"There are only two ways to live your life," said Albert Einstein, who knew a fair amount about what makes the universe tick. "One is as though nothing is a miracle; the other is as though everything is a miracle." For Cameroon's Alexandra Takounda, that second approach could almost serve as a mantra.
Unlikely and unexpected events have become commonplace for the young forward, ever since she found herself in the right place at the right time back in 2012. That was when David Abbo Hassana, coach of Yaounde club Jeunesse Sportive de Mfandena, stumbled upon a surprising scene. "She was juggling the ball in front of the main entrance to the Stade Omnisports and she was kicking it with disconcerting ease," he explained to Cameroonian news website 237online.com. "She had a natural technique that immediately caught the eye." No doubt, but he had to be there to see it – and what were the chances of a coach passing by at that exact moment to discover her talents? Mark that down as miracle number one.
Takounda joined Hassana's team and followed him when he set up a new side, Eclair de Sa'a. She then struck 17 goals in the second division, finishing second highest scorer despite playing in midfield – a superb showing, though not strictly a miracle. In fact, the next miracle came when Cameroon's women's U-17 coach Minkreo Birwe showed up at an Eclair match during his travels across the country in search of new talent. "He'd come to watch another player, but, to his great surprise, he saw me and liked what he saw," Takounda told FIFA.com. "He called me up to the team for a trial. I gave it everything, worked hard, and I succeeded in being kept on."
Defying the impossible
Birwe could not have known it at the time, but that serendipitous scouting trip had paved the way for a place at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup Jordan 2016. Settling in quickly, Takounda hit four goals in four qualifiers, including a late strike away to Ethiopia that saved Les Bébé Lionnes from elimination, forcing a penalty shoot-out which they won to book their ticket. Considering that Cameroon had never previously qualified for the global showcase, that too had a touch of the miraculous. "It's a historic moment," said Takounda. "It's the first time Cameroon have qualified in this age group. And I'm lucky enough to be one of the players who achieved something great."
The miracles did not run dry there either, with yet another occurring in July. That proved to be a busy month for Takounda, as she not only turned 16 but also agreed to take time out from the national team's World Cup preparations to help her club. Her desire to lend a hand was admirable, but it brought the cruellest of rewards as she picked up a serious foot injury. The doctors were left in no doubt: the youngster had suffered a fracture, making it impossible to recover in time for Jordan.
'Impossible' is not a word in Takounda's vocabulary, however, and she was determined to be fit. As Einstein also said, "You never fail until you stop trying," and the tenacious competitor never gave up. "She cried and cried and cried," recalled Josiane Matia, a member of Cameroon's technical staff in Jordan. "She kept calling the coach and staff to tell them they had to take her, and that she'd be ready." It worked. "I fractured my foot in July, but I knew I'd make it," added Takounda. "I told myself that the World Cup was in September and that I'd succeed. With the help of God and my own willpower, it was possible."
All for nothing
Takounda travelled with Cameroon's squad to the finals, but still not ready for action she watched from the bench as the African contenders slipped to a narrow 3-2 defeat to Canada in their opening match. She was left out of the starting XI again for the game against Venezuela, when Cameroon needed a positive response. Instead, they fell 1-0 down and found themselves on the brink of elimination. They needed a miracle – and you can probably guess what happened next.
With the final whistle looming, Takounda was sent on and appeared to enjoy divine favour once more as she equalised in added time with a splendid back-heel. It was as spectacular as it was important, and yet another miracle for her collection as Cameroon looked set to keep their Group B hopes alive with a point. "I was on the bench and didn't know if I was going to play," she said. "Before I went on, I told myself that even if I was only given five minutes, I had to make a difference. And then that goal came."
If the game had ended there, Takounda would have played her part in a classic fairy tale. Unfortunately, not every story has a happy ending and this one had another twist to come – as improbable as it seemed at the time. From the kick-off, Venezuela's Deyna Castellanos attempted an audacious lob from the centre circle, and it sailed into the net to give La Vinotinto victory and end Cameroon's campaign. "For a second, we told ourselves this was the greatest moment of our lives, and a minute later it was the worst," a tearful Takounda explained afterwards in the corridors of the Amman International Stadium. "I'm lost. I'm even wondering if I should have scored that goal. It meant nothing and perhaps it would have been less painful to lose 1-0 than like that. All those sacrifices were for nothing. My life has been a miracle, except for that final second."
It is not easy to outdo a miracle, but if anything can meet the challenge it is sheer genius – as Einstein himself could have attested. And that day in Amman, the flash of genius came from Venezuela, if only for a fleeting instant.