Black goalkeepers, big clubs and Europe’s uneven playing field
By Rory Smith
On the surface, Chelsea’s victory against Rennes in the Champions League a few weeks ago was just another of those disposable, check-box exercises that litter the group stages of the competition. Chelsea, the heavy favorite — the team with superior financial firepower, a deeper squad and broader ambitions — cruised to a win.
Beyond the score, there seemed little to remember it by. And yet that game, like Tuesday’s return match in France, was a rarity not only in the Champions League, but in elite European soccer as a whole.
Startlingly, troublingly, these may be the only two games in the Champions League this season in which both teams played a Black goalkeeper: Édouard Mendy, the 28-year-old acquired by Chelsea in September, and Alfred Gomis, the man who replaced him at Rennes.
Few sports are quite the level playing fields they believe themselves to be. Black quarterbacks were once as rare in the NFL as Black entrants were at tennis championships and golf majors. Soccer, like so many other sports, still struggles for Black representation in leadership roles: There are few Black managers, and even fewer Black executives.
And, certainly, there is abundant anecdotal evidence that the game — in Europe, if not in the United States or Africa — harbors a deep-rooted skepticism toward Black goalkeepers, one that has been allowed to fester through lack of analysis, lack of opportunity and even lack of acknowledgment.
André Onana, the Ajax goalkeeper, has a story about the time an Italian club informed him that its fans simply would not accept a move to sign a Black goalkeeper. There is another one about a former Premier League manager who, when presented with two potential new recruits, outright dismissed the one who was not white. He did not need to see him play, he said.
For most of his career in England, former goalkeeper Shaka Hislop was aware of the unspoken stereotype that shadowed him, and he still remembers those occasions when it was given voice. Like the day he and his teammates for Trinidad and Tobago were waiting in a New York airport and an immigration officer — not quite realizing who he was — explained to him, at length, why Black players did not make good goalkeepers.
Quite how deep-rooted the problem remains, though, is borne out by the figures. Of Europe’s five major leagues, France’s 20-team Ligue 1 — where nine Black goalkeepers featured last season, and eight have already received playing time this year — is very much an outlier. The numbers elsewhere are stark.
Before last week’s international break, 77 goalkeepers had appeared for at least a minute across 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 played goal in Italy and Spain, and only two of the 36 who featured in Germany.
The figures in England are almost as striking. While Mendy has quickly established himself at Chelsea, the five other Black goalkeepers currently registered to Premier League squads, including the United States international Zack Steffen at Manchester City, have yet to play in the league.
The contrast between the paltry amount of Black goalkeepers and the number of Black outfield players across all of Europe’s elite leagues is such that it is hard to write it off as coincidence or the illusion of a momentary snapshot. Black goalkeepers are chronically underrepresented in European soccer. African ones are even more uncommon.
Every year, for example, the traditional powerhouse nations of West Africa have dozens of players on rosters in Europe’s major leagues. But the first-choice goalkeepers of Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Ghana all still play in Africa. And while no African country has produced quite so many elite goalkeepers as Cameroon, which once sent Jacques Songo’o and Thomas N’Kono to play in Spain and Joseph-Antoine Bell off to a long career in France, that nation’s current No. 1 goalkeeper, Fabrice Ondoa, has not yet left Belgium’s top division for one of Europe’s marquee leagues.
Ondoa’s cousin — and national teammate — Onana does, at least, play in the Champions League for Ajax. But only Senegal, with two goalkeepers — Mendy and Gomis — playing in the world’s biggest club competition, can say with confidence it has two goalkeepers competing at professional soccer’s highest level.
Mendy does not have a ready explanation for why that might be. Perhaps, he said at his introduction as a Chelsea player, it was something to do with the ill-defined “profile” of players that coaches wanted. Others have different, more deep-rooted explanations.
“There used to be a stigma attached to the idea of a Black quarterback in the NFL,” said Tim Howard, the former Everton and United States goalkeeper. “There was this idea that they were not as cerebral.”
Howard sees an echo of that in the dearth of Black goalkeepers. Soccer has long considered itself a meritocracy — at least on the field — that has moved beyond old, damaging stereotypes. Dig a little deeper, though, and their pernicious influence remains. Black players are still statistically less likely to play in central or attacking midfield, for example, and are far more likely to be praised by commentators for physical attributes like pace and power than about more intangible qualities like “intelligence” and “leadership.” And very rarely, it seems, are they given a chance at the elite European level to play in goal.
Mendy accepts that it falls to him to help overturn the stereotype. All he can do, he said, is “show I can really perform at this level, and perhaps change people’s mentalities on these things.” To those who have had to endure the same prejudices, though, who spent their careers hoping to be an agent of change, that is part of the problem.
Hislop, now a commentator for ESPN, zooms in on the case of Jordan Pickford, the current first-choice goalkeeper for both Everton and England’s national team. Pickford has come under scrutiny in the last few years both for perceived technical flaws in his game and for a tendency toward rashness. “Everyone comes under the spotlight once in a while,” Hislop said.
The difference is that, whenever Pickford makes a mistake, “nobody uses his performances to proclaim that white players don’t make good goalkeepers,” Hislop said. If Pickford errs, the only reputation that suffers is his own.
Black goalkeepers, Hislop argues, are not afforded the same privilege. It felt to him during his career, he said, as if every individual error was used as conclusive proof that all “Black goalkeepers make mistakes.” And it did not apply just to him: He believed that when David James, a goalkeeper with Liverpool, Manchester City and England, made mistakes, those errors were held up as supporting evidence for the stereotype.
Carlos Kameni, a former Cameroon international who spent the bulk of his career at Espanyol in Spain, said he was confident that the dearth of Black goalkeepers was not “a form of racism.”
If a goalkeeper is good enough, Kameni said, one of Europe’s major clubs will sign him, and he uses Mendy’s arrival at Chelsea as supporting evidence. To Kameni, the problem is much simpler. “There are not enough Black goalkeepers who are good enough,” he said over a series of WhatsApp messages.
Those two things, though, are not unconnected. The problem, Hislop said, is not only that coaches are less likely to give aspiring Black goalkeepers a chance to showcase their talents, but that Black players have fewer role models offering proof that they can succeed. “They do not have an example to follow,” he said.
He is, at least, hopeful. He sees a raft of promising Black goalkeepers in the United States, a country and a soccer culture where Howard, Bill Hamid, Sean Johnson and now Steffen have effectively killed off the stereotype, and where Philadelphia’s Andre Blake — a Jamaica international — was just named Major League Soccer’s goalkeeper of the year.
More pertinently, Hislop cites Brazil as proof that stereotypes can disappear. For a long time — and despite compelling evidence to the contrary — it was held as gospel truth that Brazil did not produce high-quality goalkeepers.
“Everyone in Trinidad and Tobago also kind of considers themselves a Brazil fan,” Hislop said. “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 not, can be exposed. Vicious cycles can be stopped in their tracks, or even reversed. Mendy, Gomis, Onana and the rest can help that process. The shame, of course, is that they have to do so.