Gaël Ondoua is having an excellent first season with 2. Bundesliga side, Hannover 96. The 26-year old’s rise to becoming a footballer in Germany is unique, to say the least. Born in Cameroon, Gaël moved to Russia where he eventually become the first black player to come through the football academy at Lokomotiv Moscow. I, virtually, sat down with Gaël to learn about his story and how he is finding life in Lower Saxony’s capital, Hannover.
Q: So, if you could take me back to the start. You were born in Cameroon and left as a child for Russia. What was it that brought you to Russia?
A: My father was a diplomat in Russia for three years and during one of his trips to Cameroon, I highly insisted to follow him so he brought me along to Moscow. That’s how it started.
Since I was already passionate about football, my father brought me to the Lokomotiv Moscow for a test and I passed. It was a difficult time for me. Living in Cameroon, we have sunshine and when I came to Russia, it was like -25 degrees. In all my life, I never experienced something like that.
Q: As a youth player, you were at Lokomotiv Moscow. How did you find your experience there?
A: I had a fantastic experience, I had a warm welcome. People took very good care of me there, it was so good. When you change country, especially at a young age, it is stressful and challenging. When you come from Cameroon where people speak mostly French and English and land in Russia where people speak only Russian, anyone would be lost. When I started at the Academy, it was a little bit difficult with the language and customs but they helped me a lot. People were working around the clock to help me. I was the only black guy in the whole Lokomotiv Moscow Football Academy. The teachers were very patient and my teammates also helped me and facilitated my integration. All these people have done a lot for me, I am very grateful. 50% of who I am today comes from Lokomotiv Moscow.
Q: Between 2016 to 2019 you moved to Denmark, Ukraine, and then back to Russia before finally landing at Servette FC in Switzerland. Did you find it difficult to keep moving clubs and countries?
A: Well, as they say, it’s football. And when you choose football, you know that you’re going to change country, you have to be ready because everything can happen in a career
Maybe today, you play here, tomorrow, you play in another place and the most important thing, was the support of my family members and my very close entourage because they did a lot for me. At this time it was not so easy for me but they were my motivation.
My first experience in a club outside Russia was Denmark. When I moved to Denmark, it was something different. Danish people as Scandinavians in general are friendly people. It was nice as well, for me, they helped me to have more ambition because before I moved there, I never played that many games in professional football. In Denmark, they gave me this opportunity to prove myself, it was something nice. And even today, I thank them for what they did because they pushed me a lot.
Q: And what was it that kept you motivated during this point in your career? You mentioned your family and playing regular football, was this your main source of determination?
A: I am hungry for success whatever the field and I work hard, no matter how difficult it is. I want to learn, grow and move forward. I am my own source of motivation. My family is very important, it increases my motivation exponentially. It’s a leitmotif that allows us to surpass ourselves. I am no different from others on this subject. We also fight for our family. My entourage as well as my family have been a constant support. They have always been present. I experienced moments that marked me, such as my transfer from Lokomotiv Moscow to CSKA Moscow.
CSKA Moscow was my second club, a great club, a great team with a lot of good players, towards the end I had some difficult moments. Difficult times that accelerated, precipitated my departure and my decision to go to Denmark. And my family has been a great support and a source of motivation because it gives you even less right to give up, it gives you the strength you need when you’re not doing so well.
It’s not easy when you’re young but my decision to go to Denmark, I think it was the best one because then I started to play more professional games. If I stayed in Russia, I would have play less and not have gained more playing time and confidence. I think when I moved to Denmark, my game went up.
And you know today I have my own foundation in Cameroon called Marie Albert Le Bon Berger, I take care of children and I am also the sponsor of a team/academy called OBB.I have responsibilities so I can’t give up. I do not have the right. They are an additional source of motivation and determination.
Q: Speaking of playing time, you eventually moved to Switzerland with Servette FC where you played for two full seasons. How would you sum up your experience in the Swiss top flight?
