Onana, N’Kono and Cameroon’s rich goalkeeping history

Thomas N’Kono

After winning two CAF Champions League titles with Canon Yaoundé, N’Kono’s exceptional performance on the grandest stage at the 1982 World Cup where he captained the team and conceded just one goal earned him a move to Spain’s top flight with Espanyol where he made 241 appearances with the Periquitos. N’Kono was one of the trailblazers who came to Europe and played at the highest level for so many years and sent a message to the European scouts that African goalkeepers and players can play at the very top level in Europe.

On the international stage, N’Kono will always be remembered for his performances during the 1990 World Cup where Cameroon impressed many as they became the first African team to reach the quarter-finals. N’Kono is regarded by many as the greatest African goalkeeper of all time. N’kono’s performance was so superb during that World Cup it inspired a young Gianluigi Buffon to become a goalkeeper (he was playing as an attacker back then). The two legendary goalkeepers have become friends and Buffon’s son’s middle name is Thomas in honour of the Black Spider. 

The emergence of N’Kono was unfortunate for fellow Cameroonian keeper Joseph-Antoine Bell, who was not always assured a permanent place in the national team due to his country’s goalkeeping pedigree. Bell’s career spanned 20 years, including three World Cup squad selections, two African Cup of Nations trophies and success at top flight with French clubs including Olympic Marseille, Bordeaux, and Saint Etienne. Whilst playing in France he endured a lot of racist abuse from the fans and was a pioneer in fighting racism, forcing the French FA to take action against racist behaviour. Bell’s performances did not go unnoticed as he was named the best African goalkeeper of all time by International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS) ahead of N’Kono and Songo’o. 

Joseph-Antoine Bell

Very few players can boast the fact that they almost single-handedly carried their teams to a league title. And the chances of that player being a goalkeeper is next to zero. But Jacques Songo’o was surely an exception after being instrumental in Deportivo La Coruna’s astonishing La Liga win in the 1996/97 season, the first in the club’s history. His performance for La Coruna that season earned him the Ricardo Zamora Trophy (awarded to the best goalkeeper in La Liga). At the International level, Songo’o was often overshadowed by N’Kono and Bell. Though he won the African Cup of Nations twice in 1988 and 2002. He was unfortunate to be the third choice for many years due to N’Kono and Bell’s remarkable careers. 

Click on the next page below to read about Cameroon’s goalies the 21st century.