To speak about Thomas N'Kono is to speak about a footballing legend.
The former Cameroon goalkeeper is currently a part of the RCD Espanyol coaching staff and it just takes one glimpse back at his career to understand the magnitude and influence of his legacy.
For almost 20 years, he played for Cameroon’s national team and he won the Africa Cup of Nations, as well as starring for The Indomitable Lions along with Roger Milla at the 1982 and 1990 World Cups, one of their most memorable periods.
N'Kono won two African Player of the Year awards and was the first goalkeeper to achieve this. At club level, he took RCD Espanyol to the final of the Uefa Cup.
Above all, though, his arrival in LaLiga Santander at the start of the 1980s, as he kept out goal after goal for the Periquitos, is what saw him become a pioneer for African goalkeepers and a source of inspiration for shot-stoppers past, present and future.
That includes Gianluigi Buffon.
In addition to his eight years between the posts for RCD Espanyol, he has now been working for the club for almost 20 years as a goalkeeping coach, sharing his wisdom with all those who have passed through. Even though almost four decades have passed since his arrival in Spain, N'Kono remains one of the best international ambassadors for LaLiga.
Born on July 20th, 1956 in Dizangue, his start in football wasn’t easy.
“I started by playing football on the street,” N’Kono recalled. “There was no youth football there, only holiday tournaments.
“I would play as a goalkeeper or a striker and I would change between the positions. After having one very good game against another town, my brother told me that I should always play as a goalkeeper.
“Back then, I had to walk 25 kilometres on foot from Dizangue to play football in Edea. I didn’t have the means to pay for transport, so either you had a bicycle, or you had ‘the bicycle of your feet’. There was a taxi driver who liked football a lot and he would sometimes take me. As there were some family members there, I stayed with them for a week to be able to train.”
From Edea, he progressed to the point where he was playing in the country’s second division in Douala at just 16 years of age.
Then, after an incredible season, he was signed as a 17-year-old by Canon Yaounde, one of Cameroon’s most successful clubs. That also opened the door to the national team at a time when N’Kono had only just become an adult.
“I was lucky in that the national team coach Vladimir Beara was a former goalkeeper, who taught me a lot about the craft, and that’s how it all started,” he remembered. “With him, I learned something that changed my life.
“I was training one Monday, and he told me that on the Thursday we’d meet up again. I felt a lot of pain in my body and, in the end, I didn’t go. They then kept me out of the national team call-ups for around six months or a year and then, when I did return, it was only to sit on the bench.
”That made me grow a lot, though, because it put my career at risk when I was just 18. It’s about effort, about growing and being the best. From there, everything else came naturally.” Everything else, as N’Kono describes it, was special.
While he combined football with his job at a water company, N'Kono rose to prominence with Canon Yaounde and won five national titles there as well as two Caf Champions Leagues (in 1978 and 1980). There, he also won his two African Player of the Year awards (in 1979 and 1982), a pioneering feat for a goalkeeper, and this was also because of his performances with Cameroon as they qualified for the 1982 World Cup in Spain.
That boosted N’Kono’s reputation on a global level.
It was his country’s first ever appearance at a World Cup and they were one goal away from knocking out eventual champions Italy in the group stages. Across Cameroon’s three matches, N’Kono played brilliantly and conceded just one goal.
The skill he showed during that tournament saw him stay and continue his career in Spain. After receiving offers from Brazilian sides Flamengo and Fluminense, as well as from RCD Espanyol, he accepted the offer from the Catalan club.
It was the first offer he received and, as he promised to his wife, this was the one he said yes to. Even if he didn’t quite realise it at the time, N’Kono was taking a historic step as he was becoming one of the first African goalkeepers to play in Europe.
This was a time when the rules in Spain only allowed for two foreign players in a squad and these were usually used for star attackers.
However, N’Kono repaid RCD Espanyol’s trust in his abilities as he became the foreigner with the most league appearances in RCD Espanyol’s history.
Over 241 LaLiga Santander appearances across eight seasons, N’Kono became an icon for RCD Espanyol thanks to his excellent reflexes, his magnificent athleticism, his strong personality, his leadership and his ability to save penalties.
As an intuitive and creative goalkeeper, he did things that others didn’t dare, like playing as a sweeper and passing the ball out as far as the opposition area, earning his various assists.
He’d even come out for aerial balls with just one hand, and was a player ahead of his time, even standing out for his attire, wearing trousers instead of shorts.
As he has explained: “When I started out, I didn’t have boots or gloves. It wasn’t until Douala that I had my first boots. I spent eight or nine years playing with shorts, but you can imagine how much I scratched my legs when playing on gravel pitches. Eventually, I was able to wear trousers and then I never stopped.”
During his eight seasons at the Estadi de Sarria, the goalkeeper became the foreigner with the most matches in the history of RCD Espanyol (an honour that Mauricio Pochettino later inherited) and he also became the Cameroonian with the most matches in the history of LaLiga Santander (although that tally was later overtaken by Samuel Eto'o).
Yet N’Kono’s career in Spain was about much more than records; he achieved epic victories in the derby against Barcelona, he received a standing ovation at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu and helped RCD Espanyol go on a European run by reaching the 1988 Uefa Cup final.
