A Cameroonian Legacy

The old adage was that the player most bereft of any discernible skill with either foot, gets stuck between the sticks to act as a goalkeeper during matches. I was normally that player. So while the others displayed skills that I could only dream of, I spent the whole time undoing all their good work by conceding some of the most ridiculous goals ever scored. Turns out I was pretty much useless at goalkeeping as well.

This didn’t stop me from being fascinated by that position though. The African continent has produced some great goalkeepers over the past thirty years but unlike their counterparts, who play further up field, they haven’t quite grabbed the limelight as they should.

I was particularly interested in the Cameroonian goalkeeper, Thomas Nkono. If he was playing today, someone might have come up with the ‘so good Buffon named his kid after him’ chant. Arguably the greatest goalkeeper Africa has ever produced, he played at Eclair Douala in Cameroon and most memorably at Espanyol in La Liga, but his first big time shot on the international stage was being part of the Cameroon team at the World Cup in 1982.They eventually got eliminated after drawing all three first round games including a 1-1 draw with eventual champions, Italy. He was also a part of the team that got to the quarter-finals at the 1990 World Cup, losing in a pulsating match to England.

The Big 3 of Cameroon Goalkeeping – Thomas NKono, Joseph-Antoine Bell & Jacques Songo’o

This started a rich tradition of excellence between the sticks for Cameroon because after Nkono’s stint as #1, came Joseph-Antoine Bell, another keeper to have played for a Douala team – this time Union Douala. He made more of an impact on the European club scene after playing for Marseille, Toulon and Bordeaux while racking up half a century of caps for the National team. He was part of the World Cup party to the United States in the summer of ‘94 and was in the Cameroon team that won the Nations Cup trophy in ‘84 and ‘88 when he was #2, behind Thomas Nkono.

After years of being an understudy to Bell, Jacques Songo’o featured in the last group game of Cameroon’s ill fated World Cup trip to the USA but unfortunately was on the wrong end of Oleg Salenko’s coruscating five goal salvo in the 6-1 loss to Russia. For someone who had bided his time, this would have been a blow but he recovered from this unfortunate setback to be a rock for both the national team and for various clubs in Spain and France. His stint at Deportivo La Coruna was the highlight of a sterling club career where he helped the club banish the anguish of ‘Super Depor’ (losing the title on the last day in 93/94) by winning their first and only La Liga title in the 99-00 season.

This brings me to the current custodian between the sticks – Carlos Kameni, yet another Nations Cup winner. He too had a Douala origin but made history by being the youngest ever footballer to win an Olympic gold, which he won as a 16 year old, playing all three knock-out round matches, including the tiebreaker in the finals. This earned him a move to France where he would struggle to gain first team spot but he moved to Spain on his 20th birthday and has not looked back since. At just 27 years of age, he’s already amassed 60 caps for his country and is the #1 keeper at Espanyol. And in a nostalgic symmetry, Nkono trained Kameni at Espanyol – the same club he made his name at.

Kameni saving Espanyol’s citadel from Messi’s attacks

We’ve been wowed by the silky skills of first Roger Milla and now Samuel Eto’o over the years but the men between the sticks who have tried to protect the lead these iconic strikers had given their national teams, deserve some recognition as well. A failed goal-tender like me wouldn’t have it any other way.


Tome Obaro is a Milan supporter and a fan of Boban, BungaBunga and Berlusconi. Follow him on twitter @ACMilandrew for more obvious laconic wit