(Picture courtesy of BBC)
By Sam Crocker
With a much-publicised record on the brink of being broken in Ligue 1 in the coming weeks, the stats men are being kept on their toes in France, with only a matter of minutes now separating goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama from a long-held clean sheet record. Attempting to trump former-Bordeaux keeper Gaëtan Huard, holder of the record of 1,176 minutes without conceding a goal during the 1992-3 season, the Nigerian just has 142 minutes of not-picking-the-ball-out-of-his-own-net left before he is the official record holder. However, whilst everyone is focussed on the statistical merit of this potential achievement, something more symbolic is also up for grabs.
Two teams stand in Mr. Enyeama’s way for him to achieve this feat. After keeping out Marseille this week to stretch his run of not conceding to 11 matches, he now has to keep out Bastia for 90 minutes – a task that should not be too challenging he would hope – before the far more daunting prospect of keeping out PSG for a whole 52 minutes. Arguably holding the best attack in the league, there are smatters of the Arsenal team facing Manchester United on their unbeaten run to make it a 50th match unbeaten – a game which they promptly lost and missed out on the symbolic half-century. However, Lille will take pride in the way they have performed against the best sides in Ligue 1 thus far this season, having already beaten Monaco and Marseille – the former of which Enyeama produced one of the best performances of his career.
Only really first choice for Lille this season despite being at the club since 2011, Michael Landreau and Steeve Elana were seen as ahead of him in the pecking order, and was consequently farmed out to the Israeli league with Maccabi Tel Aviv for last season – a place he is familiar with having spent a number of years in Israel plying his trade. But this run of form has really kicked off the debate about African goalkeepers, and the discourses that are associated with them that Enyeama has overcome to really position himself amongst the foremost goalkeepers in the world at the minute.
Typically seen by the British and European media as calamitous accidents-waiting-to-happen, the players between the sticks have rarely got the recognition they deserve. Whilst some keepers fit into this stereotype very well, the fact that Enyeama has only just been recognised as an excellent goalkeeper speaks volumes about the barriers that keep many of them from playing for the top clubs in Europe due to the continent that he hails from. A position that is so thoroughly scrutinised when any mistake is made, you can see why the assumption that African goalkeepers lack the attributes to make a solid keeper has held them back for so long, with preferences made to a nationality more associated with the tradition. Whilst many have questioned the hyperbole currently surrounding Enyeama right now, suggesting that he needs to prove himself further in Europe to really be considered amongst the best – not an unfair suggestion – the wider issue perhaps lies in the fact that African goalkeepers simply aren’t given the chances to perform and show what they can do.
Enyeama provides a fine example of this. Despite holding down the number 1 jersey in the Nigeria national team since 2002 and picking up 88 caps in the process, the fact that he has played for most of his career in Israel tells half the story. Picked up by Bnei Yehuda in 2005, he went onto play for Hapoel Tel-Aviv for 4 years, earning the reputation as one of the league’s finest goalkeepers. Whilst known by many players of Football Manager for years as a guaranteed good keeper at a knock-down price, only Lille picking him up in 2011 offered the Super Eagles man to really show what he can do. Yet, after being loaned out to Maccabi Tel-Aviv last season, Lille’s constant interchanging of goalkeepers between Landreau, Elana and Congolese keeper Barel Mouko probably made them wish they’d kept him, before he finally got his chance this year.
Now whilst I agree that he needs to prove himself a bit more to be regarded as a top-top-top-top-top keeper, the fact is his nationality almost certainly limited his progression. This leads to makes you wonder about the other keeper from Africa that are constrained by these stereotypes about them. Itumeleng Khune of South Africa has always been a personal favourite of mine, having been frequently impressed by his performances at AFCON and the qualifiers that led up to his 62 caps he currently holds, and despite leading Kaizer Chiefs to a league and cup double last season, he remains relatively unappreciated outside of Africa. Similarly, Kossi Agassa – a man with over 50 caps for Togo – has too been a frontline keeper in Ligue 1 despite playing for lower half of the table side Stade de Reims. France is one of the few countries that has any reasonable number of African keepers, yet a basic appreciation of their quality seems to be desperately lacking. You’ve got to feel that a keeper like Enyeama or Khune would have been playing into Europe years ago had he been from an area that is renowned for producing good keepers (the USA, for example).
One hopes that Enyeama’s excellent form sparks a change in the way people see goalkeepers from Africa. Record or not record, the fact he is playing consistently magnificently for one of the in-form sides in France right now – Lille – shows that he can be one of the best goalkeepers in the world, without doubt. Change in perspective and the assumptions made about African goalkeepers is most definitely required if they are to get the chance they deserve in the European leagues, and I hope Vincent Enyeama can be the catalyst for that.