For a side accustomed to inhabiting the mid-to-lower reaches of La Liga, Espanyol are enjoying quite a season, occupying a deserved fourth place with over a third of the campaign already gone.
Though much of the credit for the Catalan side’s sudden climb should go to their young Argentinian coach Mauricio Pochettino and talented individuals such as forward Pablo Osvaldo, Los Periquitos (The Parakeets) are also indebted to their indomitable goalkeeper Idriss Carlos Kameni.
The Cameroonian custodian is at the peak of his powers, turning in another exemplary performance between the posts in his 200th Liga appearance against Sporting Gijon last Sunday. And after keeping a clean sheet in his side’s 1-0 win, he made time to talk to members of the media.
“Two hundred matches with the same club is quite a landmark and I never imagined I’d play that many games when I signed for Espanyol in 2004,” said the Blanquiazul idol. “I’d come from a club that’s not very well known here to find myself in one of the world’s top leagues. I got here through hard work and by being brave.”
Making up for lost time
Kameni’s previous employers were France’s oldest club Le Havre, who discovered the fearless keeper back in 1997, a year after a compatriot by the name of Samuel Eto’o had failed to impress in a trial there.
But it was on the international stage that the young Kameni slowly began to grow in stature. He won his first Cameroon cap in 2000, the same year that he collected a gold medal at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament in Sydney after saving twice in a penalty shootout in the final against Spain.
Though still only 16, the shotstopper was now a national hero. Yet his exploits Down Under had little repercussion back in France, where he failed to play a single game for Les Ciel et Marine and made little impact in a loan spell with Saint-Etienne. “Le Havre helped me grow, but they never gave me a chance,” said Kameni, on an ultimately fruitless association which came to an end in 2004.
[Kameni is] the best keeper I’ve ever come up against.
One man who did have confidence in him was Espanyol goalkeeping coach Thomas N’Kono. The former Cameroonian legend considered the young hopeful to be his successor at the Catalan club, where he had spent nine successful seasons between 1982 and 1991. The mentor would not be disappointed.
The new arrival made an instant impact at the start of the 2004/05 season, turning in some excellent displays and stopping three penalties, two of them taken by Ronaldo and Julio Baptista no less. Lying as high as second at the midway point of the campaign, Espanyol would eventually lose momentum to finish fifth. Kameni played in every one of their 38 games that season, by the end of which he had won a place in the hearts of the Espanyol faithful.
The years that followed brought some notable cup runs for Kameni and Co. In 2006 they lifted the Copa del Rey, but came off second best to Sevilla in the UEFA Cup final the following year.
An undisputed No1 for his country, the imposing keeper nevertheless missed out on the 2008 CAF African Cup of Nations final defeat to Egypt. Despite such disappointments, he maintained his high standards, with opponents such as Fernando Torres describing him as “the best keeper I’ve ever come up against”.
Challenges to face
Kameni’s status as Espanyol’s first-choice keeper is now under threat from the excellent Argentinian shotstopper Christian Alvarez, whose arrival has given coach Pochettino some food for thought: “Having to decide between Cristian and Carlos is only a minor problem. It’s not a dilemma. I’d rather have two great keepers than only one, even if I have to rack my brains every time I put a team together.”
For the time being at least, the intrepid Cameroonian seems to have his coach’s confidence, having appeared in ten of Espanyol’s 14 league games this season. “We started on an equal footing, but I go into every season with the same level of desire, like a kid starting out at school,” explained the current incumbent. “I always want to do better than I did the year before.”
Turning his attentions to Espanyol’s flying start to the league campaign, Kameni believes they thoroughly deserve to be where they are: “We still have a long way to go but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t dream of the Champions League. We’re here on merit and we have to make the most of it now. We’ve worked hard and applied ourselves and we need to keep it going. We must not stray from the course we’ve set.”
Ironically, the in-form 26-year-old has lost his place in the Cameroon side to Guy Roland Ndy Assembe and was a helpless bystander as the Indomitable Lions made a tame group-phase exit from the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Yet with veteran Spanish coach Javier Clemente since taking the reins of the national team, Kameni could soon be in for a recall.
As fate would have it all, Clemente has coached Espanyol on three separate occasions and steered them to the 1988 UEFA Cup final. And now that Los Periquitos are flying high again, it would be no surprise to see him check on the form of their fearless No1.