In football, strikers usually get all the accolades. That’s not surprising as they are the ones who score the goals and command the biggest pay-cheques. However, the men between the posts are obviously just as important – if not even more so, in some instances. After all, if a striker scores three and the goalkeeper concedes four, the team still loses, regardless of how brilliant that hat-trick was. And in the even of a penalty shoot-out, the shot-stopper has the weight of his team and its supporters on its shoulders.
Given that goalkeepers tend to stay in the business for quite some time – Juventus’s Gianluigi Buffon is now 39, for example – it makes it a lot harder for rising stars to break in. But once they are there, the sky is the limit. Much of the talk has been about AC Milan’s Gianluigi Donnarumma, who will celebrate his 18th birthday shortly. The gigantic teenager made his debut for the Rossoneri at the ripe old age of 16, and quickly replaced then first choice shot-stopper Diego Lopez – who was double his age – as the no. 1 man between the sticks for Milan.
Toulouse’s Alban Lafont may not be a household name just yet as Donnarumma is rapidly becoming. However, the 17-year-old has been quietly making waves in Ligue 1 with his side and appears just on the cusp of making a major splash.
Who is Alban Lafont?
Born on January 23, 1999 in Burkina Faso, Lafont initially started his career as a midfielder. Sound familiar? Well, Italian icon Buffon also began as a midfielder before reportedly switching to shot-stopper after seeing Cameroonian legend Thomas N’Kono in action during the 1990 World Cup. Despite hailing from Burkina Faso, however, he has so far turned out for France at several youth levels, and it goes without saying that Les Bleus supporters will hope he will play his senior football for his adopted nation as opposed to the one of his birth.
He spent six years with regional side Lattoise before Toulouse snapped him up in 2014, and after just over one year in the academy, then-manager Dominique Arribagé decided to take a major gamble in a clash with Nice on November 28, 2015.
No risk, no reward…and making history in the process
At that time, Toulouse were a side in flummox. They had failed win their first 13 games and held the dubious record of the worst defense in the league. Relegation was threatening, and Arribagé was growing desperate. Lafont was the fifth – yes, fifth – choice shot-stopper, but those ahead of him, Ali Ahamada and Mauro Goicoechea were committing a series of horror mistakes and epic fails one after another, time and time again. So, a bit like Sinisa Mihajlovic over at Milan in handing Donnarumma his debut a month prior, Arribagé decided to throw all caution to the wind and field the then-16 year old.
It paid off. Not only did Toulouse win for the first time since beating Saint-Etienne on matchday one, but Lafont managed to keep a clean sheet against Nice. He followed that up with another shut-out as they cruised to an easy 3-0 win over Troyes and in the process, went from back-up to the back-ups to the no. 1 choice for Toulouse.
And Lafont, like Donnarumma is no one season wonder. This season, fully installed as Toulouse’s first choice goalkeeper, he has managed to keep clean sheets against Marseille, Saint-Etienne, and most impressively, reigning champs PSG.
Arguably, Lafont is the next big thing over in Ligue 1. Although he does not receive the same kind of attention as his peer Donnarumma due to the fact that Toulouse is not as well known as Milan, he nonetheless continues to put in the kind of displays that will eventually make him a household name once he moves to a larger club. And with the way he’s been performing this season, that switch will likely come sooner rather than later. And don’t be surprised to hear him regularly mentioned in conversations as among the top shot-stoppers within the next five years or so.
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