The Chelsea game against Rennes in the Champions League is a rare encounter of black goalkeepers on the biggest stage in club football. But why are there so few?
On the surface, Chelsea’s Champions League win against Rennes a few weeks ago was just another of those check-boxing drills available that litter the group stage of the competition. Chelsea, the strong favorite – the team with superior financial firepower, a deeper squad, and broader ambitions – drove to victory.
Beyond the score, there seemed to be little to remember. And yet, like the second leg in France on Tuesday, this game was a rarity not only in the Champions League, but also in all of European elite football.
Amazingly, these are possibly the only two Champions League games this season that both teams have played against a black goalkeeper: Édouard Mendy, the 28-year-old who was taken over by Chelsea in September, and Alfred Gomis, the Man who replaced him in Rennes.
Few sports are as level playing field as they believe themselves to be. Black quarterbacks were once so rare in the N. F.. . L.. . as black participants were in tennis championships and golf majors. Like so many other sports, football is still fighting for the representation of blacks in management positions: there are few black managers and even fewer black executives.
And there is certainly ample anecdotal evidence that the game – in Europe, if not the US or Africa – harbors a deeply ingrained skepticism about black goalkeepers that has been allowed to fester due to a lack of analysis. Lack of opportunity and even lack of recognition.
Ajax goalkeeper André Onana has a story about the time when an Italian club informed him that their fans would simply not accept a move to sign a black goalkeeper. There’s another one about a former Premier League manager who, when introducing two potential new recruits, immediately fired the one who wasn’t white. He didn’t need to see him play, he said.
For most of his career in England, former goalkeeper Shaka Hislop was well aware of the unspoken stereotype shadowing him and he still remembers the occasions when he was given a voice. Like the day he and his teammates waited at a New York airport for Trinidad and Tobago and an immigration officer – who didn’t quite know who he was – explained to him in detail why black players weren’t good goalkeepers.
The numbers show how deeply ingrained the problem is. Of the five major European leagues, French Ligue 1 is an outlier with 20 teams, which featured nine black goalkeepers last season and eight this year. The numbers elsewhere are strong.
Before the international break last week, 77 goalkeepers had appeared for at least one minute in the Bundesliga, Serie A and La Liga. None of them were black. Last year, appearances by black goalkeepers were similarly rare: only two of the 92 men who scored goals in Italy and Spain, and only two of the 36 men who appeared in Germany.
The numbers in England are almost as striking. Only three black players have scored the goal in a Premier League game this year: Alphonse Areola from Fulham, Robert Sánchez from Brighton and Mendy from Chelsea. Five other players are currently registered in the Premier League squads, including the United States international Zack Steffen in Manchester City, but have yet to play in the league.
The contrast between the small number of black goalkeepers and the number of black field players in all European elite leagues is so great that it is difficult to write it off as a coincidence or an illusion of a momentary snapshot. Black goalkeepers are chronically under-represented in European football. African are even rarer.
In the traditional power plant nations of West Africa, for example, dozens of players in the most important European leagues are on the squad every year. But first-choice goalkeepers from Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Ghana are still playing in Africa. And while no African country has produced as many elite goalkeepers as Cameroon, which once sent Jacques Songo’o and Thomas N’Kono to Spain and Joseph-Antoine Bell to a long career in France, the current No.. 1 goalkeeper, Fabrice Ondoa, has not yet left the top Belgian league for any of the European marquee leagues.
Ondoa’s cousin – and national teammate – Onana plays at least in the Champions League for Ajax. But only Senegal, where two goalkeepers – Mendy and Gomis – play in the world’s largest club competition, can say with confidence that two goalkeepers compete against each other at the highest level of professional football.
Mendy has no explanation as to why that could be so. Perhaps, he said at his introduction as a Chelsea player, this had something to do with the ill-defined “profile” of the players coaches wanted. Others have different, ingrained explanations.
