Cameroon’s keepers of faith: Onana and Ondoa

Being a reserve goalkeeper can be one of the saddest jobs in football. No team can do without a second keeper, but if you have the job, you reek of redundancy.

Unlike fringe outfielders, you never get a run off the bench in which to stake a claim for a starting place. So you train and wait and train and wait, hovering around the camp like a fleshy ghost.

You are a hapless presence. If you are not actually praying that some minor physical or legal misfortune befalls the starting goalkeeper, then everyone thinks that you are.

The situation in international squads is a bit different, because at least the backup keeper has a real job back at his club. André Onana of Ajax Amsterdam, who was supposed to be Cameroon’s reserve goalkeeper at the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), is a case in point. He also happens to be one of the most talented young netminders on the planet.

Inconveniently for Onana, the same can be said of the man with whom he competes for the No 1 jersey, Fabrice Ondoa, who is Onana’s cousin and his former roommate at Barcelona’s La Masia youth academy.

Ondoa’s stellar performances were pivotal to the Indomitable Lions’ triumph in the last edition of Afcon in Gabon. He seemed undroppable leading up to this year’s tournament but coach Clarence Seedorf, who played for Ajax in his youth, handed Onana the No 1 jersey in the 2-0 win over Guinea-Bissau and the goalless draw with Ghana.

The crucial backstory here is Onana’s decision to decline selection for the 2017 Afcon to retain and secure his hard-won place at Ajax.

That fateful call, which was not well received in Cameroon, has proved wise for Onana. And it was a gift to his cousin. Ondoa seized the opportunity to shine in Gabon. But as is often the case with African keepers, heroism on the international stage has not translated into progress at club level.

Rivalry built on brotherhood

Ondoa’s home base these days is not far from Onana’s in Amsterdam, though in the much humbler surroundings of Oostende. He moved to the sleepy Belgian port city from Sevilla Atlético (Sevilla’s reserve side) in 2017, but he is the No 2 keeper for Oostende, with Frenchman William Dutoit the man in possession of the starting jersey.

Even another epic Afcon campaign from Ondoa for Cameroon may not dislodge Dutoit — in the keeper’s jungle, possession is nine-tenths of the law.

Meanwhile, Onana is back in the Cameroon squad. At last, Europe-based African stars can participate in the first Afcon to be staged during the European off-season without jeopardising their day jobs. And the two rivals think of each other as brothers. “We played together as kids,” Onana told The National newspaper in the United Arab Emirates.

“Then we were together at the Samuel Eto’o Academy in Douala. So you can say we have been together in football for nine, maybe 10 years. Five years of that was in Barcelona, sharing a room.”

There was a very different flavour to the relationship between two earlier Cameroonian greats — Joseph-Antoine Bell and Thomas N’Kono. For a decade and a half, from 1980 to 1994, the two fought for the national jersey, as Ian Hawkey recounts in his acclaimed history of African football, Feet of the Chameleon.

Legendary French coach Claude Le Roy worked with both men. “The potential in the two of them was just fantastic,” he told Hawkey. “But in a totally different way. Tommy had his sobriety, and then you had the showmanship of Bell.”

N’Kono was taller, steadier, with a powerful and accurate throw. Bell was more lithe, more charismatic — a natural leader who captained Olympique de Marseille.

N’Kono had the jersey at the 1982 and 1990 World Cups, while Bell had possession when Cameroon won the Nations Cup in 1982. At the time, European clubs were even less inclined to hire African keepers than they are today, so N’Kono’s move to Sevilla in 1982 was groundbreaking, as was Bell’s ascendancy at Marseille.

Toxic political battle

For Bell, the battle between the two great keepers could have been healthy, but instead it was toxified, politicised. “The rivalry was strong,” he told Hawkey, “but in the end it was badly used. Africans don’t like democracy. Democracy means you have to accept there are two parties. You have to accept the other party also has a role to play.

“But in Cameroon, he who has power is worth everything; the other guy is worth nothing. They only know totalitarianism. Instead of being pleased to have two good goalkeepers, they wanted to have one, all on his own.”

Here Bell was referring to his most galling setback. On the eve of Cameroon’s opener against Argentina at the 1990 World Cup, he was the man in possession, having starred in Afcon that year in Algeria.

But after attacking the national side’s traditionally shambolic preparations in an interview with a French newspaper, Bell was deposed at the last minute in favour of N’Kono, with coach Valery Nepomnyashchy apparently the messenger rather than the executioner; the Russian was widely seen as the instrument of the footbal association and of the political authorities in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital.

Even Argentina’s Diego Maradona was puzzled. When the teams trooped off at half-time, with the scoreline still at 0-0, he asked N’Kono: “What are you doing here? I thought Bell was the man?”

Chaos a catalyst for success

The game got stranger yet for Maradona, who was treated fairly brutally by the Cameroonians, who went on to achieve one of the greatest shocks in World Cup history as a result of François Omam-Biyik’s towering header in the second half. As the tournament progressed, a 38-year-old Roger Milla transformed African football with a goal-scoring streak of surreal charisma, firing the Indomitable Lions all the way to the quarterfinals.

Throughout, N’Kono had excelled in goal, directing the Cameroonians’ ferocious pressing game from the command centre of his box. But in extra time of the quarterfinal against England, he fouled Gary Lineker in the box at 2-2, and Lineker struck the resulting penalty past him. The dream shattered.

For Bell, there would still be one more chance of greatness — at the 1994 World Cup, a campaign that ended badly with a 3-0 clobbering by Brazil in the group stage. As per tradition, the squad preparations had been chaotic, leading to a player protest led by Bell over broken financial promises from the federation.

Plus ça change — the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Lions briefly refused to board their flight to Egypt unless unpaid bonuses and appearance fees materialised.

But don’t bet against another title for the Indomitable Lions this month. The stubborn excellence of Cameroonian football has always been about transcending chaos — and, if possible, having two giants in goal. It surely can’t hurt if those giants love each other.

This article was first published on New Frame

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


Subscribers only

How lottery execs received dubious payments through a private company

The National Lottery Commission is being investigated by the SIU for alleged corruption and maladministration, including suspicious payments made to senior NLC employees between 2016 and 2017

Pandemic hobbles learners’ futures

South African schools have yet to open for the 2021 academic year and experts are sounding the alarm over lost learning time, especially in the crucial grades one and 12

More top stories

What the Biden presidency may mean for Africa

The new US administration has an interest and much expertise in Africa. But given the scale of the priorities the administration faces, Africa must not expect to feature too prominently

Zuma, Zondo play the waiting game

The former president says he will talk once the courts have ruled, but the head of the state capture inquiry appears resigned to letting the clock run out as the commission's deadline nears

Disinformation harms health and democracy

Conspiracy theorists abuse emotive topics to suck the air out of legitimate debate and further their own sinister agendas

Uganda: ‘I have never seen this much tear-gas in an...

Counting was slow across Uganda as a result of the internet shutdown, which affected some of the biometric machines used to validate voter registrations.

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…