Thirty seven years after Bruce, Mendy eyes history
By Robson Sharuko
On the 65th anniversary of the first battle for the right to be called Kings of Europe, a black African goalkeeper could win the world’s most glamorous inter-club football tournament, for the first time, in its history.
Should he make it, in Istanbul on May 29, his finest hour could come exactly 37 years after Bruce Grobbelaar became the first African footballer, and the continent’s only goalkeeper, to win the big prize.
Grobbelaar’s spaghetti legs show, to distract the attention of Roma’s players in the 1984 European Cup final, in a penalty shootout to help Liverpool win the title, is now one of the iconic images of the tournament.
It remains the only occasion an African ‘keeper won the prestigious trophy but that script could change, in a few weeks, should Edouard Mendy help Chelsea win the title, in Turkey, this month.
The 29-year-old Chelsea goalkeeper was one of his club’s heroes, at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night, as the Blues beat record winners, Real Madrid, in the semi-finals, to book another all-English final.
While a black goalkeeper has captured Europe’s greatest club football prize, when Brazil’s Dida won in 2003 and 2007, a black African ‘keeper has never been a champion.
Now, Mendy is on the cusp of creating history, with only Manchester City standing between him, and the Promised Land.
He has already created a piece of history for himself.
By not conceding a goal on Wednesday night, as his team won 2-0, the Senegalese international became the first goalkeeper, representing an English club, to keep clean sheets in eight matches, in the tournament.
What makes Mendy’s tale special is how he has risen, from humble beginnings, to the very top, in a game which has generally shunned black goalkeepers.
Interestingly, just seven years ago, he was jobless and, with a pregnant girlfriend to take care of, life could not have been any tougher.
Football, the game he chose, as a 13-year-old, to provide him with the comforts that come with playing it as a professional, was not living up to his expectations.
His disillusionment came after leaving Le Havre, where he had arrived as a 13-year-old trainee, to try his luck, in the professional ranks of the French game.
Le Havre are considered a model club for footballers who want their skills refined, en-route to bigger clubs, and was the place Zimbabwe’s Tino Kadewere chose, to help him with his transition.
Now dependent on unemployment benefits, without a job to cling to, things were bleak for Mendy.
“One year going without football is an incredibly long time,” he told the Associated Press, “and I had many, many doubts during that time.
“It was thanks to my family who helped so much in those moments to keep me strong.”
That meant he had to keep trying, and fighting, with his journey taking him to Stade Reims, which is now the home of Zimbabwe international midfielder, Marshall Munetsi, during the 2016/2017 season.
Back then, Reims were in Ligue 2 but Mendy, after getting a lucky break when first-choice ‘keeper Johann Carrasso was sent off, in a game against Amiens, grabbed his opportunity with both hands.
By the following season, he had turned into one of the key players and he played an influential role as Reims were promoted into the French Ligue 1.
A move to Rennes followed and, just five years after having been jobless, he was now commanding a transfer fee in the region of €4 million.
His graph was rising and on September 24, last year, he moved to Chelsea after completing a five-year deal, in which the Blues paid about US$30 million, for his services.
That Chelsea even turned to him, to come and address an area where the team’s coaches felt was now their Achilles Heel, was even surprising given the money the club had splashed to secure the man who was keeping goals for them.
Spanish goalkeeper, Kepa Arrizabalaga, had cost the Blues about US$91 million, a world-record transfer fee for a ‘keeper, to bring him from Athletic Bilbao, in August 2018.
Arrizabalaga was hired, on a seven-year contract, as a replacement for Belgian ‘keeper, Thibaut Courtois, who had moved to Real Madrid.
However, a catalogue of major blunders meant the Spaniard failed, despite his huge price tag, to convince the Chelsea establishment that he was the ‘keeper they could build their team around.
They turned to Mendy, to provide that stability.
And, after a fine performance at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night, the Senegalese international is now on the verge of a place in the UEFA Champions League history books.
It has also helped that he has been getting a helping hand from former Chelsea goalkeeper, Peter Cech, who is now the technical adviser, at the club.
“With Edouard Mendy behind, he’s been absolutely outstanding so far, so altogether it came to the point where the team is defending well and don’t give away many chances,’’ Cech told BT Sport, after the victory over Real Madrid.
“It’s his first campaign in the Champions League, but he’s at a good age for a goalkeeper and the way he is, his personality, he’s very calm and he wants to be better every day.
“He works every day, it’s a key for him and I think the team around him, Willy Caballero, Kepa, they help him as well — they push him, try to make sure he’s always ready and on his toes.
“I think so far it’s been a great campaign from him.
“He’s been absolutely outstanding so far, so altogether it came to the point where the team is defending well and don’t give away many chances.’’
No one can deny the influence which Mendy has had, for the Blues, in this Champions League campaign.
After all, he has featured in 11 of the team’s dozen Champions League matches, in this campaign, with the match against Krasnodar, in December, the only one he missed.
It’s also part of his fairytale that, of the estimated US$300 million, which Chelsea splashed on players, during the off-season, it’s a goalkeeper who cost about US$30 million, who plugged the hole which helped them make the giant leap into another Champions League final.
African Stars Who Have Won
The UEFA Champions League
Bruce Grobbelaar [Zimbabwe] — Liverpool FC, 1984; Rabah Madjer [Algeria] — FC Porto, 1987; Abedi Pelé [Ghana] — Olympique de Marseille, 1993, Finidi George [Nigeria] — Ajax, 1995; Nwankwo Kanu [Nigeria] — Ajax, 1995; Ibrahim Tanko [Ghana] — Borussia Dortmund, 1997; Samuel Kuffour [Ghana] — FC Bayern Munich , 2001, Geremi [Cameroon] — Real Madrid, 2002; Benni McCarthy [South Africa] – FC Porto, 2004; Djimi Traoré [Mali] — Liverpool FC, 2005; Samuel Eto’o [Cameroon] — FC Barcelona, 2006, 2009 & Inter Milan, 2010; Yaya Touré [Côte d’Ivoire] — FC Barcelona, 2009; Seydou Keita [Mali] — FC Barcelona, 2009, 2011; Sulley Muntari [Ghana] — Inter Milan, 2010; McDonald Mariga [Kenya] — Inter Milan 2010; John Obi Mikel [Nigeria] — Chelsea FC, 2012; Michael Essien [Ghana] — Chelsea FC, 2012; Salomon Kalou [Cote d’Ivoire] — Chelsea FC, 2012; Didier Drogba [Cote d’Ivoire] — Chelsea, 2012; Achraf Hakimi [Morocco] — Real Madrid, 2018; Mohamed Salah (Egypt) — Liverpool, 2019; Sadio Mane [Senegal] — Liverpool, 2019; Joel Matip [Cameroon] — Liverpool, 2019; Naby Keita [Guinea] — Liverpool, 2019. The Herald