Didier Ovono, Gabon’s globe-trotter
© AFP

As they welcomed their new arrival into the world on 23 January 1983 in the peaceful Gabonese town of Port-Gentil, little did the Ovono Ebang family know that young Didier would grow up to become a veritable footballing voyager.

Now 26 years of age, Ovono started out playing barefoot in the streets of his hometown before being picked up by his local club, where he quickly found his niche between the sticks. After five years at PetroSport he made the switch to AS Mangasport before at 21 being signed up by capital outfit FC Sogea, the first major move of a career that has taken him further and further from the family home.

Next step on the ladder was trying his luck at a training camp on Spanish soil hosted by legendary Cameroon custodian Thomas N'Kono. Having caught the eye of the former Espanyol shotstopper and two-time African Player of the Year, N'Kono used his connections to earn Ovono a move to Alianza FC in El Salvador.

"I've got great memories of that period of my life," said Gabon's first-choice keeper in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. "There I learned that football can be a job. In Africa it's a game and we rarely take it seriously. With Alianza I learned to hate losing. Fans in that part of the world live for the game, so even a draw is considered a bad result."

"I still get mail from people who want to see me come back to the club," said Ovono, who became a fans' favourite despite spending just one season at the Salvadoran giants. Indeed, having broken into the Gabon senior squad by this point, the up-and-coming keeper opted for a move to Europe, more specifically Portuguese club Pacos de Ferreira, in a bid to win Les Panthères' No1 jersey.

At the moment playing at this World Cup is within our grasp. It would be a dream come true, that's for certain.
Didier Ovono

"Looking back, that's the darkest period of my career. The people in charge at Alianza didn't want to let me go," he explained. "The end result was that, six months on, Pacos still hadn't received my leaving papers, without which my contract couldn't be validated. So I thought it best to draw a line under that experience and go back and finish the season with Thomas N'Kono at his centre."

Not to be disheartened, Ovono was soon ready to try and relaunch his career, with N'Kono's contacts book once again proving invaluable. "It was thanks to Thomas that I got a trial at Dinamo Tbilisi. I was to play two friendly matches, one against Hajduk Split and the other against FC Carl Zeiss Jena," said the gifted shotstopper.

"The first game went well and I was in relaxed mood going into the second, only for the Georgian officials to pile on the pressure by informing me that this match was a repeat of Tbilisi's win over Jena in the final of the 1981 European Cup Winners' Cup final. The game was nothing like a friendly but I managed to put in a great display and found myself with two offers on the table: one from Dinamo and the other from Jena. I went for the Georgian team because it was them who'd offered me the initial trial."

It would prove an inspired choice, with Ovono picking up winners' medals in the domestic league, Cup and Super Cup over the next two seasons, on top of playing in both the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Cup. Having also cemented his status as Gabon's No1 during this period, he has since played a key part in Les Panthères' strong showings in 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying. Indeed, Alain Giresse's men are currently top of Group A in the third and final phase of African Zone qualifying, having played a game fewer than section rivals Togo and Morocco.

It goes without saying that the forthcoming double-header against Cameroon on 5 and 9 September will be decisive to Gabon's hopes of reaching South Africa 2010, as Ovono explained: "If I'd said beforehand that we'd be in first place after three rounds of games (editor's note: Gabon and Cameroon have only played two matches) then you wouldn't have believed me and you'd have had good reason."

"But this is the reward for a squad that's played together for the last five or six years. We've had a winning mentality since playing at youth level. We go into every game as if we were playing the World Cup Final. Game after game we scrap as if our lives depended on it. It's our collective strength that carries us through."

And finally, does he believe that this same team spirit can help take Les Panthères all the way to South Africa? "We mustn't keep our goals quiet any longer. At the moment playing at this World Cup is within our grasp. It would be a dream come true, that's for certain. But I don't want to think about that anymore, that could jinx it for us."