By Mark Gleeson
LIBREVILLE, Jan 31 : Cameroon’s hopes of reaching the African Nations Cup final for the first time in five tournaments are likely to depend heavily on a 21-year-old goalkeeper who has yet to play a top flight match at club level.
Spanish-based Fabrice Ondoa has emerged as a star performer at the tournament in Gabon and will likely play a key role again when a youthful, inexperienced Cameroon side face favourites Ghana in Thursday’s semi-final in Franceville.
Ondoa has already shown his worth to a Cameroon team who arrived in Gabon amid low expectations after more than half a dozen of their most seasoned players said they did not want to take part.
A brilliant one-handed stop deep in stoppage time against Gabon secured a vital point as Cameroon advanced at the expense of the hosts before the baby-faced goalie again pulled off a string of key saves in the quarter-final against Senegal, then promptly burst into tears.
He saved the best for last with another one-handed block of Sadio Mane’s penalty to see Cameroon to a 5-4 win in the penalty shootout after keeping a clean sheet against Senegal’s much-vaunted attack.
“Sadio Mane is a great player capable of deciding the outcome of any game. When he hit his penalty I just watched the ball intently and got a touch. But I’m not a hero,” Ondoa told reporters after being named man of the match.
But Ondoa has been among the top performers as the tournament heads into its final week – a phenomenal feat for a player yet to play a club match at top flight level.
Ondoa is a product of the Barcelona academy, among a group of 13-year-old boys who moved to La Masia from Cameroon as part of a foundation created by former Cameroon forward Samuel Eto’o.
He rose quickly through the ranks, promoted to Barcelona’s B team squad when just 17 but without getting a chance to play in the Spanish second division.
He has since had five games out on loan in the second tier, considerably less than the 16 caps earned with the national team after breaking into the team in mid-2014 as an 18-year-old.
“I’m often surprised to see how well he plays in his goal, when he doesn’t play any club matches. But he is disciplined and his work ethic is beyond question,” Cameroon coach Hugo Broos, hoping to lead Cameroon to their first final since 2008 and first title since 2002, told reporters.
“He has won us points in World Cup qualifiers as well, with some outstanding performances. When you have a ‘keeper like that, even if he doesn’t play at his club, you do not need to change.”