As the unprecedented summer African Cup Nations reaches the knockout stages, with Uganda and Madagascar springing some major shocks by progressing from their respective groups, this week’s ‘Who Were Ya?’ pays homage to a former winner of a fabled tournament that usually brings utter disruption to our domestic season.
Thomas N’Kono is one of the most famous goalkeepers from a continent who admittedly have never boasted a wealth of goalkeeping talent, who is said to have inspired Gianluigi Buffon to become a goalkeeper and in fact named his son Louis Thomas in the Cameroonian’s honour.
The Cameroon born keeper, who both played and managed his country, was a quintessential maverick goalkeeper who was one of the first to don tracksuit bottoms, which no sane goalkeeper have ever worn, and for his unrestrained celebrations.
N’Kono started his career at Canon Yaoundé in Cameroon’s top division where he spent a season before switching to city rivals, Tonerre Yaounde, only to go back Canon after a solitary year; spending 6 years and winning honour after honour there, before his big move to Europe and Espanyol.
Having long established himself as his national side’s number one, N’Kono won African Player of the Year in 1979 and then again in 1982, which caught the eye of clubs in Europe’s top divisions.
Catalonia is where N’Kono spent the bulk and the most successful years of his career, playing 300 times for Espanyol, although in his penultimate season was unable to help keep the club in La Liga following a season battling the drop.
An international career that spanned three decades, including three World Cups, the trousered-stalwart enjoyed his finest moment as his Cameroon side lifted the African Cup of Nations in 1984. However, even though he was undisputed starter for both the 1982 and 1990 World Cups and for the first two Group games at AFCON, N’Kono was second fiddle in his country’s finest hour to the man who was voted ‘Africa’s Greatest Ever Goalkeeper’, Joseph Antoine-Belle. This was just one shock selection in what was a fascinating battle for Cameroon’s number one jersey in the 1980’s.
Despite keeping a clean sheet in the next AFCON in 1986, the Espanyol man was denied the success of his countryman, Belle, as Egypt triumphed 5-4 in a penalty shoot-out.
Still his nation’s preferred ‘keeper, N’Kono fell out of favour at The Estadi de Sarrià and left for Catalonian and fellow second tier rivals Sabadella in a career which would wind down following his heroics at the 1990 World Cup. He would then join Hospitalet, another Catalonian side before calling time on his career in 1997 with Club Bolivar in Bolivia.
N’Kono was called up to the 1994 World Cup in the USA, but was second choice to Joseph-Antoine Belle.
The pioneer for African goalkeepers gained his elusive AFCON fame when in 2002, he reportedly used ‘black magic’ through a charm in his pocket, prior to the semi-final against Mali and was arrested by riot police on the pitch.
N’Kono was also briefly manager of his national side after German Otto Pfister resigned during a training camp in Belgium, in a spat with the Cameroonian FA, although he never took charge of a game and soon after took the position of Goalkeeping Coach at old club, Espanyol, the role which he remains in today.