- Cameroon bizarrely out-sung Argentina in a fight over a dressing room
- Thomas Nkono ‘prepared like a boxer’ to face Diego Maradona
- He discusses facing Gary Lineker and Rene Higuita’s infamous error
Thomas Nkono figures high on any list of the greatest African goalkeepers of all time. A long-serving stalwart between the posts for Cameroon, he performed wonders at the 1982 and 1990 FIFA World Cups™, before watching from the bench as the Indomitable Lions fell at the first hurdle in 1994.
His international displays served him well on the club stage too, and after conceding just one goal in three games at Spain 1982, Nkono was snapped up by Barcelona outfit Espanyol, where he spent the majority of his career and now works as a goalkeeping coach.
It was at Italy 1990, though, that the two-time African Player of the Year truly earned his place in the modern pantheon. Helping his side make their historic journey through to the quarter-finals, Nkono even inspired Gianluigi Buffon to take up goalkeeping, an anecdote alluded to in the first half of our long interview with the Cameroonian legend. FIFA.com now brings you part two, as Nkono lifts the lid on his World Cup experiences.
FIFA.com: What were your ambitions as Cameroon prepared for their first-ever World Cup in Spain?
Thomas Nkono: We wanted to project a different image than the African teams who'd gone before us, and we succeeded in that. There was a certain maturity to our side because we'd been playing together for ten years. We went there with a lot of experience. We understood the game and wanted to go as far as possible. When Jean Vincent took over as coach, he tried to make sure the team was prepared tactically. We were the dominant side in Africa and always went out looking to get good results, but we weren't very well organised. We needed to introduce some order to meet the challenges of a World Cup.
Were you left with regrets after exiting the competition at the first hurdle despite being unbeaten in three games, including a draw with eventual winners Italy?
Our biggest regrets came after the match with Poland (0-0) because we could have scored at least two or three goals. If we'd been a bit bolder against Peru, we could have got a better result (0-0). We lacked the experience to take risks at that level and to show all our attacking qualities.
That tournament changed your life because you moved to Europe afterwards...
Yes, I was even selected to take part in a game between Europe and the Rest of the World, in New York that August. The first club I was in contact with was Santander, but that didn't happen due to a contract problem. I then got three other offers: one from Espanyol, one from Fluminense and the other from Flamengo. I told my wife, 'We'll go for the first offer' and, thanks to God, it was the Espanyol offer that came in first. That's when everything really took off for me.
You were a pioneer because no other African goalkeeper had succeeded in the way you did at the time. Did you have the impression that you were changing people's attitudes?
I was the first African keeper to play in Spain, it's true. But above all I was a foreigner who needed to prove himself like any other player, European or otherwise. It wasn't easy to make a place for myself and I had to play at a very high level to do it, but thanks to my performances I managed to win everyone over.
How did you and your team-mates approach the 1990 World Cup?
We went there with a mix of professional and amateur players. The amateurs had a much longer preparation time, and the rest of us arrived with all the experience we'd picked up abroad over the previous seven or eight years. It made for a good combination.
Cameroon made a stunning start with a 1-0 victory against Argentina. Your coach at the time, Valeri Nepomnyashchy, recently told FIFA.com that Argentina made the fatal error of underestimating you.
I remember that on the day of the Opening Match, we couldn't warm up on the pitch and had to do it in the warm-up room. We got there first and then the Argentinians came in and started pushing us around and telling us to get lost. They began singing, but we started singing even louder. They preferred to leave the room and I think that was the key – that was the moment when we got the upper hand over them mentally.
How was that match for you personally?
On the day of the game, I still didn't know five hours before kick-off whether I'd be playing. Joseph-Antoine Bell was meant to start, but he was left out because he'd made a comment about how the team hadn't prepared well. Luckily I was ready despite the surprise selection. Just before the match, I prepared on my own in the dressing room like a boxer, and I had an almost perfect game. [Diego] Maradona, whom I'd already faced in the Spanish championship, came to talk to me at half-time because he was surprised I was in the lineup.
In your Round-of-16 match, Colombia's goalkeeper Rene Higuita made a mistake which allowed Roger Milla to score the winning goal. How did you feel to see a fellow goalkeeper get punished in that way?
We knew he had that philosophy of always coming out, playing a bit like a sweeper and sometimes taking risks. He didn't know Roger, who was very smart in that type of situation and was able to take advantage. Roger was a great observer and he knew he'd undoubtedly find himself in that situation. Personally, I was focused on the competition and the result was all that mattered, so I didn't have time to console my opposite number. We were so surprised to be in the quarter-finals. It was only after that I took the time to think about it and empathise. Sometimes it's tough to be the last line of defence for your team. I crossed paths with him after that in the Spanish league, but we didn't talk about it because it was a very bad memory for him.
After that, you lost 3-2 to England after extra-time in the quarter-finals, despite having led 2-1 seven minutes from the end. What was the difference between winning and losing?
We lacked experience. We had four replacements out on the pitch instead of our usual starters, who were suspended. Whether you like it or not, that plays a role in a competition. We tried to score a third goal when we had victory in our grasp. That's the kind of moment when experience is important. Personally, I wanted us to take our time and keep the ball as much as possible to run the clock down, but the English understood that well and pressed us in order to force me to clear the ball.
You had already faced Gary Lineker when he was at Barcelona between 1986 and '89. Did that play a role in your two penalty duels with him?
For the first, I knew which way Lineker was going to shoot – that he was going to open his body and shoot to my left. At the very last moment I told myself he knew that I knew and was going to change, and because of that I went the wrong way. For the second, I went to my left and he shot down the middle.