According to FIFA World Cup™ winner Gianluigi Buffon, "it was watching Thomas Nkono play that made me want to become a goalkeeper." It is a tribute that touches the legendary Cameroonian No1 profoundly, and he returns the favour by labelling the Juventus star's comments "a great honour". Now aged 52, the two-time France Football magazine African Ballon d'Or winner left an indelible mark on the history of goalkeeping, revolutionising the position with a style based largely on instinct, as he himself freely admits. "I used to play according to inspiration," he says, and though that approach must have ruffled a few feathers at the time, he is now the one doling out the expertise, coaching the goalkeepers at his old club, Espanyol.
It was while playing for the Catalan outfit that Nkono laid down his first milestone, becoming the first non-white African custodian to sign for a European club. He remained in Barcelona for nearly a decade in total, with the high point of his stay a UEFA Cup final appearance, but it was with the Indomitable Lions that the former Canon Yaounde prodigy experienced his most stunning moments, as FIFA.com recalls in this look back at his exceptional career.
"When I think about what I experienced, it's more than a dream," exclaims Nkono with satisfaction, and nothing swells his considerable pride more than the two African Ballon d'Or awards he won in 1979 and 1982. "As far as I could see, that was unthinkable when I started my career," he says. "In 1979, I was still playing in Cameroon and, at the time, African football had no media exposure. It was in 1982, in Spain during the World Cup, that my performances got noticed. That event had a huge impact on my career."
On the back of his displays at the 1982 FIFA World Cup, Nkono signed for Espanyol and helped the club reach the UEFA Cup final in 1988. They were not to leave with the silverware, though, as German side Bayer Leverkusen ultimately proved too strong, winning the game on penalties. "That was a major landmark in my career, not so much in personal terms but above all because the disappointment brought the club's remarkable upward progress to a halt."
As a two-time CAF Champions League winner with Canon Yaounde, however, Nkono did get to experience the joy of winning a final in the club game. His memories of beating Conakry side Hafia FC in 1978 are particularly strong. "I made one of my best saves in that match," he says. "I was out near the penalty spot and the striker lobbed me. I parried the ball on to the crossbar and then got hold of it by doing a forward roll."
Despite those highlights, Nkono's finest hours came with the national side, including their epic run to the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy quarter-finals, the CAF Africa Cup of Nations triumph in 1984 and their decisive 1982 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Morocco. "We won 2-0 over there and I saved a penalty," remembers the man between the posts that day.
Nkono eventually called time on his playing days in 1996, and the following year he took on a coaching role with the Indomitable Lions as the 1998 FIFA World Cup France loomed into view. He stayed on board until 2003 and returned in 2007, restricting himself to coaching goalkeepers on both occasions. "I'm going to get my diploma to open up other possibilities," he says, having likewise limited himself to passing on goalkeeping knowledge since joining the staff at Espanyol in 2000. "I also look after the youth team goalkeepers," he adds.
Keen to get involved with the development of African coaches, Nkono recently organised a summer training camp in Cameroon. "Youngsters still have too many gaps when they join a top-level European club," explains the Dizangue native, whose own travels as a player eventually took him to Bolivia, where he won the league with Bolivar La Paz in 1996. "The most fundamental thing is to train the coaches on the continent." With precisely that in mind, Nkono intends to present a number of intriguing projects to CAF and FIFA in the near future.
Clubs: Canon Yaounde (1974), Tonnerre Yaounde (1975), Canon Yaounde (1976-1982), Espanyol (1982-1991), CE Sabadell (1991-1993), CE L'Hospitalet (1993-1994), Bolivar La Paz (1994-1996)
National team: 66 appearances (1975-1990)
Honours: Cameroonian championship (1974, 1977, 1979, 1980 and 1982), CAF Champions League (1978 and 1980), Bolivian championship (1996), UEFA Cup finalist (1988), CAF Africa Cup of Nations (1984), 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy quarter-finalist, African Ballon d'Or winner (1979 and 1982)