Hervin Ongenda was capped by France at every age group up to under-21s
When Paris St-Germain thrashed Barcelona 4-1 at the Nou Camp last month, one fan threw his fists in the air after each of their goals. Hervin Ongenda, the first prodigy of PSG’s era of Qatari ownership, had just put his little girl to bed before watching the big game.
Now 25 and playing in the Romanian top flight for FC Botosani, Ongenda was once described by French paper Le Parisien as the top talent in a generation of French players featuring Kingsley Coman, Anthony Martial and Adrien Rabiot.
In February 2010, the paper asked its readers to “remember the name well: Ongenda”.
The diminutive forward had just impressed for France at youth level, scoring six goals in four games and captaining the under-16s in an international tournament.
“His qualities are out of the ordinary. He dribbles, he has speed, he is highly unpredictable. He has a strong mentality and is always in great spirit. He’s a great competitor,” Jean-Claude Giuntini, then France Under-16s manager, said.
Ongenda was highly impressive for PSG too, ensuring his progress in the youth teams could not be ignored inside Carlo Ancelotti’s star-studded dressing room.
David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Javier Pastore and Lucas Moura were just a few of the names in the PSG squad at the time.
“I knew I was good,” Ongenda tells BBC Sport. “I was always decisive for the teams I played in. I scored goals, I offered assists, it was always like this. I was aware of my skill.
“I remember the day I got a call and was told I was joining the first team perfectly. The assistant coach told me I was going to be in the squad for a cup game.”
Ongenda played in a 4-3 away win over fourth division Arras.
“Ancelotti was paying a lot of attention to young players,” he adds. “He always wanted you to find a better solution, to learn continuously.”
Beckham, who was in his final months as a player, “paid attention to everyone and was very involved – he told you whether what you were doing was good or bad”.
In June 2013, Ongenda ignored interest from Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal to sign his first professional contract at Parc des Princes.
And he celebrated in style, scoring the equaliser in a win over Bordeaux in the French Super Cup: “I had an unbelievable feeling. Lucas had the ball, he passed it to Ibra and he put a beautiful lob over the defence for me. I went behind and scored.”
But his dreams of making it at the top level did not last long.
The end of the PSG dream
Edinson Cavani was PSG’s star signing in the summer of 2013, joining for a club record 64m euros. Laurent Blanc replaced Ancelotti as manager. Ongenda remained in the first-team plans.
But despite the fact PSG offered him an improved contract in 2014 and president Nasser Al-Khelaifi described him as “the future of PSG”, Ongenda was loaned out to Bastia, managed by Claude Makelele.
“I thought I wasn’t playing enough at PSG. I went to the coach and he said I was going to play more and more. I asked: ‘What is more?’ He was honest and told me he couldn’t know in advance. That’s why I went to Bastia. Unfortunately, Makelele was out by November.”
Ongenda went back to Paris after a difficult year in Corsica. It was never the same, though. The forward played just six more games, scoring against Lorient, then joined Dutch side Zwolle in January 2017.
He left Paris with many regrets. The feeling was mutual, at least at the club’s training centre, where he was still regarded as one of the top players they had ever produced.
Despite signing a three-and-a-half-year deal with Zwolle, Ongenda spent just five months there, playing three games. After almost a year without a club, he joined Real Murcia in the Spanish third tier in March 2018. He left four months later, having played just two games.
‘We were afraid it was a scam’
‘I don’t think there will be another Romanian player at PSG in the next 50 years’, says Botosani manager Marius Croitoru
His next destination was an unlikely one. Botosani, situated 37 miles from Romania’s borders with both Ukraine and Moldova, is home to about 110,000 people.
“He was offered to more than one team in Romania,” says FC Botosani owner Valeriu Iftime. “The agent was telling us the boy recently played for PSG. There are a lot of scams, so we were a bit afraid. Could it really be the Ongenda we’d seen in Paris?
“He didn’t look like a football player – he had a few extra kilos. We were afraid it could be his brother who turned up!”
‘He had a few extra kilos’ – Ongenda did not look overjoyed to be at Botosani in his first news conference after signing for the club
Ongenda only had to put his foot on the ball to make all doubts go away.
“The coach back then told me his passes were heavenly,” adds Iftime. “He was lighting up our game right from the start. I was with a French friend who knew people at PSG and he told me we hit the jackpot. I immediately signed him after a training camp in Austria.”
Reality hit for Ongenda once the team returned to Romania and started training in Botosani.
Marius Croitoru was the club’s director of football when Ongenda signed. He’s now the manager and the main reason Ongenda is still there.
“You can’t compare Paris to Botosani, of course,” Croitoru says. “There aren’t many things to do when you go home from training. But Hervin found a comfort zone and feels great here.
“He’s among the best three foreign players to play in Romania, if not the first. He is a genius. It’s very, very hard if not impossible for a player to do what Hervin does with the ball when he’s in the mood.”
Life in Botosani wasn’t easy for Ongenda at first, as he was named as a substitute on many occasions.
“He was the last to show up in training, that annoyed coaches,” Iftime says. “I didn’t like that he was benched, but the coaches had some rules and he didn’t respect them.
“Things changed when Croitoru took charge because he said Ongenda was playing no matter what.”
Ongenda eventually wanted to go back west, so in January 2020 he signed with Chievo in Italy’s Serie B. By September he was back with Botosani.
“He wanted to try life in Italy and we let him go. But Serie B is not a league that would develop his qualities, it’s a very tough competition,” Croitoru says.
Phone calls from Ibrahimovic and a return to the top?
“Once, in Doha, Ibra screamed at me during the whole training session,” Ongenda remembers. “Sometimes with a reason, sometimes without one, unhappy I didn’t play the ball to him. After training, he came to me and said: ‘You know why I was screaming at you? Because I love you!’ It was a fun moment!”
This season, Botosani are competing for a place in the play-offs that would allow them to fight for a European place.
Now the father of a young girl, Ongenda combines football with pushing the baby stroller around the streets in Botosani’s small city centre.
“I don’t know if I can go back to PSG – that’s a dream for me,” he adds. “My feelings for Paris are strong. But it’s my goal to get to the highest level again. I know I can do it. I hope to make a big step forward at the end of this season.”
Botosani recently rejected an £800,000 offer for the forward.
“He didn’t even think about leaving,” Croitoru insists. “He wants to finish the season here, to show what he’s capable of.”
Iftime sees Ongenda more as an emotional gain than a financial one: “His love for the game is fantastic. He adores football more than money.
“I don’t know if he’ll play for the biggest clubs, but he can have a decent career in Europe or in the Gulf, where he could earn more money. I want to help him, but he needs a consistent season.”
Ongenda had Covid-19 last year, then battled the muddy and frozen pitches of the Romanian league. He has scored one goal and assisted another since the start of the season.
But Botosani do not put pressure on him. They love his aura and his glamorous stories.
“Once, we were eating with the team and Zlatan called from LA,” Croitoru says. “Imagine the impact it had on my players.
“Hervin was badly advised. I think he should have had patience at PSG. He was there with the biggest players on the planet. His friends – Presnel Kimpembe, Coman and many more – all had great careers. I think Ongenda should have waited for his turn, that’s all.”