The African keepers leading the way
From Badou Zaki to Thomas Nkono, and Bruce Grobbelaar to Essam El Hadary and Joseph-Antoine Bell, Africa has consistently produced great goalkeepers. Their heroics in the last line of defence have not only secured their place in the history of African football but have also inspired a whole generation of players.
While many kids growing up on the continent still dream of becoming the next Roger Milla, Samuel Eto’o, Rabah Madjer, Nwankwo Kanu or Didier Drogba, these days many others aspire to be a hero between the posts. It is no surprise to see more and more African keepers bursting onto the scene in elite football.
With the second round of CAF qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ just months away, fifa.com turned the spotlight on five of Africa’s top keepers, who are – and hope to remain – at the forefront of their teams’ ambitions.
Yassine Bounou (Morocco/Sevilla)
At 29, Yassine Bounou, or simply ‘Bono’, has been around for some time. Canadian born, he cut his teeth with the youth teams of Wydad Casablanca, where he made his first team debut in 2010 and progressed alongside the club’s legendary keeper Nadir Lamyaghri. He was a starter in the 2011 CAF Champions League final, which the club lost to Esperance de Tunis, before moving the following year to Atletico Madrid. Denied first-team football with Los Colchoneros, he would eventually find success in Spain with Real Zaragoza and Girona, paving the way for his transfer to Sevilla in 2019.
Second-choice behind Tomas Vaclick and used last season only for UEFA Europa League games, the Moroccan still dazzled in helping the Andalusian club lift that continental title. Bono was particularly impressive against Manchester United in the semi-finals and Inter Milan in the final, prompting Julen Lopetegui to hand him a starting place at the beginning of the current season. The situation is reminiscent of his journey with the national team, where, for many years, he was understudy to Munir. Bono would eventually relegate him to the bench in 2019, since when he has been first choice for the Atlas Lions. In the race to Qatar 2022, Moroccans will be hoping he can help their side progress from a group containing Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Sudan.
Mohamed El Shenawy (Egypt/Al Ahly)
Mohamed El Shenawy is another who took centre stage relatively late in his career. It must be said, however, that his predecessor in the national team was a certain Essam El Hadary, a colossus of African football who kept goal for The Pharaohs until turning 45, in the process becoming the oldest player to compete at a FIFA World Cup in 2018. That said, El Shenawy has not being waiting in the wings at club level, having been a mainstay of Al Ahly since 2016. Captain of the Red Devils, he has won the last three editions of the Egyptian Premier League and was instrumental in his side’s progress to the last four of this year’s African Champions League before its interruption due to COVID-19.
A starter in Egypt’s initial group games of Russia 2018, he was named Man of the Match for the opening defeat to Uruguay (1-0). Now 31, and at the peak of his powers, he aspires to lead The Pharaohs to a second consecutive World Cup, starting with a group stage battle against Gabon, Libya and Angola.
Edouard Mendy (Senegal/Chelsea)
It’s hard to believe now, but 28-year-old Edouard Mendy only signed his first professional contract in 2016. The club in question was Stade de Reims, who finally gave the player a chance after seasons in the lower leagues and a short stint in Marseille’s reserve team. After three years there with no few clean sheets, reflex saves and commanding forays off his line, the 1.97m custodian moved to Rennes. It was no coincidence that, with the Senegalese in goal last year, the Bretons enjoyed their best ever season, culminating in a maiden UEFA Champions League qualification. As fate would have it, Mendy will get to experience that tournament, but in the colours of Chelsea, who secured his services in the most recent transfer window.
His progress with the national has been no less dramatic. Handed his first cap in November 2018, he was already in the starting XI for the 2019 CAF Africa Cup of Nations a few months later. A finger injury sidelined him for the latter stage of the competition, in which the Lions of Teranga lost to Algeria in the final. With Sadio Mane banging in the goals and Mendy stopping them, Senegal have their sights firmly set on a place at Qatar 2022 and will face Congo, Namibia and Togo in the second round.
Andre Onana (Cameroon/Ajax)
After Nkono, Bell, Jacques Songo’o and Carlos Kameni, Cameroon appear to have found another goalkeeping phenomenon. Having gone through the Samuel Eto’o Academy and La Masia at Barcelona, Andre Onana made his professional debut with Dutch giants Ajax. A regular starter from the age of 22 following the departure of Jasper Cillessen, he was part of the exciting young team that made it to the semi-final of the 2019 Champions League, where they would lose in dramatic fashion to Tottenham. En route to the last-four, Onana thwarted the considerable attacking talents of Real Madrid and Juventus, among others.
Widely regarded as one of the most gifted keepers in Europe, he was a logical choice to be Kameni’s successor at national level, despite competition from Fabrice Ondoa. To return to the world stage in 2022, the Indomitable Lions will be counting on Onana’s dependability in a group featuring Côte d’Ivoire, Mozambique and Malawi.
Denis Onyango (Uganda/Mamelodi Sundowns)
At 35, Denis Onyango is one of the most reliable keepers in African football, even if he is not a household name beyond the continent. Yet despite that, the CV of the Mamelodi Sundowns custodian shows he was voted Africa-based Player of the Year in 2016 after winning that year’s CAF Champions League and participating in the FIFA Club World Cup. On top of that, he has picked up South African Premier League winning medals in each of the last three seasons.
Very assured in one-on-ones, and often brilliant at stopping penalties, the Uganda captain knows the clock is ticking if the rest of the football world is to discover and appreciate his talents. A vital component of the Cranes’ qualification for the Cup of Nations in 2017 – their first since 1978 – and 2019, he would dearly love to represent his country at a World Cup. To do so, the first step will be to top a second-round group in which Mali, Kenya and Rwanda await.