Although he is just 27 years old, Spain-based Cameroonian goalkeeper Carlos Idriss Kameni has already experienced more in his football career than many players a decade older. Only last year the previously unassailable netminder for his national team tasted the disappointment of not featuring at the first-ever FIFA World Cup™ on African soil.
Having played in all 12 of Cameroon's qualifiers, Kameni was expected to lead the Indomitable Lions in South Africa, and although he did wear the number one jersey, he never got to play a game as coach Paul Le Guen preferred Hamidou Souleymanou. "Not playing at the World Cup was very painful,” he admitted in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “Being on the bench is very difficult. But for me, this is all past. I am back."
After missing out on Cameroon's two opening matches in the CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers after South Africa 2010, Kameni was recalled by coach Javier Clemente for March’s match against Senegal, and although they lost 1-0 in Dakar, Kameni was happy with his side's performance. "Even though we lost, there were a lot of positive things. I think that we played a great game. We created more scoring opportunities than the Teranga Lions, but we were unfortunate at the end,” he said, referring to Demba Ba’s winner in second half injury time.
“Losing like that [to a late goal] hurts a lot,” admitted Kameni, who was called into the team after a shock 1-1 draw to Congo DR. “I know we can still do better. Before that game in Dakar, people were looking at us as losers, they were predicting we might lose by three or four goals, but at half-time the Senegalese were worried. Everything remains open for the return leg in Yaounde."
Although the defeat leaves Cameroon in danger of failing to make it to the finals, which will be co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea next year, Kameni is confident that they will still qualify. "Negativity does not exist for us,” he said. “Personally, I think that critics make people go forward. We have committed mistakes, and we will commit mistakes. We grow up and we learn through difficult times."
Don’t call it a comeback
Douala-born Kameni's rise to the top began in 2000 when he was unexpectedly chosen for the Cameroon squad for the Olympic Games in Sydney. The 16-year-old Kameni did not really expect to feature in Australia, and in the group phase, coach Jean-Paul Akono played the more experienced Daniel Bekono in goal. However, once in the quarter-finals, Akono stunned football fans when he decided to throw Kameni in at the deep end - against Brazil no less. And even though Cameroon played the entire 30 minutes of extra time with just nine players, they scored a stunning 2-1 upset victory with the teen goalkeeper pulling off a number of breathtaking saves.
Kameni, whose nickname of ‘Caka’ comes from the first two letters of his first and last names, kept his place and again impressed in the 2-1 victory against Chile in the semi-finals. His fairy tale was completed in the final against Spain when he saved a penalty kick in the first half and his side eventually triumphed in a penalty shoot-out, as Kameni became the youngest player to win an Olympic football gold medal.
His performances in Sydney boosted his profile, but failed to help him make the breakthrough for his club side, Le Havre. Kameni, who also played his first senior international game in 2000, soon had more international caps to his name than league appearances. Cameroon's German coach Winfried Schaefer selected Kameni for his 2002 African Cup of Nations and FIFA World Cup squads, but the youngster failed to make a start at either tournament.
A year later, he established himself as Cameroon's first-choice goalkeeper and played in the FIFA Confederations Cup where Cameroon again stunned Brazil and went on to finish second. But if things were happening rapidly on the international front, Kameni's domestic situation in France remained unsatisfactory and even a loan move to Saint-Etienne failed to see him make a breakthrough.
N'Kono to the rescue
After a proposed move to Wolverhampton Wanderers fell through because Kameni could not get a work-permit, compatriot Thomas N'Kono came to his rescue. The legendary N’Kono, who starred at the 1982 and 1990 FIFA World Cups, was not only goalkeeper coach for Cameroon and Espanyol, the club he played for between 1982 and 1991, he was also a firm believer in Kameni's ability. N'Kono persuaded Espanyol to sign Kameni in 2004.
Since then Kameni's domestic career has been as impressive as his international one and his appearances in Spain have well surpassed the 200 mark. "I was and am lucky to play in the best league in the world, the Spanish La Liga. I treasure every minute that I am able to be part of that," he said.
And with many years ahead of him, Kameni is well on target to overtake his idol N'Kono both in international caps, as well as games played for Espanyol - that is, if a bigger club does not move in and lure him away. Such is his stock that there have been rumblings in the media that Kameni could be tapped by no less than Alex Ferguson to fill Manchester United's looming goalkeeper vacancy. It would be a fitting next chapter in the colourful book that is Kameni's career.