Thomas Nkono; A story of international woe with the Indomitable Lions

By Muambo Edward,

Thomas Nkono is arguably Africa’s greatest shot stopper of all times, who ironically, barely won one silverware as goalkeeper with Cameroon, though the Indomitable Lions actually lifted two African Cup of Nations trophies at a time that he was at his prime.

A five times Cameroon league winner with Canon of Yaoundé, a two times African Champions League winner, a UEFA Cup runners-up medal winner in 1988, a Bolivian league winner in 1997, and a two times African Player of the Year award winner, Thomas Nkono only bagged a medal as winner of the 1984 Africa Cup of Nations in Côte d’Ivoire with Cameroon under controversial circumstances.

Imposing and hugely admired and adored at club level, Nkono was Cameroon’s eternal first choice goalkeeper but he did so with no silverware to show for or was always absent when it mattered most.

After his heroics in Cameroon’s maiden FIFA World Cup appearance in 1982, with the Indomitable Lions eliminated in the first round though unbeaten, Nkono caught the eye of Spanish top flight side Espanyol Barcelona.

Earlier on, as Cameroon’s only goalkeeper for the 1982 African Cup of Nations, Nkono and Cameroon failed to progress past the group stage though he kept two clean sheets in their three games. 

He kept clean sheets against Libya and Ghana in 0-0 draws and conceded a goal in Cameroon’s opening 1-1 draw with Tunisia.


He was Cameroon’s first choice goalkeeper in the qualifiers and naturally was given the first choice place at the start of the 1984 African Cup of Nations by coach Radivoje Ognjanović, with Joseph-Antoine Bell and Jacques Songo’o as his backups.

He was between the sticks in Cameroon’s 1-0 loss to Egypt in their opening fixture and kept his place again in their 4-1 win over Togo. 

That he was his last game in the tournament which Cameroon went on to win, as Bell was Cameroon’s goalkeeper in their remaining three games against Côte d’Ivoire, Algeria and Nigeria on their way to glory.

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Bell was eventually crowned as the best goalkeeper of the tournament.

Nkono returned to his club which explains why he did not complete the tournament, but he actually earned a winner’s medal, his only major silverware with the Indomitable Lions.

In 1986, Nkono led the trio of Cameroon goalkeepers completed by Jacques Songo’o and André Marie Boé, for the AFCON in Egypt.

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He kept his rank and place in five games leading to the finals which Cameroon lost to Egypt on penalties. 

Though he managed to stop Moustafa Abdou’s spot kick, Gregoire Mbida and Kana-Biyik missed theirs. He conceded five goals in that tournament, keeping clean sheets only in the semifinal against Côte d’Ivoire and in the final against eventual winners Egypt.

In the 1988 African Cup of Nations in Morocco, French coach Claude LeRoy had to settle on just two goalkeepers, Joseph-Antoine Bell and the eternal substitute Jacques Songo’o, Nkono was missing from the call as his club held him back.

Nkono as goalkeeper coach

Songo’o had the honours to play in the first game, in Cameroon’s 1-0 win over Egypt before making way for Bell who played the remaining four games against Nigeria twice, Kenya and Morocco on Cameroon’s way to their second AFCON crown and Bell crowned as the best goalkeeper of the tournament, with three clean sheets in four games.

In the 1990 AFCON in Algeria, coach Valery Nepomnyashchy had just two goalkeepers, 34-year-old Thomas Nkono and Union of Douala’s 21-year-old William Andem.

Cameroon lost their first two games to Zambia and Senegal, conceding three goals and failing to score any. Although they managed to beat Kenya 2-0 in the last game they were eliminated in the first round.

At the World Cup

Nkono played in the first two games which Cameroon lost before making way for Andem in Cameroon’s win against Kenya.

In the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy, Cameroon became the first African team to reach the quarterfinals, thanks to some heroic goalkeeping from Nkono who led the trio completed with Bell and Songo’o. 

Nkono’s lowest points of the tournament were conceding four goals in a 4-0 defeat to Russia and Cameroon’s 3-2 loss against England in the quarterfinals.

In the 1992 African Cup of Nations, Nkono was absent with Bell, Andem and Songo’o picked as the three goalkeepers by French coach Philippe Redon.

Cameroon finished fourth in the tournament with Bell as the undisputed first choice goalkeeper.

Cameroon failed to qualify for the 1994 African Cup of Nations but made it to the FIFA World Cup.

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Bell was the first choice goalkeeper in Cameroon’s opening two games against Sweden [2-2] and Brazil [3-0 defeat], before making way for Songo’o in their last game, a 6-1 hammering from Russia.

Nkono was an unused substitute in the tournament and the native of Dizangue retired with the national team with 112 caps to his name.

He was the assistant coach under German coach Wilfred Schafer, when Cameroon lifted their fourth Afcon trophy in Mali in 2002.

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The now 63-year-old current Espanyol Barcelona goalkeepers trainer was arrested by riot police ahead of Cameroon’s semifinal game against Mali [3-0 win Cameroon] for allegedly using ‘black magic’. 

Nkono was dragged to the running track after stepping on to the pitch before the game and got into a scuffle with riot police. He was handed a one year ban which was later lifted and he received an apology from the then President of Mali, Alpha Oumar

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In 2009 he had an interim spell as Cameroon’s first team coach after Otto Pfister left and his reign at the helm of the team ended in disgrace with some players notably Benoit Assou-Ekotto, accusing him of asking for money to offer them places with the national team.

While no one can dispute his achievements at club level, Thomas Nkono was absent for one reason or another from Cameroon’s greatest triumphs at the prime of his career.