As sporting rags-to-riches stories go, Rocky Balboa has nothing on Édouard Mendy. Seven years ago, it looked like his career was ending in failure at the age of 23 – not exactly youthful in the world of football, where prodigies like Wayne Rooney become titans of the game at 16.
Mendy’s three years at French minnows Cherbourg had gone nowhere; he was released at the end of his contract in 2014. His agent stopped responding to his messages; no club was taking him. After a year as a free agent, Mendy almost took up a friend’s offer to work in a clothes shop.
But another friend’s offer was a different prospect. An ex-Cherbourg teammate was friends with Marseille goalkeeping coach Dominique Bernatowicz, who was looking for a reserve keeper. Bernatowitz immediately saw he had a star on his hands: “From the first training session, I could see he was a cut above,” he told The Guardian.
Bernatowicz put Mendy in touch with an agent who could move him to a Ligue 2 club and get him regular football; he joined Reims at the start of 2016-17. Luck intervened for Mendy once more, as stalwart Reims keeper Johann Carrasso got sent off five minutes into the first match of the season – allowing Mendy to step in and prove his burgeoning ability.
By the next season Mendy was entrenched as Reims’s first-choice keeper – playing a crucial role in the eastern French club’s 2017-18 Ligue 2 title victory. Mendy then established himself as one of the best keepers in France’s top flight, as Reims surged to finish at 8th place in the 2018-19 Ligue 1. Mendy’s ever-improving shot-stopping skills, aerial prowess and authority over the defence were all instrumental in Reims’s climb through the league – as he notched up 14 clean sheets, the third highest tally in that season’s Ligue 1.
After helping turbocharge Reims from obscurity to the middle ranks of France’s top flight, Mendy moved up a step by joining Rennes at the start of 2019-20. The Breton club were stalwarts of Ligue 1 – yet also-rans of the European game who had never played in the Champions League.
Mendy showed just how much he had improved in his debut against Strasbourg: Shortly after recovering from a broken finger, he saved a penalty to preserve a shutout in a 2-0 Rennes triumph. Mendy exemplified this combination of unyielding pertinacity and consummate goalscoring skill throughout that Covid-marred season as Rennes soared to 3rd place, winning their first ever spot in club football’s most prestigious competition.
Looking back through Mendy’s astonishing career arc, perhaps the most surprising thing is that a footballing colossus didn’t spot him and snap him up sooner. But the moment finally arrived in the summer of 2020. Impatient with their erratic form under club legend Frank Lampard, Chelsea needed a world-class goalkeeper to displace the flagging Kepa Arrizabalaga. Lampard’s ex-teammate Petr Cech, now working in the back room as Chelsea’s technical and performance advisor, looked at his former club Rennes and saw there someone who could do exactly the same. Upon Cech’s recommendation, Chelsea signed Mendy for £22 million.
Strength to strength
A club of Chelsea’s stature provided exactly the platform Mendy needed to develop his gifts to even greater heights. In his opening matches at Stamford Bridge, Mendy showed just how much he belonged in the bright lights of the Premier League – pulling off five shutouts in a row, starting with his Premiership debut, Chelsea’s 4-0 thumping of Crystal Palace, and ending with the Blues’ 3-0 win over Rennes in the Champions League weeks later.
Mendy went from strength to strength in the 2020-21 season – further developing an authoritative presence in shepherding the defence and an aerial prowess demonstrated by supreme confidence in surging from his line to catch crosses.
But it was Mendy’s flourishing gift for snatching away seemingly inevitable goals that entrenched his reputation as one of the best goalkeepers playing today – as shown in his famous penalty save against Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero in May; not to mention his own favourite save of the season, when he leapt across the grass to parry a lethal low shot from Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema in the Champions League semi-finals the same month.
To cap it all off, Mendy played a starring role in Chelsea’s 1-0 Champions League final triumph against Man City. It was a Champions League season that earned him two places in the record books: Mendy became the first African goalkeeper to lift club football’s most prestigious trophy – while he kept 9 sheets, reaching a tie for the Champions League season record with Santiago Canizares in 2000-01 (then at Valencia) and Keylor Navas in 2015-16 (then at Real Madrid).
Mendy’s majestic performances at Chelsea have his followers eager to see him in action at the Africa Cup of Nations – particularly those in Senegal. But when Mendy’s talents started to blossom in the mid-2010s, it was unclear which national team he would play for.
The 29-year-old was born in France to a father from Guinea-Bissau and a mother from Senegal – making him eligible to play for all three countries. Guinea-Bissau called Mendy up for a couple of friendly matches in 2016, and he agreed to play for them as an act of homage to his then terminally ill father.
Both Guinea-Bissau and Senegal wanted him to play for them in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. Mendy chose the latter, telling journalists he had “always wanted” to play for Senegal, “my mother’s home country”.
Senegal has every reason to be grateful for Mendy’s decision – especially because its strong defensive line is a major factor in making it a favourite to take the trophy, boasting the formidable presence of Napoli’s star centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly alongside PSG’s talented left-back Abdou Diallo. With a talismanic presence up front in the shape of Liverpool winger Sadio Mané, Senegal are set to be a fearsome presence in Cameroon.
As they watch Mendy take his place in the net at this tournament, football fans everywhere will be similarly grateful that Mendy chose the beautiful game – refusing to give up his dream after lowly Cherbourg dropped him.