Unwanted keeper proves Cameroon's unlikely star at Africa Cup of Nations

Cameroon has always had a tradition of producing great goalkeepers.

Italian star Gianluigi Buffon says Thomas N'Kono inspired him to become a goalkeeper after he watched N'Kono lead Cameroon to the quarterfinals at the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

Joseph-Antoine Bell was for many years N'Kono's backup on the Indomitable Lions, but he was good enough that he was named the top African goalkeeper of the 20th century.

At Italia '90, Jacques Songo'o was Cameroon's third-choice keeper behind N'Kono and Bell, but he joined Bell and N'Kono, the runner-up, to give Cameroon three of the top six African goalkeepers of the 20th century.

At the Africa Cup of Nations, 21-year-old Fabrice Ondoa is turning heads with his play in goal for Cameroon, which faces favored Ghana in Thursday's semifinals.

Former Cameroon captain Patrick M'Boma has called Ondoa not just the best keeper at Afcon 2017 but the best player at the tournament in Gabon.

What makes Ondoa's story amazing is that he doesn't even start for Sevilla's "B" team in Spain.

Ondoa's save on Didier Ndong in stoppage time allowed Cameroon to tie host Gabon and advance to the quarterfinals, where his save on Liverpool star Sadio Mane allowed the Lions edge Senegal in a shootout.

"Players like him have a rare talent," Ondoa said of Mane. "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 soccer, but courage, determination and faith can take you a long way."

Along with a little luck.

Two goalkeepers -- Andre Onana of Ajax and Guy Roland Ndy of French club Nancy -- were among seven players who refused call-ups for the Africa Cup of Nations, opening the way for Ondoa to claim the starting job.

Ondoa was a goalkeeper at the development academy Barcelona star Samuel Eto'o operated in Douala, which paved the way for Ondoa's move to Barca. He was named the top goalie in the 2014 UEFA Youth League but struggled to get playing time with Barcelona's "B" team, a situation he blamed on his regular call-ups for international duty.

He moved to another Catalan team, Gimnastic Tarragona, and eventually to Pobla Mafumet and Sevilla Atletico, Sevilla's "B" team, both on loan. Sevilla Atletico is ninth after 23 games, but Ondoa has yet to play a game.

Ondoa's career totals in five pro seasons are five appearances -- for Pobla Mafumet last season in the Spanish third division -- a total he'll match for Cameroon at Africa Cup of Nations on Thursday.

Eto'o and Bell have encouraged Ondoa not to lose faith.

"When you are lucky enough to get a break so early on at that level," Bell told AFP, "I don't see how you couldn't end up at a big club one day."
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