Ostensibly, Chelsea’s victory over Rennes in the Champions League a few weeks ago was just another of those disposable drills that pervade the group stages of the competition. Chelsea, the favorite – the team with extraordinary financial strength, deeper squad and broader ambitions – pulled off the victory.
Beyond the result, there seemed to be little to remember. However, this match, like Tuesday’s second leg in France, was rare not only in the Champions League, but in European football as a whole.
Amazingly and disturbingly, these may be the only two Champions League matches this season in which both teams have played a black goalkeeper: Edward Mendy, the 28-year-old who was acquired by Chelsea in September, and Alfred Jómez, the man who replaced him. In Rennes.
Few sports are a playing field in which they believe. Black midfielders were rare in the NFL as were black participants in tennis and senior golf tournaments. Football, like many other sports, still fights for black representation in leadership roles: there are fewer black managers, and fewer black executives.
Certainly, there is ample evidence that the game – in Europe, if not the United States or Africa – carries deep-seated suspicions of black goalkeepers, doubts that have been allowed to fester due to a lack of analysis and a lack of opportunity. Even a lack of recognition.
Andre Unana, Ajax goalkeeper, has a story of a time when an Italian club told him that their fans would simply not accept a move to sign a black goalkeeper. Another topic has to do with a former Premier League coach who, when introduced with two potential new recruits, fired the one who wasn’t white. He said he didn’t need to see him play.
For most of his career in England, former goalkeeper Shaka Hislop was aware of the unspoken stereotype that kept him down, and he can still remember those occasions when he was given a voice. Like the day he and his Trinidad and Tobago teammates were waiting at the New York airport, the immigration officer – not fully aware of who he was – explained to him in detail why the black players hadn’t made good goalkeepers.
However, the numbers confirm how deep the problem still remains. Of Europe’s five major leagues, the 20-team French League – nine black goalkeepers participated last season, and eight have already had playtime this year – is a long way away. The numbers elsewhere are stark.
Before the international break last week, 77 goalkeepers appeared for at least one minute in La Liga, Serie A and La Liga. None of them were black. Last year, the participation of black goalkeepers was equally rare: only two of the 92 players who had played a goal in Italy and Spain, and only two of the 36 players who participated in Germany.
The numbers in England are almost amazing. Only three black players have appeared in the net in one of the Premier League matches this year: Alphonse Areola of Fulham, Brighton’s Robert Sanchez and Chelsea’s Mindy. Five others are currently registered with Premier League teams, including USA international Zach Stephen, at Manchester City, but have yet to play in the league yet.
The contrast between the small number of black goalkeepers and the number of black players abroad in all of Europe’s elite leagues is that it is difficult to write it off as a coincidence or an illusion from a quick shot. Black goalkeepers are chronically underrepresented in European football. Africans are more common.
Every year, for example, the traditionally powerful states of West Africa have dozens of players on the lists of major European leagues. But the key goalkeepers for Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Ghana still play in Africa. And although no African country has produced elite goalkeepers like Cameroon, which once sent Jacques Songo and Thomas Nkono to play in Spain and Joseph Antoine Bell on a long rally in France, that current country No. 1 has not left the goalkeeper, Fabrice Ondua, The Belgian First Division after in one of the European leagues.
Onana’s cousin – and his team-mate – Onana plays, at least, in the UEFA Champions League with Ajax. But only Senegal, which has two goalkeepers – Mindy and Jomis – playing in the world’s largest club competition, can confidently say that it has two goalkeepers competing at the highest level in professional football.
Mendy doesn’t have a ready-made explanation as to why this is happening. As a player at Chelsea, he said in his introduction, it might have been more about the unclear “profile” of the players the coaches wanted. Others have different, more in-depth interpretations.
“There was a stigma attached to the idea of a black midfielder in the NFL,” said Tim Howard, former Everton and USA goalkeeper. “There was an idea that they weren’t cerebral.”
Howard sees an echo of this in the dearth of black goalkeepers. Football has always seen itself as a merit – at least on the field – that has transcended old, destructive stereotypes. Dig a little deeper, however, and their harmful effect remains. Black players are still statistically less likely to play in midfield or offensive midfield, for example, and are more likely to be praised by commentators for their physical traits such as speed and strength than for their intangible qualities such as “intelligence” and “leadership.” . And they rarely seem to get the chance at the European elite to play on goal.
Mendy accepts that it is his responsibility to help turn the stereotype. He said all he could do was “show that I can actually perform at this level, and maybe change people’s mindsets about these things.” For those who have had to endure the same prejudices, though, who have spent their careers hoping to be agents of change, this is part of the problem.
Hislop, now an ESPN commentator, is focusing on the case of Jordan Pickford, the current favorite of both Everton and the England national team. Beckford has come under scrutiny in the past few years for notable technical flaws in his game and a tendency toward impulsivity. “Everyone comes into the spotlight once in a while,” Hislop said.
The difference, Hislop said, is that when Beckford makes a mistake, “no one uses his performance to announce that the white players do not make good goalkeepers.” If Beckford is wrong, the only reputation that suffers is his.
Hislop argues that black goalkeepers don’t get the same privilege. He said he felt it throughout his career as if every single mistake was used as conclusive evidence that “all black goalkeepers make mistakes”. And it didn’t just apply to him: It was believed that when Liverpool, Manchester City and England goalkeeper David James made mistakes, those mistakes were seen as supporting the stereotype.
It also sees a similarity to the representation of blacks in other areas of sport as well. Hislop quotes Les Ferdinand, Queens Park Rangers’ football director, who is currently in the second division championship in England. Hislop said that once he was hired, Ferdinand knew there was more than just his reputation affecting his performance.
“If 80 percent of the white football managers in the league have failed miserably, that won’t stop anyone from hiring the next white man,” Hislop said. “But he should’ve been great for the other black players to have a chance.”
The same applies to goalkeepers, in Hislop’s view, and it creates a self-rotating tournament. Carlos Kameni, a former Cameroon international player who spent the bulk of his career at Espanyol in Spain, said he was confident the dearth of black goalkeepers was not “a form of racism”.
Kameni said that if the goalkeeper were good enough, one of the top clubs in Europe would sign him, and he used Mendy’s arrival at Chelsea as supporting evidence. For Camini, the problem is much simpler. “There aren’t enough black goalkeepers who are good enough,” he said over a series of WhatsApp messages.
These two things, however, are not separate. The problem, Hislop said, is not only that coaches are less likely to give black goalkeepers a chance to showcase their talents, but black players have fewer role models who provide evidence of their ability to succeed. He said, “They have no example to follow.”
He is, at least, optimistic. He sees a group of promising black goalkeepers in the United States, a football state and culture where Howard, Bill Hamid, Shawn Johnson and now Stephen effectively killed the stereotype, and where Andre Blake the Philadelphia Jamaican international has just been named. Best Goalkeeper in the Football League of the Year.
More appropriately, Hislop cites Brazil as evidence that stereotypes can disappear. For a long time – and despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary – it was considered a fact that Brazil did not produce high-quality goalkeepers.
“Everyone in Trinidad and Tobago considers themselves some kind of a Brazil fan,” Hislop said. “And they always said Brazil didn’t make goalkeepers. But now you have Alison and Ederson, who are two of the best players in the world. Nobody will say that again.”
Unspoken or unspoken biases can be detected. Vicious cycles can be stopped in their tracks, or even reversed. Mandy, Jomis, Onana, and the rest can help with this process. The shame, of course, is that they have to do this.
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