A: The two years I had were very good for me. From a football point of view It was something very interesting, I really enjoyed the time there. My agent proposed my profile to the club, there was a quick and positive return from them. The sporting director of the club wanted me. He showed that the club believed in me and convinced me of the project they had at the club, it was a nice one. And the time we spent talking on the phone, I could feel that this man “Gérard Bonneau”, knows what he’s talking about because he had been the chief recruiter of Olympique Lyonnais for many years. He discovered and worked with top players like [Karim] Benzema, Lacazette, etc… That’s why I said ok, let’s go. Why not if you have someone who can show you the good way.
Because this is so important in football now, when you have someone who backs you and can point you in the right direction. When I think about it now I’m sitting here, the two years I had there were something amazing. I was only supposed to do one year, it was the deal before signing but in the end, I did 2 years. During those two years we were competing at the top where the team never had been before with 2 qualifications for European cups including one participation for me. It was something fantastic for me and for the whole team.
Q: You then caught the eye of Hannover 96. Can you talk me through the moment you heard about a potential move and how the club has differed from the other teams you’ve been at?
A: When I received the offer, it was something special for me because, since a young age, I always preferred German football. It’s one of the championships that was the most broadcasted in Russia when I was young, so I grew up with this championship in my mind and I always dreamed to play in Germany, and it’s the truth. If you work for something you believe in, I think it is easier. So, I tried to learn more about Hannover 96. I was in the stadium when Hannover played Anzhi Makhachkala before. I remember the Hannover goalkeeper saving a penalty from [Samuel] Eto’o and when the offer came I said, why not? It’s a good club with a big history and tradition. I like to know about the tradition of the club and it’s so powerful at Hannover. This is when I said that I should move to this club. It is a step higher than I have been before. For my own progress, it was a good decision. I’m happy to be here.
Q: So tell me, what does a typical day look like for a Hannover player?
A: In the morning, I wake up, do some meditation, pray, then have breakfast at home. I prepare myself before going to training and then I train twice a day, to make sure I’m fit. For me, you always need to do more. After training with the guys, I come back home and try to sleep because it’s important. It depends on the day, sometimes I go for a walk, do some yoga, I have my German lessons as well. This is how I try to spend my days, focused on my career.
Q: You are having a good season so far with Hannover. How have you the competitive nature of league with some many strong teams?
A: I would say that the 2. Bundesliga is tough. I have been in different leagues before but here there is more intensity. Here, they have more physical players as well. Intense, that is the word for it. You play against Werder Bremen, Schalke, St. Pauli, Hamburg and even Rostock. All of those teams are very strong both physically and in their mentality. Every game is a fight. As some people said 2 Bundesliga is the toughest second division in the world. Most of the clubs in this championship are big names in German football. You don’t have time to rest. To be in first position in the ranking and thinking it’ll be ok is a mistake. Look at the current ranking, it’s tight.
I’m also watching the Bundesliga, the championship is tough and competitive, every week-end is a fight and I like that. That’s why the league is so attractive.
Q: Hannover have improved of late, have you noticed many differences under Christoph Dabrowski?
A: Well, I will say, every new coach has his own plans and Dabrowski too came with his own style, own energy. We adapt because it’s how it works and we are professionals. It’s an opportunity to try new tactics and combinations but it is still a continuity. I think it’s normal when a new coach comes in. It’s like you have a new contract with the new manager. We didn’t know him much before but he’s a good coach, like Zimmermann, but different… this is how football is.
Q: You played against Gladbach and knocked them out of the DFB Pokal, describe your emotions?