“The idea of a black quarterback in the N used to come with a stigma. F.. . L.. . « Said Tim Howard, the former Everton and US goalkeeper. “There was the idea that they weren’t that cerebral. ”
Howard sees an echo of this in the lack of black goalkeepers. Football has long viewed itself as a meritocracy – at least on the field – that has transcended old, harmful stereotypes. However, if you dig a little deeper, their harmful influence will persist. Statistically speaking, black players still play less often in the central or offensive midfield and are much more praised by commentators for physical characteristics such as speed and strength than for intangible characteristics such as “intelligence” and “leadership”. “And apparently they very rarely get the chance to play in goal at the European elite level.
Mendy accepts that it’s up to him to break the stereotype. All he can do is « show that I can really perform at this level and maybe change people’s mentality on these things. For those who have endured the same prejudice and spent their careers hoping to be an agent for change, this is part of the problem.
Hislop, now ESPN commentator, adds to the case of Jordan Pickford, the current goalkeeper of choice for Everton and England. Pickford has been scrutinized for perceived technical flaws in his game as well as a tendency to be reckless in recent years. « Everyone comes into the spotlight every now and then, » said Hislop.
The difference is that when Pickford makes a mistake, « no one uses his performances to proclaim that white players are not good goalkeepers, » said Hislop. If Pickford is wrong, only his own reputation will suffer.
Black goalkeepers, according to Hislop, do not have the same privilege. Throughout his career, it has felt to him that every single mistake is being used as conclusive evidence that all “black goalkeepers make mistakes. And it wasn’t just for him: he believed when David James, a goalkeeper at Liverpool, Manchester City and England, made mistakes, those mistakes were cited as evidence of the stereotype.
He also sees a parallel to black representation in other areas of sport. Hislop quotes Les Ferdinand, the Queens Park Rangers football director who is currently playing in England’s second-rate championship. Once he was appointed, Hislop said, Ferdinand knew that more than just his reputation depends on his performance.
« If 80 percent of white male football directors in the league are bad mistakes, it won’t stop anyone from nominating the next white, » Hislop said. “But Les had to be excellent so that other black players could get a shot. ”
Same goes for goalkeepers in Hislop’s eyes, creating a self-fulfilling cycle. Carlos Kameni, a former Cameroonian international who had spent most of his career with Espanyol in Spain, said he was confident that the lack of black goalkeepers was not a « form of racism ». ”
If a goalkeeper is good enough he’ll be signed to one of Europe’s biggest clubs and Kendi uses Mendy’s arrival at Chelsea as evidence of that. For Kameni, the problem is much easier. « There aren’t enough black goalkeepers who are good enough, » he said over a series of WhatsApp messages.
These two things are not unrelated, however. The problem, Hislop said, is not only that coaches give aspiring black goalkeepers fewer opportunities to show off their talents, but that black players have fewer role models to prove they can be successful. « They have no example to follow, » he said.
He is at least hopeful. He sees a number of promising black goalkeepers in the U.S., a country and football culture where Howard, Bill Hamid, Sean Johnson, and now Steffen have effectively broken the stereotype and where Philadelphia’s Andre Blake – a Jamaican international – has just been named The Goalkeeper Major League Soccer of the year.
Fittingly, Hislop cites Brazil as evidence that stereotypes can go away. For a long time – and despite convincing evidence to the contrary – it was considered gospel truth that Brazil did not produce highly skilled goalkeepers.
« Everyone in Trinidad and Tobago sees themselves as a Brazil fan, » said Hislop. « And they would always say that Brazil didn’t make goalkeepers. But now you have Alisson and Ederson who are two of the best in the world. Nobody will ever say that again. ”
Prejudices, unspoken or unspoken, can be exposed. Vicious circles can be stopped in their tracks or even reversed. Mendy, Gomis, Onana, and the rest can aid this process. The shame, of course, is that they have to do this.
Chelsea F. . C.. . , UEFA Champions League, Stade Rennais F. . C.. . , Frank Lampard
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