Let’s play a game and select the world’s best soccer players currently plying their trade.
For our 10 field players, most people would almost certainly pick Messi and Ronaldo. The other eight players may be less clear-cut, but let’s assume most would opt for the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Kylian Mbappé, Robert Lewandowski, Sadio Mané, Virgil van Dijk, Sergio Ramos, N’Golo Kanté, Neymar, Mohamed Salah, Kalidou Koulibaly, Erling Braut Haaland and others (yes, this is a very attack-minded side).
Now think about the goalkeeper for this team: Your choice will most likely be one of the following: Alisson Becker, Jan Oblak, Thibaut Courtois, Manuel Neuer – or at the very least, Marc-André ter Stegen or Samir Handanovic.
What’s the difference between the two lists? Pay attention to how many Black players are in the first list – and how many are on the second. For those of you who don’t recognize all the names, I’ll help you: the list of goalies doesn’t have a single Black player on it.
Now let’s play the exact same game, but pretend that it’s 2008. Messi and Ronaldo are still on our list, alongside Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes – but also Thierry Henry, Ronaldinho, Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto’o, Yaya Touré, Patrick Vieira and Michael Essien.
And what about the goalkeepers from 2008? Gianluigi Buffon and Iker Casillas will be the obvious names, maybe with Neuer, Petr Cech or Víctor Valdés. Again, though – a lot of Black field players, but not a single Black goalie.
Of course, this isn’t a coincidence. But you can’t tell me a Black player has never been born who could potentially have been number one among the number ones. So there must be another reason.
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Among the soccer stars in the modern world, there have always been outstanding Black players. It’s enough just to mention the greatest player of all time: Pelé. But somehow, when it comes to the position that’s arguably the most important on the field, we rarely see Black goalies performing at the highest level.
André Onana of Ajax is probably the world’s top Black goalkeeper, but you won’t find him among the top goalies lists that proliferate online.
Of course, there were a few exceptions over the years – from Brazil’s Dida and England’s David James, to France’s Bernard Lama, Vincent Enyeama from Nigeria and Moacir Barbosa, the Brazilian goalkeeper who was blamed for his country’s loss in the 1950 World Cup decider.
But all of them are the exception that proves the rule, and are light-years away from our list of the greatest. So much so that one of them, Enyeama, even played soccer in Israel.
It’s not that there haven’t been talented Black goalkeepers. Cameroon alone has produced greats such as Thomas N’Kono and Jacques Songo’o, who were impressive playing for their national side but never reached the top levels of club soccer.
This is why Édouard Mendy’s transfer from Rennes to Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea last week has aroused so much interest.
The France-born Senegalese international has faced a glass ceiling that so few have broken through. That’s particularly amazing given that, for decades, Black players have been part of Europe’s leading sides in every field player position.
Haaretz Sports has conducted its own examination and discovered that while Black field players can be found on almost every team, this just isn’t the case for goalies.
Our examination is unscientific, of course, but the numbers seem to speak for themselves. The English Premier League, for example, has 59 Black forwards and they make up the majority (57 percent) of those in this position. Black players also make up a third of defenders and midfielders – but Mendy will be one of just six goalkeepers in the league (only 9 percent of the total number).
England is not an exception. In fact, it’s actually doing better than many leagues on the Continent. In Spain and Italy’s top leagues, it’s possible to find plenty of Black forwards – 31 in Italy (24 percent of all forwards) and 20 in Spain (12 percent of the total). There are also numerous Black midfielders (26 in Italy, or 14 percent, and 21 in Spain, or 15 percent), and Black defenders (24 in Italy, or 16 percent, and 25 in Spain, or 14 percent). But goalkeepers? Not one. There are some 120 goalkeepers on the books at Italy and Spain’s premier league clubs, but not a single one of them is Black.
Even in France, which has the largest Black population in Europe and has the highest number of Black players among the major European leagues (45 percent), you can still see this quite clearly. In France, as in England, there are more Black forwards than white forwards, and about half the defenders and midfielders are Black – but only a quarter of the goalkeepers.