A: First of all, this is the kind of game every player wants to play. It’s a game where maybe you can make your history, you can show more of yourself because you don’t play these teams in the 2. Bundesliga, at least not very often. And I think my teammates and I were prepared for it and we wanted 100 per cent to show that we can also compete with the Bundesliga teams. They are men like us, they have to fully want it just like ourselves. I cannot even describe the emotion after winning. It was like ‘whoa, we did something incredible as a team’. It was, I will say a little sad because we didn’t have all of our fans. This is a moment we will never forget, especially in this time of the COVID, it’s something very special. The emotion I cannot describe… we were on such a high but the next day we tried to move on to the next game because we have to do it again.
Q: And you have RB Leipzig in the quarter-final. You must be excited looking forward to playing against Bundesliga opposition and a team with Champions League quality?
A: Yeah we are so excited when the draw came. This kind of game again, like I said before, is a game you want to show yourself in. You need to be strong mentally because in front of you, you have Champions League players. In cup games, it’s not like the league, anything can happen. It’s not about the Champions League. Yes, we respect the opponent but when we start it’s not the Bundesliga, it’s just Hannover versus Leipzig. We will have to do our best to try to win this game. Before that, we have some league games where we need to get some points and try to get into a good position in the table.
Q: You mentioned Covid before. What was it like playing with no fans? It must be nice to see them make their way back?
A: Yeah the last two years have been difficult. First of all, when we play without fans, it’s not the same, it’s almost boring. Because fans are the essence of football. Football is fans and fans make the game. Without fans, it’s not the same feeling. Yes, you try to play but, it’s not the same emotion because sometimes the fans can push you to the last minute. It’s so difficult to play without them.
Q: What inspires you to further progress in your career?
A: First of all, I want to help my team, Hannover. To go as high as possible, that’s my first goal at the moment. For the future, of course, I want to win as much as possible, to win trophies and to play at the highest level possible. I know that I need to work on it and give more and more. My dream outside football is just to continue to help kids as I’m doing now, to build more orphanages, because I have two completed already. I want to build some in Russia and maybe even Germany in the future. I think we can make this world so beautiful. You must pay attention to the small things because sometimes we are looking too far away, we don’t look closer to us. There are people in difficult situations and we can give them our hand. This is my plan. That’s what I want to do for the future, to help build a better world. Now, I am a footballer but someday I will stop, I will just be a man. It’s just about being a human being, pay attention to these small things.
Q: And what advice would you give to your younger self?
A: I would say in life, never give up. In my life, I never gave up. For example, when I played my first year in Anzhi, I played without a salary. For one year I was coming to training every morning, every day I was training. Some people in the same situation would just have left the club. But I stayed because I wanted to show them that I was strong mentally.
Q: So how did you manage to get by when training full time with no salary?
A: Yeah, I had the support of my family. My family were there and still are up to this day, they are always behind me. From my aborted transfer in Zorya Luhansk until the end of my season in Anzhi, I didn’t get any salary. I managed to stay focused, thanks to my agent, to my agency AC LINK. They were there and supported me. It wasn’t easy.
If someone can play one-year professional football without any salary, do you think something can disturb or trouble him again? What do you think?
[my answer] – I don’t think so, no. It’s interesting because in this day and age, if you’re playing professional football you would expect to be paid and looked after. I think it says a lot about yourself. If the management can see that someone is putting in their absolute best without getting anything in return, that says something about the man inside, which is an important factor when it comes to the recruitment of football players.
This is why I want to reiterate my answer that you need to be strong mentally. Never give up when you have your dream. If you have a bad moment, you must believe in what you want. You need to go through this kind of moment, then you can tell your story to people who are facing difficult times. Just keep believing. I think this is me, I never gave up.
It was a pleasure to listen to Gaël’s story and talk football with him. From being the first black player at his academy to playing in the 2. Bundesliga and helping his local community, his attitude is a breath of fresh air. Especially in a time when footballers are perceived as entitled individuals who perhaps don’t try as much as they should. If you are to take one thing from this conversation, it would be to never give up on your dream, no matter how difficult it may seem. I will certainly be keeping an eye on Gaël’s progress in the seasons to come.
By Jamie Allen.