This summer during the transfer window, So Foot returns every day of the week to a transfer that marked its time in its own way. For this 28th episode, detour to the small town of Botoșani, in northeastern Romania. It is in a stable, but modest club that the Parisian titi Hervin Ongenda has found the shoe for him, thanks to an owner devoted to his well-being. A singular and touching story, in two acts, from which this postulate will remain seen and reviewed: Ongenda is a delicious aesthete stuck between crooked agents, and who has never been able to give himself the means to reach the summits.
Valeriu Iftime is an authentic self-made man, boss of Elsaco, a Romanian energy giant. Few are those who know that behind his first million lei (203,000 euros), hides the establishment of a remote automation computer system between Slobozia and Călărași, somewhere in the south of the country. But he is above all a colorful character, passionate about horses and football. “For me it’s a show, for others it’s a simple business” , he slips about the opium of the people. And when you love the show, you necessarily have a developed fondness for artists. As of July 2018, FC Botoșani’s owner was not yet past his 60s. But it was enough for him to attend a training session to fall in love with one of the too many lost talents of the Camp des Loges: Hervin Ongenda.
Conquering the East
“Hervin? I can talk about it for days on end if necessary, it’s my child. The two times he left, I said to myself: “What will become of me now?” I came to the stadium for him. Its history is worth the detour. » If the playmaker born in 1995 fell into oblivion in France, the fault of inconclusive passages in Bastia, Zwolle and even… Murcia, in Spanish D3, the story is radically different beyond the Carpathians . “An agent specializing in players with an eccentric lifestyle suggested Ongenda to us. I had no idea who it was. When I was told that he was trained at PSG, that he played with Ibrahimović, Di María, Cavani… I almost had a heart attack! At that time, I said why not. But when I saw him for the first time, during our pre-season camp in Austria, I thought it was his brother who had been brought. He was smiling, but he had a nice little bun! » loose Iftime, in memory of the good old days.
Still, Iftime quickly realizes the extraordinary player who has just landed in Romanian Moldavia. “Costel Enache, the coach at the time, came to see me after the first training sessions. He told me word for word “Valeriu, this kid is not made like ours. He comes from another world, he is a little genius.” He has something innate, he sees and feels the game, his passes are of rare precision, whether they are on the feet or not. » Ongenda, he arrives at the recovery. He throws himself into the unknown, for real. “I didn’t know anything about the city, I didn’t even know it existed before receiving this proposal. I needed to get away from France, from the media pressure, to focus only on football and work. After a few months, I saw that everyone was nice to me. In the street, in the club, in the hotel… It helped me” he delivered to SoFoot in March 2019. From there to shake up all your habits? Nay. “At the beginning, he was late for training, when he got on the bus he no longer knew where he lived. I had some, coaches who did not want to count on him, or only 15 minutes on the wing. But for me, depriving yourself of Ongenda was a crime” outbids Iftime.
A laser pass, a free kick in the lulu, and then sometimes nothing. Inconstant, Ongenda is certainly on the ground. What does he need? A technician who is patient with him, who gets to know him and channels his talent. “The one who really understood Hervin as I understood him was Marius Croitoru, our coach for the past three seasons. They actually became friends. Hervin has something in his DNA that prevents him from reaching his maximum potential, he trains too little. Nobody has his talent, but alone he cannot manage this talent. Marius made him our maestro, he created confidence in his teammates. He was afraid of nothing. It was enough to give him the ball, and he was the one who organized everything. Now… it feels like we could lose possession at any time.” , continues the businessman, driven by the fire of passion. During his first adventure in Botoșani, Ongenda had 6 goals and 5 assists in 54 games. Some will say that there is nothing to jump to the ceiling. But that would be to swear solely by the – misleading – prism of statistics alone. In reality, the Parisian titi benefits, for the first time in his young career, from continuity and stability. He enjoys local star status. “Coming to Botoșani was the best choice of his life. You can’t compare yourself to a French city. There are no boxes, nothing that can distract you from your daily life, let’s be honest. And when you see how much he depends on circumstances… as soon as he no longer feels safe, he no longer wants to play, he becomes nervous. He didn’t just enjoy the club or the people, he also loved the area and everything he was able to visit.” , abounds Valeriu Iftime. But as often in these cases, the beautiful story ends up going (a little) in a lollipop.
