N’Kono – MR 50%
However, the man the Cameroon press dubbed “Mr 50%” when he played for the country’s most successful club, Canon Yaounde, actually started out as a centre forward. That was back in the 1960s when he was at Cameroonian first-division club Eclair Douala. As he says himself, it was purely by chance that he ended up playing in goal. “One day before training, the boy who was in charge of the balls told me to go in goal while we waited for the other players to arrive. The coach, who was watching, noticed that I handled the ball well. The following weekend he played me in goal and we won.” Ironically, the goalkeeper whose place N’Kono took in the team, Simon Tchombang, eventually made his name at Dynamo Douala and went on to become one of N’Kono’s deputies (together with Joseph Antoine Bell) at the 1982 FIFA World Cup™ in Spain.
Having thus vacated his position as centre-forward to help out in goal, Tommy remained between the sticks and was a top-class goalkeeper for 25 years, earning himself a new nickname, “The Black Spider”, a reference to the original “Black Spider”, Lev Yashin, so-called because he liked to wear a black cap and jersey. The coach and chairman of Eclair Douala, Francois Bahoumbekin, discovered N’Kono, then a 17-year-old striker, at an inter-district tournament in Edea, 100km from Cameroon’s biggest city Douala. The masterstroke of converting him into a goalkeeper gifted the land of the Indomitable Lions a custodian who was as complete a player in the air as he was on the ground, a great shot-stopper who was famed for his jumping, his footwork and his long throwing. He often succeeded in sapping the confidence of opposing strikers in Cameroon and all over Africa during his glory days at Canon Yaounde, as well as reassuring his own defenders with saves that were out of this world. His former team-mate and playmaker at Canon and in the national team, Jean-Paul Akono, nowadays also a coach (whose achievements include a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Sydney) backs this up: “With Tommy, we played with great confidence. The defenders could afford to go upfield and dribble the ball because they knew that if they made a mistake, “The Black Spider” would save their bacon.”
With his reputation already made in Africa, Thomas N’Kono dazzled the rest of the world with his performances for the Indomitable Lions at the 1982 FIFA World Cup™ in Spain, conceding just one goal (to Italy’s Graziani in a 1-1 draw and only after slipping over). However, this was not enough to prevent a frustrating first-round elimination for unbeaten Cameroon on their World Cup debut. At Italia ’90, N’Kono conceded many more goals (nine in five matches), but Cameroon went a lot further in the competition, becoming the first African country to reach the World Cup quarter¬finals.