On their way to the final, they knocked out Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan (which had players such as Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Alessandro Costacurta and Franco Baresi) and Giovanni Trapattoni’s Internazionale (which boasted the likes of Enzo Scifo, Giuseppe Bergomi, Daniel Passarella and Walter Zenga).
In the first leg of the final, the Periquitos won 3-0 against Bayer Leverkusen at the Estadi de Sarria, but they lost in heart-breaking fashion in the return leg as they fell 3-0 and lost 3-2 on penalties.
After coming so close, it would take another 12 years for RCD Espanyol to win a title and another 19 for them to return to a European final.
During his time at RCD Espanyol, N’Kono continued his prestigious international career with Cameroon, who he played for 112 times in total.
The Indomitable Lions lifted their first ever title by winning the Africa Cup of Nations in 1984 with N’Kono in goals, known at that time as ‘The Wizard’ after being given a nickname by the legendary coach Helenio Herrera. Then, in 1990 and at the age of 33, the goalkeeper starred as Cameroon returned to the World Cup and as they reached the quarter-finals, which remains their best ever run at the tournament. After defeating Diego Maradona’s Argentina on their way to winning their group, they overcame Colombia in the round of 16 and only a Gary Lineker penalty in extra time prevented them from progressing further.
In that same summer of 1990, N’Kono left RCD Espanyol. However, he stayed in the north-east of Spain to play for Catalan side Sabadell and training for Hospitalet before moving to Bolivia and winning two league championships with Club Bolívar, as well as establishing an unbeaten record, and enjoying stints in Brunei and Indonesia ahead of his retirement in 1996/97, at the age of 39.
It was then that he hung up his gloves as a worldwide footballing legend. But, he didn’t leave goalkeeping behind entirely. Soon, he began his career as a goalkeeping coach.
In 1998, just a year after his retirement, N’Kono was named as the goalkeeping coach for Cameroon’s national team for the 1998 World Cup in France. He was also involved as Cameroon won the Olympic gold medal at the 2000 Olympic Games, with 16-year-old Carlos Kameni – who’d later move to RCD Espanyol – between the posts.
Another of the legend’s disciples from that era was Jacques Songo'o, who won the LaLiga Santander title with Deportivo La Coruna in 1999/2000.
In 2001, the opportunity to return to RCD Espanyol came up as the Cameroonian was hired to work in the Catalan club’s academy.
General director Fernando Molinos and president Daniel Sanchez Llibre were the ones who supported N’Kono and, just a year and a half later, he had been promoted to work with the first team.
As he himself recalled: “Cristobal Parralo was the sporting director at the time and they changed coach, with my former coach Javier Clemente leaving and Luis Fernandez coming in. He wanted to bring a goalkeeping coach from the outside, but they told him that I was there at the club and that I should be the one to come up.” Since then, he has stayed at RCD Espanyol for 20 years!
Last summer, N’Kono took a step to the side to become a technical advisor to new head coach Vicente Moreno and to allow Jesus Salvador the opportunity to become the full-time goalkeeping coach.
“We share all or almost all responsibilities, but now he is the one who fully travels with the team,” N’Kono said of the new setup. Meanwhile, the Cameroonian keeps working with the shot-stoppers at the training ground and has a role with the youngsters of the academy. He also works with teams such as the club’s LaLiga Genuine Santander side.
Asked about his style of coaching, N’Kono has said that: “Goalkeepers who I like to train should dominate three things: the how, the when and the why.”
Over the years, he has coached many players who have gone on to achieve a lot between the posts.
Speaking with a clear reverence for the goalkeepers he has trained, he said: “After all these years, what fills me with the most pride is that we have coached many goalkeepers, such as Gorka Iraizoz, Carlos Kameni, Kiko Casilla, Pau Lopez, Diego Lopez, Cristian Alvarez, Edgar Badia... They’ve all passed through my hands. This means we’ve done a good job.”
During his time in RCD Espanyol’s dugout, N’Kono was able to lift the Copa del Rey in 2006, when Kameni was the No.1.
That is the club’s last piece of silverware and, reflecting on that achievement, the Cameroonian said: “It was a great moment, maybe the best sporting memory in this time.” He came close to European glory again, forming part of the staff as RCD Espanyol lost another Uefa Cup final on penalties, this time to Sevilla FC in 2007.
With such an impressive CV as a player and then as a coach, some might be surprised that no bigger club has ever come to take N’Kono away from RCD Espanyol. However, ‘The Wizard’ has a special connection with his current team, saying: “I have eternal love for RCD Espanyol. The club is like a child to me. There’s a need to look after it so that the club can grow and blossom. That’s what those who have come here and those who are here now want.
“It’s about having a special affection for the colours. Even though the football of nowadays may have lost some of the love for the colours, there are values here that everyone buys into. It’s not all about money.”
These aren’t just words from the coach, as he has put this sentiment into action too by turning down a lucrative offer a few years ago.
As he explained: “I had a proposal from the Aspire Academy in Qatar. It was the most tempting of all those I’ve had, but I didn’t want to leave because of the situation the team was in. I couldn’t be convinced to leave my team during a period of difficulty.”
His loyalty, it appears, is unlikely to be swayed any time soon.