By Rilwan Adetayo Balogun
The name, Gianluigi Buffon is one that resonates loudly round world football. For his artistry, class, gusto and great goalkeeping, the Azzurri and Juventus legend is an example to follow for many young professionals.
Buffon rose to world prominence at 17 when he made a big money move to Turin in 1995. He has since won everything except the ones that have eluded him.
Italy has had many great goalkeepers, with the likes of Dino Zoff and Walter Zenga most prominently coming to mind. Interestingly, none of them made goalkeeping interesting enough to pursue for little Buffon, but a certain black man did. Thomas Nkono.
Buffon was 12 when he saw Nkono, one of Africa’s finest goalkeepers in history, on television. He represented Cameroon at the Italia 90 World Cup and was in goal when they played Argentina. The name was strange “Cameroon” but Buffon found a Cameroonian whose ability helped raise his young desire.
It is almost 4000km and oceans between Italy and Cameroon but a certain black man’s efforts had defied the distance to do enough to raise the hope of a kid, a legend in the waiting, and now a legend.
“You don’t know where Cameroon is. You didn’t even know such a place existed before this moment. Of course, you know Argentina and Maradona, but there is something magical about the players from Cameroon. It’s so hot under the summer sun, but their keeper is still wearing a full suit. Long black pants. Long green shirt with the pink collar. The way he moves, the way he stands tall, the fantastic mustache. He captivates your heart in a way that is unexplainable.
“He is the coolest man you have ever seen.
“The commentator says his name is Thomas N’Kono.
“There’s a corner for Argentina, and Thomas runs out into the crowd and punches the ball 30 yards in the air. This is the moment that you know what you want to do with your life,” Buffon wrote on Players Tribune.
The message is as clear as day; that colours have nothing to do with motivation when the heart is set right.
Italy, partly known for a level of racism against black footballers, has arguably its biggest star in history clutching the motivation he was given by a man born in Dizangue, Cameroon, Central Africa.
Andre Onana may have done same for many Dutch kids, and Tony Silva, Steve Mandanda, Carlos Idris Kameni, Vincent Enyeama and many others may have motivated many European legends, yet to be known or seen. But the chances that an African or black footballer will walk through a European door and be honoured in management stays slim despite the excellent records of African footballers.
Michael Emenalo is responsible for the structure Chelsea Academy has today. Made in Nigeria, having represented Rangers International of Enugu, he was never seen as one who knows enough to do even little.
Competing to be successful as an individual in a sport dominated and controlled by whites, he managed to convince rich Chelsea owner, Roman Abramovich about his class and quality. The Russian billionaire entrusted the future of the club in the hands of a former Super Eagles player. A rare feat by every consideration. He faced a multitude of personalities, and a lack of faith or belief in his ideas, but still managed to stay as an important element in the process. The man who mattered the most trusted him. Emenalo’s knowledge gave him a place at the top, not his colour.
He brought on notably Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Mohammed Salah but none was given a fair chance to thrive by a manager who wouldn’t be blamed for also seeking instant results. In ten years, Emenalo saw 10 managers walk out the door at Chelsea, dismissed. Yet he was left unscathed. His decisions in recruiting players were questioned. Why not Brazilians? Why Belgians? Is Belgium the new Brazil? Who’s this Egyptian kid? Is he good? But the end justified the means as all these footballers have gone on to forge great careers for themselves, and are competing at the summit of European football.
It is not every time one sees a black man from the impoverished streets of the continent or confines of Europe rise as highly as Emenalo. This makes his achievement even bigger than ever projected. From a scout, he became an assistant coach, and later, director, hence more influence, and space to express his ideas. He never had them on a platter of gold. Many judged him by the colour of his skin, but he worked to change a narrative that hardly turned around.
“I don’t think my story was told the right way to influence the attention. I feel my aptitude and competence has not been presented correctly. And now people are co-opting my work and trying to mask my contribution.”
“The narrative has to change. The narrative right now is always that white is good. So it doesn’t matter what Chris Hughton produces as a manager. There’s always someone saying a white guy can do it better. People need to do the right thing. Like Martin Luther King said: ‘Judge me by my competence – not my skin colour.,” he told Donald McGrae in an interview with The Observer.
“When I was appointed [as technical director] some journalists didn’t think I spoke English. They said I had never played the game [Emenalo won 14 caps for Nigeria and marked Diego Maradona and Roberto Baggio in the 1994 World Cup]. Some people said: ‘Why did this Russian owner, who knows thousands and thousands of people, confide in him? He’s African so he must have killed somebody for the owner.’ No one stopped to think it could possibly be because of my intellect or experience.”
These are the perceptions that are faced by a black man picking up a job in a grand setting. It is extremely difficult to be rated for the quality of their performances and achievements and by the beauty of their art.
Beyond the racial slurs, and banners and other efforts to drive the message against racism home, there is still a gulf in the opinions formed about black men in football, in comparison with their white counterparts.
Many black players have been seen representing European countries. Some of them have been accepted and have good jobs in some of the top teams in Europe, but their influence is held back, as they are not in the business of decision making in most of these teams. For as many who are influential, they are battling against the harder effects of failing because it means it is yet another opportunity for other blacks being blown. Competence doesn’t come with colours, and anyone irrespective of race and origin can succeed or fail.
Chris Hughton has risen and fallen, leading Brighton and above Albion to the Premier League and keeping them safe for two seasons, but his lows are better pronounced than his highs. While his positives are ignored, or faintly acknowledged, his failures are a standard to measure black coaches in English football.
Frank Rijkaard is one of the most successful black coaches in history, winning the UEFA Champions League and multiple league titles at Barcelona but his achievements are hardly a pedestal to create more opportunities for coloured coaches.
That Thierry Henry failed to turn up the lights at Monaco shouldn’t be a brake for the opportunities many others deserve. That Claude Makelele has not had a stellar managerial career should never be enough reason to discard others on the line.
A Nigerian, Ndubuisi Emmanuel Egbo has just won the Albanian League with Tirana, and he again tells tales of the singularity of ability. Quality is faceless, classless and colorless. Good has no colour as adjective. There are no ‘black goods’ or ‘white goods’. Irrespective of the quality of the league, it is a good feeling and a proud achievement to look forward to a black man, Nigerian on the bench of a team playing in Europe.
There are many worthy ex-footballers who are waiting to be offered a chance to prove a point, with great support. There are many waiting on the wings to be made directors and more in some of the biggest leagues in the world. Many of these blacks sit in the same classrooms and sat in the same dressing rooms as European and South American managers when they played, but they get lesser opportunities to showcase what they have.
The conversations never end about the potentials blacks in football possess, with some top professionals coming up the ranks in the age-grade teams of European teams. Recently, former Super Eagles striker, John Utaka was appointed coach of the Montpellier male U19. This was a reward for his preparation after his career, and his past feats with the club. In another appointment, Vincent Enyeama earned an appointment with a 3rd División French club. Modest as these achievements may appear, they are huge when the situation is considered.
Yet, they are still a drop in an ocean, in comparison with the actual amount of opportunities blacks should be getting.
When people fail or succeed, does it bring a different feeling when they are coloured? When will the perception change for blacks in football management?