Africa failing to keep up
Cup of Nations 'howlers' highlight dearth of top-class netminders, writes Jonathan Wilson
Three-quarters of the way through Cameroon's second match in the group stages of the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola, they seemed to be on their way out.
Having lost their opener to Gabon, they trailed Zambia 1-0 and seemed devoid of ideas on how to break them down. Geremi slung in a typically uninspired cross from the right. Kennedy Mweene, the Zambia goalkeeper, started to come for it, checked, came again, got his feet in a terrible tangle, and finally sprawled on the ball, only for it to squirm under him and inside the post.
In a tournament of atrocious goalkeeping, that was probably the worst moment, yet Mweene is a 'keeper of pedigree, having been named goalkeeper of the year in the South African Premier League in 2009. Of 53 goals scored in the group stage, 23 could be attributed to goalkeeper error. It is difficult to envisage much of an improvement between now and the summer, so goalkeeping ability, or lack of it, could be a massive handicap for the six African teams at the World Cup finals.
There have been some real howlers in Angola. The host nation, for instance, seemed to be cruising to victory in the opening game when Carlos Fernandes dropped a cross and allowed Seydou Keita to begin Mali's fightback from four goals down.
In the same group, Algeria's Faouzi Chaouchi was responsible for two of Malawi's goals in his side's 3-0 defeat, fumbling a cross and smacking a clearance straight into a forward.
It is not just that some of the goalkeeping has been bad; a lot of it has been unfathomably eccentric. Late in Mozambique's draw with Benin, for instance, Rafael came for an overhit through ball, gathered comfortably, and then attempted to flip over. Misjudging it badly, he landed on his neck, injuring himself and sending the ball squirting loose. He was lucky it did not cost a goal.
"You see a lot of mistakes," says the former Nigeria goalkeeper, Idah Peterside. "You saw the game where the Mozambique goalkeeper tried to act funny. These things are long gone in football. We did that 20 years ago, but now the game is more technical."
This means that sides with a good goalkeeper have a huge advantage -- and it may yet be significant that Ivory Coast's greatest weakness is their 'keeper, Boubacar Barry of KSC Lokeren. "I think [Essam] El-Hadary is the best in the tournament," says Ahmed Hassan, Egypt's captain, of his side's 'keeper, who has been instrumental in the Pharoahs' successes in the past two Cups of Nations. "He is strong and secure and that gives us lots of confidence."
El-Hadary has barely been tested so far in Angola, so survives with his reputation intact, as does Cameroon's Carlos Kameni of Espanyol. He has had his wobbles, but Kameni appears to be the only African 'keeper going to the World Cup who looks up to the task.
A new book on African football, The Feet of the Chameleon, sets out the theory why Cameroon has traditionally produced good goalkeepers. Claude Le Roy, who has as much experience of coaching in Africa as any European, tells of going into the Bassa region of central-southern Africa and discovering a game that involved two boys facing each other across a courtyard. One would head a ball and try to hit the roof of his opponent's house; the other would jump to try to save it. But Le Roy tells the book's author, Ian Hawkey, that even in Cameroon, goalkeeping lags behind. "Look at the conditions. The pitches are covered in stones and broken bottles, or they're hard as concrete. Nobody wants to dive around and train on this."
Cameroon aside, there is no great tradition on which young 'keepers can draw, a point made by Gabon's Didier Ovono, who has so far been the best goalkeeper in the Cup of Nations. "It's about the mentality," he says. "In Africa, they don't give a lot of work to the goalkeeper. When you go abroad you must have the technique to play there. If you do not, you cannot. Overseas they start at eight years old to play goalkeeper. In Africa you must start outfield, and you go in goal later, when you are 12, 13. It's difficult because we don't have good goalkeeper coaches."
The 27-year-old was a midfielder who converted to play in goal aged 12, and showed enough promise for his government to pay for him to attend Thomas Nkono's academy in Barcelona. Nkono played in two World Cups for Cameroon (1982 and 1990) and was in the squad for USA 94. "I stayed one year to get technique," Ovono says. "Nkono told me everything I know in football. After, when I was 18, I started in El Salvador." He moved on to Georgia where he won a league title with Dinamo Tbilisi, and is now a regular for Le Mans in France's top division.
Peterside speaks similarly of going in goal in his teens because it was his best chance of getting into the side. Tellingly, his heroes were not African, but Gianluca Pagliuca of Italy and Sergio Goycochea of Argentina. "A lot of people want to score goals and have the glamour and the money," he says, before explaining his theory that African 'keepers cannot secure the moves to Europe they need to progress because so few African 'keepers have succeeded before, so clubs are unwilling to take a chance.
"Everybody wants the new Michael Essien," says Tom Vernon, Manchester United's scout in Africa, who runs an academy in Ghana. "So other positions don't get a look-in."
That may be so, but on the evidence of the past fortnight, their suspicion appears justified. And so the cycle of underachievement keeps on turning.
The most common excuse for goalkeepers has been the ball, which is of global concern given it is the same Adidas Jabulani model that will be used at the World Cup. "It is a very fast ball and because of this, it is often very difficult to judge its flight," Nigeria's Vincent Enyeama says.
Ovono agrees. "All the goalkeepers are talking about it. It doesn't have just one trajectory, it moves a lot. When they shoot it strong, you cannot follow the ball. You saw that against Tunisia. The ball came like this [mimes ball moving straight] and at the last moment, it moves. So you have to wait for the last moment."
Watch out, then, for more howlers in South Africa.