Sport

Afcon: Keeping the faith in African goalies

Carlos Amato

The Africa Nations Cup is proving the continent's players to be on the ball in the net and off the field.

Bafana Bafana's Itumeleng Khune. (Gallo)

One of the many peculiar things about goalkeepers is that they are paid less than forwards and midfielders. But they have difficult, specialised skills and play a greater role than any other position in ensuring victories (or defeats). Why the raw deal?

Economists will say it is a simple case of supply and demand. In any given club, several hungry keepers are competing for one jersey, so each of their bargaining positions is weak. Others see a pattern of financial discrimination against the ­"mentally unbalanced".

And on the Africa Nations Cup stage, the wage gap is even wider, because most African international netminders keep for their keep at smaller, poorer clubs than their outfield comrades either in their ­domestic leagues or in the drizzly depths of Europe's lower divisions.

But at this Cup, Africa's keepers are striking back against the machine. They are pulling out all the stops to claim their bonuses and dominate the headlines.

Itumeleng Khune kept Bafana Bafana in the competition with a sequence of stupendous one-on-one saves against Morocco. If the Grim Reaper ever came for Khune, you get the feeling the Chiefs star would rob the deathly visitor of his scythe before he even entered the property.

He has gone home now, but the Democratic Republic of Congo's Muteba Kidiaba caught the world's attention with his kung-fu master's ponytail and his horse-riding buttock-boogie of a goal celebration. But Kidiaba was not all theatre: he pulled off some excellent saves in the 2-2 draw against Ghana.

Fiery public condemnation
Nigeria's Vincent Enyeama has been solid enough between the sticks, but instead raised eyebrows with his fiery public condemnation of the dubious late penalty awarded against his side in a 1-1 draw against Zambia. The dynamic Chipolopolo netminder Kennedy Mweene, who converted the spot kick in question with his usual aplomb, has now gone home to his day job in Bethlehem, following the champions' first-round exit after a woeful showing upfront.

It remains a mystery why Mweene is so loyal to employers Free State Stars, when he could be coining it elsewhere.

By contrast, Khune of Kaizer Chiefs and Kidiaba, who works for diamond-funded Congolese giants TP Mazembe, are probably the richest keepers in this tournament. Starring as they do for powerful and passionately supported clubs, they have little incentive to accept a modest contract at a small European side  not least because it is highly unlikely they would then attract bids from the Champions League elite.

In the highest reaches of the European game, there is still a ­market prejudice against African keepers, who are seen as erratic, emotional and technically unpolished.

If a superclub does not give the No 1 jersey to a home boy, it is generally likely to employ the product of a country that has gained a reputation for good goalkeeping, such as Holland, Germany, Spain, Poland, Denmark and the United States.

For all the hard science of modern transfer trading, national stereotypes seem to come into play whenever a decision is made between two comparable players.

Bollocks, say the scouts. They will tell you that statistics are unanswerable and they say height is the variable holding African keepers back.

Controversial
The scouts know all about Khune's world-beating distribution skills  his long, raking kicks that arrow precisely to the feet of a winger would be a precious asset in any league.

But Khune stands at 180cm, too short, they say, to handle the merciless aerial flak of the European game. If he was 7cm taller, he would be able to claim more high balls among a jostling thicket of players and would be the complete modern keeper.

Kidiaba is also 180cm tall and so are Vincent Enyeama, who plays for Maccabi Haifa, and Ghana's agile Fatawu Dauda of Ashanti Gold. The Ivorian Boubacar Barry, who plays for Lokeren in Belgium, is only a centimetre taller.

Dauda of Ashanti Gold has shone this month, but his selection as No 1 was controversial, with many Black Stars fans preferring the half-Norwegian Adam Larsen Kwarasey of Strømsgodset  height 190cm  who guards his net in an untheatrical Scandinavian style. Another outlier in the class of 2013 is the man Bafana have to beat tomorrow: Mali's Mamadou Samassa of Guingamp, who stands 196cm in his socks.

It is not clear why so many top African keepers are relatively short, given that there are plenty of towering African defenders and strikers in the game.

Perhaps the continent's football culture overvalues theatricality and charisma in its gladiators of the goalmouth and is too forgiving of their shortage of centimetres.

But to hell with it. Tomorrow night, I would sooner have Khune in Bafana's goal than Manuel Neuer or Gianluigi Buffon.

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