Gabon's Didier Ovono On Globe-Trotting and The Prejudices That Face An African Goalkeeper

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Didier Ovono has enjoyed a colourful career so far. In the final part of our interview, the Gabon goalkeeper and captain speaks about his remarkable journey from Africa to Le Mans, via Barcelona, Salvador and Georgia. 

Your club Le Mans are struggling in the French second tier at the moment and you haven’t played much this season. What is going on exactly?

The situation has got a bit complicated. I had a good season with Le Mans in Ligue 1 (in 2009/10) and then stayed with them last season after we were relegated. We were almost promoted straight away but narrowly missed out. Then there were several Ligue 1 clubs that wanted to sign me in the summer. But Le Mans didn’t want to let me go. My current deal runs out in the summer and I have turned down several offers to extend the contract. I want to have the final say over my next move. I have a family now and responsibilities. I want to be able to choose which club and which city we are going to live in next. Unfortunately the club wasn’t happy and the coach decided to leave me out. That’s why Giorgi Makaridze has been playing more than me in the league.

That’s hardly ideal preparation for such an important competition.

The people at Le Mans know that this is a very important season for me because of the Nations Cup. I really don’t think that what they have done is fair. But a new coach (Denis Zanko) has just come in and I’m optimistic that my situation will improve when I return. I got the chance to talk to him before leaving for Gabon and he told me to focus on the Nations Cup. He reassured me I’d have my chance again if my performances are up to scratch. So we’ll see what happens. It’s a shame because I have a lot of respect for Le Mans and I owe them a lot.

You are just the latest in a long line of African players to have succeeded at Le Mans. Drogba, Sessegnon, Romaric have all played there in the past…

Daniel Cousin and Gervinho too…. That’s why I joined Le Mans. They have very strong links with Africa and they treat their players well. The president (Henri Legarda) likes African players and has developed a strong network in Africa. They are very good at finding talent.

You’ve had a colourful career already, playing in all over the world. How did your move to Alianza in Salvador come about?

Once I got my Baccalaureate I moved to Barcelona to train at the ‘Plan Marcet’ academy. That’s where I met (former Cameroon goalkeeper) Thomas N’Kono, who was coaching at Espanyol. When I finished my training, I had the choice of returning to Gabon or moving to another country to try to find out how good I could be. I spoke to N’Kono about it and chose to accept the move to Salvador. I don’t regret that for a moment. I had an amazing season there. People in Europe think that other foreign leagues aren’t so important, but I can tell you that I played in some big games in Salvador. When Alianz played in the big derby match the stadium would always be packed. I used to play in front of 80,000 supporters. The atmosphere was incredible. I had a great season there and I was voted best goalkeeper in the league. The fans loved me. I still get letters from supporters asking me to come back. It was also the first time I got the chance to play high level matches on a regular basis so I learned a lot as a goalkeeper during my time there.

I still follow South American football closely. The Copa Libertadores is every bit as exciting as the Champions League. The games may not be quite so intense but the stadiums are always packed and it’s really quite a spectacle.

After the Salvador experience you started your European career in Georgia with Dinamo Tbilisi. Isn’t that another surprising choice?

I wanted to play in Europe because European football gets watched more than any other football. So I accepted an offer from Tbilisi and had an amazing time in Georgia too. We won three titles when I was there. Again, I was voted best goalkeeper. It was quite funny actually because these prizes never usually go to foreign players. When they announced that I’d won the award and not the Georgian goalkeeper, everyone was surprised.

N’Kono is a legendary figure in Africa. How big an influence has he had on your career so far?

He’s the boss. I’m very lucky to have met him. As a goalkeeper, I model myself on him and I’m really happy when I hear people say that my style reminds them of him. He is a true legend. Don’t forget he won two African Ballon d’Or awards. For a goalkeeper that’s extraordinary. Buffon hasn’t won a Ballon d’Or. Casillas hasn’t either. For me, he’s simply the boss. I call him every day. He gives me a lot of advice. He told me that I should try to get back to playing in Ligue 1, but insisted that I need to work even harder. It’s not always easy for an African goalkeeper to get people to show faith in you.

It’s true that you don’t see many African goalkeepers in Europe. Do you think there is still some prejudice when it comes to hiring African keepers?

At the end of the day every coach wants his team to win. I don’t think they worry too much about where you are from if you are going to win matches for them. When I played for Le Mans in the top flight the coach had total faith in me. He told me after certain matches that he thought I was invincible. Sometimes I felt invincible. I played 34 games that season and was appointed team captain. But I do I think it is important that I learned my skills at a European academy. That ensured that I developed a sound technique.

What do you miss about Africa?

More than anything I miss my family. I am lucky today because my wife and daughter are with me all the time. It wasn’t easy at the beginning, though, because I was on my own. I found the winters really hard. It was so cold! People kept saying ‘don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. Just put on another jumper’. But I couldn’t cope. It was cold, grey and wet all the time. I used to cry a lot when I was on my own. It took a while but I have got used to it now. The thing I miss most these days is African food!

Which African delicacy do you miss the most?

My wife cooks African food for me. My favourite dish is ‘nyenvoué’. The key to making it is to use African oil palm to cook with. That’s what gives the sauce the taste. Then you can add chicken or whatever meat you want. My wife’s recipe is delicious. She can get hold of the ingredients in France – thanks to the Chinese! You find everything in the Chinese supermarkets.