If Black players were missing from every position on the field, someone might claim that this is because they simply aren’t good enough to be elite soccer professionals. But when they make up such a large percentage of all positions except that of goalkeeper, this claim is especially laughable.
The traditional, and dumb, explanation has invariably been that in the Third World and poorer regions – in other words, Black Africa, the favelas of Brazil and the poorest neighborhoods where many soccer players grow up in European cities – children learn to play soccer in the street and no one really stands in the goal.
The pseudoscientific claim is that Black people, at least in Afro-Eurasia, are shorter than white people, which makes it less appropriate for them to play in goal. (Édouard Mendy, incidentally, is 1.97 meters tall.) Even if statistically that were true, it’s really a case of firing the arrow first – and then drawing the target around it. In basketball, you don’t choose players based only on their height, and that’s a sport where the height factor is much more important – and it seems it isn’t hard to find Black basketball players.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that this is pure racism. A recent study by Danish research firm RunRepeat examined how English soccer commentators spoke about players with different skin colors. Its investigation showed that those “with lighter skin are regularly and overwhelmingly praised for intelligence, work ethic and quality compared with those with darker skin, who are reduced to physical and athletic attributes,” The Guardian reported in June.
So, Chelsea midfielder N’Golo Kanté will be praised for how he covers the field and not on how intelligent a game he plays. For PSG forward Kylian Mbappé, commentators will note his speed and strength, not his refinement. French midfielder Paul Pogba may be praised for being physical or versatile, but not for his overall vision. It seems such praise is reserved only for the game’s de Bruynes and Pirlos.
The fact that errors by the number one – more than any other position on the field – can determine the fate of games, puts goalkeepers firmly in the spotlight. And if a Black player is thought to be the type who makes mistakes, who would dare put him in goal?
This position is still overwhelmingly held by white goalies – and it’s not as if they never make mistakes: from Loris Karius in the Champions League final, Hugo Lloris at the World Cup, David de Gea any number of times for Manchester United and, of course, Kepa Arrizabalaga of the same Chelsea side that is now “gambling” on a Black goalkeeper.
“There’s racism; sometimes it’s blatant, sometimes it’s concealed,” says Spanish journalist Cesar Suarez from Málaga. “Many times, its source is not malice but deeply rooted prejudice,” he says. “Carlos Kameni [a Cameroon international goalie] played at Málaga for a few years, as did Willy Caballero, who’s white. Kameni’s errors were judged more harshly. There’s no reason for this other than skin color and origin,” Suarez says.
Prejudice plays a large role in soccer. Greg Gordon, a soccer scout and analyst, put it well once when he said that if a club is offered two identical defensive players for the same money, one Polish and the other Italian, they’ll always take the latter given the stereotype about fearsome Italian defenders.
There’s no prejudice more deeply rooted than that regarding skin color. In an era of advanced analysis, where players’ performances are examined in the most forensic detail every week, it’s blindingly obvious.
‘Everyone makes mistakes’
Ajax’s Onana knows the score. He spent his teenage years at Barcelona’s youth academy, La Masia, where he was brought at age 14 from the Samuel Eto’o Academy in Cameroon. We can probably all agree that Onana isn’t at the same level as Barcelona’s number one, Marc-André ter Stegen. But is he any less proficient than the Catalan side’s bench goalies of recent years, Jasper Cillessen or Neto? Seemingly not. The difference is that he’s Black.
“I don’t see the difference between white and Black goalkeepers,” Onana told BBC Sport in May 2019. “They’re the same – they make mistakes. I make mistakes, everyone makes mistakes. Black keepers need to prepare well because it’s not easy for us,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of Black goalkeepers at the top, and people already have in their mind that Black goalkeepers are not confident or they make too many mistakes.”
Something has to change regarding the European attitude toward Black goalkeepers, Onana said. “It’s not easy for us to arrive at that level, especially when you’re Black. But for me it really doesn’t matter – Black or white, in the end I’m a goalkeeper.”
Perhaps Mendy will succeed in proving what the professionals – coaches, scouts, analysts and soccer officials – don’t understand. Or perhaps it’s because these positions are still also filled primarily by white men.