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, 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 academy.
Ondoa’s stellar performances were pivotal to the Indomitable Lions’ triumph in the last edition of the Nations Cup 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 Nations Cup 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.
A 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 Atletico (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 Africa Cup of Nations 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 Nations Cup 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 of 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 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.
Deeply political battle to be Cameroon’s No. 1
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 the Nations Cup 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 Nepomniachi apparently the messenger rather than the executioner: the Russian was widely seen as the instrument of the association and of the political authorities in Yaounde.
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 as a catalyst for Cameroon’s 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 Francois 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 stuck 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.