy of of Cameroonian shot stoppers. Italian number 1 Gianluigi Buffon, arguably the best goalkeeper of the 21st century thus far, decided to become a goalkeeper after watching Nkono’s heroics at the Italia 90 World Cup, where Nkono, along with team mates Roger Milla and Cyrille Makanaky, was one of the tournaments best players. Nkono was an international for his country for nearly 20 years, but built up his reputation as one of the world’s premier goalkeepers with a decade at Spanish side Espanol. Despite the odd controversy over the years (involving a bizarre ban for using Black Magic in the African Cup of Nations) Africans are quite rightly proud of a player who helped to bring African football into world consciousness.