African goalkeepers playing in big clubs on Europe’s uneven playing field
Chelsea’s recent match against Rennes in the Champions League is considered to be a somewhat rare meeting of Black goalkeepers on club soccer’s biggest stage. And the hard question is: Why?
On the surface, Chelsea’s victory against Rennes in the Champions League just a few weeks ago was simply another of those disposable, check-box exercises that occur in the group stages of the competition. Chelsea, the heavy favorite, had an easy win.
Beyond the score, there really seemed very little to remember it by. And yet that game, like Tuesday’s return match in France, was truly a rarity not only in the Champions League, but in elite European soccer in general.
Surprisingly, troublingly, these might be the only two games in the Champions League this season in which both teams had a Black goalkeeper: Édouard Mendy, the 28-year-old acquired by Chelsea in September, and Alfred Gomis, the man who was chosen to replace him at Rennes.
Very few sports are quite the level playing fields they may believe themselves to be. Black quarterbacks were similarly once as rare in the N.F.L. as Black entrants were at tennis championships and golf majors. Soccer, like countless other sports, still struggles for Black inclusion in leadership roles: There are very few Black managers, and still even fewer Black executives.
And, surely, there is abundant anecdotal evidence that the game — in Europe, if not in the United States or Africa — has a deep-rooted skepticism toward Black goalkeepers, one that has been permitted to fester through a combination of lack of analysis, lack of opportunity and even lack of acknowledgment.
André Onana, the Ajax goalkeeper, recounts a story about the time an Italian club informed him that its fans simply would not support a move to sign a Black goalkeeper. There is yet another one about a former Premier League manager who, when presented with two potential new recruits, blatantly dismissed the one who was not white. He did not even need to see him play, he remarked.
For most of his prosperous career in England, the former goalkeeper Shaka Hislop was aware of the unspoken stereotype that shadowed him, and he can still recall those occasions when it was given voice. Like the day he and his teammates for Trinidad and Tobago were awaiting their flight in a New York airport and an immigration officer — not knowing who he was — explained to him fully why Black players did not make very good goalkeepers.
Additionally, of Europe’s five major leagues, France’s 20-team Ligue 1 — in which nine Black goalkeepers featured last season, and eight have already received some playing time this year — is very much an obvious outlier. And the numbers elsewhere in the world are stark.