FRANCEVILLE, Gabon: Cameroon’s presence in the last four of the Africa Cup of Nations against all the odds owes much to the exceptional performances of their 21-year-old goalkeeper Fabrice Ondoa.
Following snubs from several experienced players, the Indomitable Lions travelled to Gabon with what looked like their weakest ever squad at the competition.
And yet Ondoa has helped them progress at the expense of the hosts and much-fancied Senegal and on to a semi-final against Ghana on Thursday.
“Since the start of the competition he has saved us in a lot of matches. He has really been in his element,” said teammate Arnaud Djoum of the man who has been handed the gloves by coach Hugo Broos.
It was Ondoa’s remarkable reaction save to deny Didier Ndong in injury time that allowed Cameroon to draw 0-0 with Gabon and go through to the last eight.
His performances in the group stage led to him being named in the official team of the round, but better was to come.
He thwarted Senegal time and again throughout a goalless 120 minutes before stopping Sadio Mane’s crucial penalty in the shoot-out to set Cameroon up for a famous win.
“Players like him have a rare talent,” Ondoa said after his save from the Liverpool star. “You cannot show them that you know which way he is going to shoot.
“I had to wait until the last moment to dive and try to stop the ball. You need quality in football, but courage, determination and faith can take you a long way.”
Ondoa has needed plenty of these qualities on the road to becoming a national hero while his presence scarcely seems to register with his club.
He is, effectively, a reserve player for a reserve team. On loan to Sevilla’s B team in the Spanish second division, Ondoa can’t get a game.
But with Carlos Kameni out of the reckoning and Guy-Roland Ndy Assembe and Andre Onana rejecting call-ups the path was cleared for him at international level.
“A lot of people were talking about the choice of goalkeeper. But he has proven he deserves his place,” added Djoum, the Hearts midfielder.
Fai Collins, the full-back, shared that sentiment when asked to give his verdict on the shot-stopper.
“Frankly, I can’t say I am surprised because he is a talented goalkeeper,” said Collins.
“But with the work he puts in, it has really moved me, knowing he is not the first choice at his club and yet he is having a great tournament.”
Ondoa’s talent has never been in doubt. Indeed, he was picked up by Barcelona as a youngster and did enough to get a professional contract at the Camp Nou, albeit only with their B team.
He made his full international debut aged 18 and played for Cameroon at the 2015 Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea.
From a country that has produced goalkeeping greats like Thomas Nkono and Joseph-Antoine Bell, Ondoa always looked to have a big future ahead of him.
But Barcelona allowed him to leave last year and he was eventually picked up by Gimnastic Tarragona, a Spanish second-tier side from Catalonia, before being loaned to Seville.
His displays in Gabon could provide a much-needed shot in the arm for his club career, and Bell for one has not lost faith.
“When you are lucky enough to get a break so early on at that level, I don’t see how you couldn’t end up at a big club one day,” said the 62-year-old goalkeeping great turned pundit.