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“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Renaissance of African Goalkeepers

Safe Hands
Nigeria's Vincent Enyeama
Since time immemorial goalkeepers have been the ultimate guardian of a football team.

From Dino Zoff to Iker Casillas goalies have been revered as the last line of defence and, occasionally, the difference between glory and despair.

Sadly, when it comes to Africa this has not always been the case. When Zaire were beaten 9-0 by Yugoslavia at the 1974 World Cup Mwamba Kazadi became the model for the idea Africa had poor keepers. That was Africa’s first appearance at a World Cup and over the years – with rare exceptions such as Thomas Nkono and Joseph Antoine Bell – African keepers did little to disprove this notion.

From Peter Rufai’s uncertainty at the 1998 World Cup to Andre Arendse’s misfortune in 2002, the narrative that Africa had sub-standard keepers only got stronger.

The result was a low opinion of African keepers from the outside and little respect for the position within Africa itself, perpetuating a cycle whereby focus was on outfielders rather than goalkeepers.

Fortunately, there seems to be a gradual change and in 2013 there is a different mood – a renaissance of African goalkeepers.

With goalkeeper coaching drastically improving and greater attention is paid on the art, things are changing from a time when a good African keeper was the exception rather than the norm. 

The recent Africa Cup of Nations was the real show of the continent’s goalkeeping talent and this was in evidence again around during the weekend’s 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

Of course there is still the bizarre; Ethiopia’s Jamel Tassew’s kung-fu kick on Zambia’s Chisamba Lungu being a prime example, however there’s been more than enough evidence to suggest it’s time to end the notion that the continent has bad goalkeepers.

The consistently brilliant performances of South Africa’s Itumeleng Khune, Zambia’s Kennedy Mweene and Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama in particular present strong counter-arguments to the old clichés about Africa’s goalkeepers.

On Saturday against the Central African Republic Khune was again exemplary with his marvellous distribution and his positioning. Zambia’s Mweene, who saves penalties as efficiently as he scores them, has been a model of consistency for club and country over the last four years.
Flying Machine
Bafana's Itumeleng Khune
Enyeama, arguably Africa’s top keeper, first made headlines in South Africa at the last World Cup for a stunning display against Argentina and last month he was at it again leading Nigeria to its first Nations Cup title in 19 years.

There are still challenges in the way of Africa’s keepers. Many countries remain behind when it comes to goalkeeping training techniques while keepers are often times outfield players who were pushed to the posts.

Keepers are also generally exposed to a different type of game to leagues abroad with more flair but less crosses and high balls pumped into the penalty area.

This has contributed to a tendency of European clubs to underrate African goalkeepers. At the recent Nations Cup only Togo’s Kosi Agassa, of Reims in France’s Ligue 1, was a regular starter at a club in one of Europe’s so-called top five leagues.

On the other hand outfield players such from Didier Drogba to Samuel Eto’o form the backbone of many a European club side.

As Nkono (the only goalkeeper to have twice been elected Africa Footballer of the Year) says it’s down to miscalculated preconceptions.

“I am not sure if people any longer have a generally low opinion of African goalkeepers,” says Nkono. “But I think there was time when maybe people abroad thought in terms of Mwamba Kazadi and one bad World Cup match.”

It’s a battle Africa keepers, such as Khune and Mweene, face when it comes to breaking through to the highest level of the game. Since Nkono and Bell had success in the eighties for Espanyol and Marseille respectively, only Carlos Kameni has had a long run in goals for a top European team.

Goalkeeper does remain a problem position for several of Africa’s top sides, but there are enough good keepers to end the stereotype of the naive African goalkeeper. 
Mr. Penalties
Zambia's Kennedy Mweene
It’s ok to know Africa’s stoppers for their uniqueness, such as DRC’s Robert Kidiaba’s donkey dance which delighted at the recent African Cup of Nations, but it should also be known that Africa has quality keepers that can hold their own against the best in the world.


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