Along with a long professional career in France, Joseph-Antoine Bell was a member of three Cameroon teams that played at the FIFA World Cup™, and he is considered among the greatest goalkeepers to come from Africa. Despite the Lions failure to qualify, the outspoken 57-year-old was at the recent CAF Africa Cup of Nations, which was co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, and he had some interesting observations about African goalkeeping in general and at the Nations Cup in particular.
He said the standard between the sticks on the continent was a mixed bag. "You have had some good and some not-good-enough goalkeepers at the tournament, but this is something that you can see everywhere in the world. It is really a very special position, where coming from the good to the bad can be just one game. It is a hard position,” he said. “I think most of the performances have been average. I don't remember seeing any excellent goalkeeping, but I have seen good goalkeeping."
Not surprisingly, Bell believes Côte d’Ivoire’s impressive Boubacar Barry was the best goalkeeper at the tournament as the Elephants became the first side to fail to win the tournament despite not conceding even a single goal. Bell believes that Barry, who played in five of his side's six matches, is a better netminder because of his attitude and mentality. "He understands that you need to be focused. He saved Ivory Coast a few times because he was serious, and maybe because he was so serious, his team became serious too. This is a very important quality you have to have,” he said.
Room for growth
Bell, who started playing in Europe at a late age, when he was already 31, believes that the best African goalkeeper at the moment is Nigerian Vincent Enyeama. "He had a very good World Cup, but now he is not playing regularly [with Lille], and Nigeria are not here. That will make it difficult,” he said.
“To be the best, you need to play hard and good matches, tough matches to show what you are capable of. To be considered among the best goalkeepers, you need to play consistently well. If you watch him this week, you will see him to be good, and if you see him in two months, he will still be a good goalkeeper. I am not sure if we have somebody like that in Africa."
Bell, who did not play as a member of Cameroon’s 1982 and 1990 FIFA World Cup squads and had to wait until he was 39 at USA 94 before playing his first game at the finals, says that African goalkeeping at the moment is overall far away from the standards set by world-class players like Iker Casillas or Gianluigi Buffon.
"Goalkeepers like that are real personalities, but that is not what is wanted in Africa,” he explained. “We fight against personalities. We don’t need charismatic people, we don’t need those who can really be leaders. But to be a good goalkeeper, you need to be a real leader. This is the way that I see it: You need to think as a leader, you need to act as a leader and you need to be a leader."
The former goalkeeper says he thinks that if he had gone to Europe at a younger age, he would have been an even better goalkeeper. "Yes, I would have had enough time to show what I was capable of. But this is the problem: if we don’t upgrade our competitions in Africa, it is going to be hard to compete. And this is why our players are going to Europe at a younger and younger age, and this may not help Africa. The way we put things together is the most important issue."