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Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy on the brink of Champions League history

Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, who has had an overwhelmingly positive debut season with the Blues, could write his name into football history in Saturday’s Champions League final against Manchester City.

The Senegal stopper could become the first African goalkeeper to win the European title in the Champions League era, with Zimbabwe’s Bruce Grobbelaar winning the European Cup in 1984 with Liverpool.

The meeting between the two Premier League heavyweights at Porto’s Estadio do Dragao will be the 66th final of the European showpiece tournament.

It’s an anomaly considering the sizeable contribution made by African players, and those of African origin, during the history of the competition. Indeed, Mendy has eight clean sheets in 11 Champions League fixtures this season to go with his 16 blanks in the Premier League.

African ‘keepers are few and far between in major European finals or even in European leagues, but why?

As far back as 37 years ago, Zimbabwe goalkeeper Grobbelaar became the first African player to feature in a European Cup final, with the Liverpool stopper influential as the Reds defeated AS Roma on penalties in 1984.

He was almost a two-time winner, only for Liverpool to fall short against Juventus in the 1985 final.

Mendy’s Senegal countryman Tony Sylva, understudy to Flavio Roma in the AS Monaco team that were defeated by Jose Mourinho’s FC Porto in the 2005 final, was the next African keeper who came closest to the title.

For Sylva, the presence of role models — pioneering Cameroon goalkeepers Joseph-Antoine Bell and Thomas N’Kono — was a key reason why he believed that a career in Europe as a goalkeeper was possible as a youngster.

He said: “When I look back, it’s impressive, as since the time of Joseph-Antoine Bell and N’Kono, it was very difficult for African goalkeepers to break through.

“Those two succeeded in finding their place in Europe when there weren’t that many there at the time, and we respect them for being there and opening the door for others to come.”

Sylva, Senegal’s No. 1 when they reached the World Cup quarterfinal in 2002, spent 15 years in French football with the likes of Monaco, Ajaccio, and LOSC Lille, and offers a unique perspective on why it took so long for African goalkeepers to begin to make their mark in the European game.

He said: “[European clubs] wanted someone who was experienced to come in and play straightaway, but it was difficult, because being a goalkeeper is a completely different job [to outfield players] and there’s so much more work that goes in behind it.

“You have to be so much better [than local goalkeepers], and the opportunities must come.”

For Bell, who was among the first Black goalkeepers to leave a mark on the European game when he signed for Olympique de Marseille in 1985, racism has been one of the reasons why African goalkeepers were not given prominent roles earlier in history.

For him, while African players were stereotypically valued for their physical qualities — their power, pace, and dynamism — racist assumptions were made about their mental attributes, allowing the notion of an erratic, error-prone African stopper to persist.

Bell told ESPN: “People thought that because they’ve never seen [an African goalkeeper] before, that it can’t be.

“They understand that the position is technical, you have to be a leader, you have to concentrate, and racism gave the idea that Africans couldn’t concentrate, they couldn’t be technical, they couldn’t be the leader.

“You had to be very strong, because if you came and you were just ‘ok’, then they would say, ‘Well he’s not exceptional, he’s good but he’s not that good’.

“You had to demonstrate that you were far and away the best.”

The subject was touched on recently by ex-USA and Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard — himself the son of an African-American truck driver — in a Q & A with the Boston Globe.

“We had a stigma here with American football and quarterbacks,” the 42-year-old began.

“They talked quite often about how Black quarterbacks weren’t as cerebral as the white quarterbacks, they were more athletic at times.

“It seems like there’s a familiar chord there with goalkeeping, as well, but I like the fact that more Black goalkeepers are breaking through those barriers.

“There’s been some really good goalkeepers coming through, showing they can do that, and probably have been for a long time, just haven’t gotten the opportunity.”

Statistical support or fading scepticism?

Even though Bell blazed a trail three decades ago, and Sylva was part of the Monaco squad that reached the final 16 years ago, African goalkeepers remain a rarity in Europe’s biggest leagues.

In the Premier League, this season, only Chelsea, Fulham (France international Alphonse Areola) and Brighton & Hove Albion (Spain international Robert Martinez) started People of Colour between the sticks.

It’s a different story in France, where nine Ligue 1 stoppers in the 2019-20 season were of African origin, but it was only this year — in the Champions League group stage — when two African goalkeepers came up against each other in a match, as Mendy faced off with his international teammate and successor at Stade Rennais, Alfred Gomis.

Despite the statistics, Bell believes that the “history and mathematics” that explain the paucity of African stoppers specifically at the business end of the Champions League may soon be a thing of the past.

“The Champions League is a European competition, and is [traditionally] not for African footballers… how often does a white player win the African Champions League?” he asked.

[African ‘keepers] didn’t previously play in countries or at clubs who are among the favourites to win the Champions League.

“Of course, this has evolved, but only one goalkeeper can win the Champions League [each year] so you could be a very good African goalkeeper, playing for the champions of France or Spain, and still not win it.

“It’s mathematics as well — you can be the best goalkeeper but not win the Champions League.

“You can’t just be good, you have to be good and be playing for a team who are [domestic] champions, and then be in the situation to win the Champions League.”

Despite Bell’s optimism, it’s clear that — even among those who have played the game at the highest level and hold key positions at big clubs in major leagues — stereotypes persist.

“The advantage of the typical African player,” then-Bordeaux manager Willy Sagnol told Sud Ouest as recently as 2014, “…is that he is generally ready to fight and he is powerful on the pitch, but football is not just that, it’s also technique, intelligence, discipline.”

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Gab and Juls discuss the news of the Champions League final being moved from Istanbul to Porto.

New precedents being set

In 2019, Onana was on the brink of reaching the final with Ajax, only for the Dutch giants to be stunned by Tottenham Hotspur’s breathtaking comeback.

Both Sylva and Bell agree that he and Mendy are further opening the door to greater African representation at the most elite level of the European game.

“Onana has shown that you can be [an African] goalkeeper and compete with European goalkeepers,” said Sylva.

“Mendy is now showing it as well, and for me, it’s a good thing, because I knew that African goalkeepers were capable of competing with the best.”

Bella added: “With Mendy, it is becoming reality that people are becoming used to seeing Black goalkeepers and so we can forget where they came from.

“When a Black goalkeeper makes a mistake, we don’t say anymore that he made it because he’s a Black goalkeeper.

“They said it couldn’t happen, they said [African goalkeepers] couldn’t exist, but what about African attackers. Do you think they’re so good because they’ve been playing with no one in goal?

“They’re so good because they had to be — they’ve been playing against good African goalkeepers.”

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