Bus driver, Chinese teacher and French course
The usual Golgoths of Romanian football (FCSB, CFR Cluj) are rushing for the beautiful eyes of Hervin Ongenda, but the attacking midfielder has an idea in mind for the winter of 2020: Italy. Finally… Serie B, and a Chievo Verona very close to filing for bankruptcy. For Iftime, his little protege was under the influence: “Hervin was the victim of his two agents at the time, an Italian and a Frenchman, who wanted to make money on his back and collect commissions. Without them, his life would already have been a little better organized. He went against the grain when he had an extension offer on the table. I was convinced that he would not resist there, at a poor club, at the end of his life, and with the Covid pandemic on his back. » The Romanian press, and more particularly the television channel Pro X, rushes into the breach, with a shocking phrase: “Hervin Ongenda would rather become a bus driver than prolong the adventure with Botoșani. » A sentence supposedly pronounced by the Franco-Congolese in anger… in reality carefully diverted. “Hervin would never have come into conflict with me. That’s my sentence, and they changed it. Before he left, I just reminded him that if he wasn’t working, he had only one alternative: to become a bus driver. He hasn’t studied, he’s not a cook, nor a Chinese teacher, nor an engineer. So what would he have left? Bus driver ” specifies the very picturesque club boss.
In Chievo, Ongenda did not last long: three small matches between January and September. What to realize: Botoșani is the key to the story. “When we learned that things weren’t going well at Chievo, that it was going downhill, Croitoru’s wife spoke with Loane, Hervin’s wife. We had it through feelings. He already knew that he would have the best salary here, 8000 to 9000 euros per month, that he could play regularly. But on top of that, her last child was born here, in Botoșani. His attachment is special. I made sure that Loane could give French lessons at the French high school in the city, so that she too could have an occupation” , narrates Valeriu Iftime. As if by magic, Hervin Ongenda rediscovers his magic, distills candy, lightens up the game and has fun in a beautiful French-speaking colony. His now ex-teammate Bogdan Racovițan (now at Raków Częstochowa), born and trained in Dijon, is full of praise for him: “With Croitoru and Ongenda, it was all for the attack, champagne football with always two minimum solutions for the carrier. We managed to create a real group spirit, without clans. Hervin was the show’s best ambassador. He embodied it. I spoofed him about his past at PSG, the fact that he arrived here after having rubbed shoulders with Zlatan… That’s where he should have been, even today. But for Botoșani, for the championship and Romania in general, it was important to be able to see such an artist every weekend. »
But there again, Hervin Ongenda can hardly resist foreign sirens. Future champion of Cyprus, the Apollon Limassol offers him a financial guarantee and the opportunity to settle old debts, with the help of a generous remuneration. Despite the overflowing tenderness of its owner and the confidence of its trainer, after 21 new full encounters, it is still time for separation, to the great regret of Iftime: “If there was still a season left, he could have found a better contract in China, the United States or the Gulf and we could have dreamed of a Europa League Conference. At 27, it’s complicated for him to find something in Spain, Italy or France. Again, I see that he can’t chain to the Apollo. They have a German trainer, so inevitably, without iron will … ” Like a shooting star, the one who scoured all the selections of young people in France seems born to frustrate the people who appreciate him and dream of seeing him one day meet the expectations he arouses. Valeriu Iftime is still waiting for him with open arms in the northeast of Romania: “Great poets are often criticized by their contemporaries, but I will always love him, no matter what. »
By Alexander Lazar
Words by Valeriu Iftime and Bogdan Racovițan recorded by Alexandre Lazar.