David Ospina arrived at Nice in the summer of 2008, a shy Colombian who didn’t speak a word of French but was expected to replace local hero Hugo Lloris, who had recently departed for the richer, higher-profile pastures of Lyon. When the deal was made official, I texted a Colombian friend who himself had spent many years tending goal, asking about this unknown new keeper. His reply consisted of two words: “He’s ready.”
Ospina was only 19, it’s true, but he’d been playing regularly for Atletico Nacional since before he could legally drink, winning the league title as first choice at 17 and making his full national team debut shortly thereafter. It’s one thing to be a quality keeper at home, however, and quite another to reproduce that success abroad, in a new language and at a higher level – despite what he’d proved in Colombia, Ospina was anything but a sure thing in France in 2008.
Then coach Frederic Antonetti wisely gave the new arrival time to settle in, choosing to put the gloves on the able hands of long-time Nice servant (and current goalkeeping coach) Lionel Letizi for the first few months of the season. Though the objective was to keep Ospina under wraps until after Christmas, he was first unleashed in the Coupe de la Ligue in late October, a 3-1 win over Boulogne thanks to two goals by Loïc Rémy, with whom he formed an unexpected friendship. Then, thanks to an injury to Letizi, Ospina was thrown right into the fire a month later, making his Ligue 1 debut in the raucous Stade Louis II against Monaco. Showing the quiet poise for which he would become known in France, Ospina held his nerve and Nice brought home a 2-1 derby win. After the match, the media immediately labeled the Colombian “le jeune prodige“, and Antonetti marveled at his youth and composure. That December, despite the fact that Nice failed to win a match, Ospina was elected player of the month by fans, and has never really fallen out of favor since.
His strengths were clear from the start: he’s an excellent shotstopper, aggressive around the box, and fearless in the air against attackers who are regularly bigger and stronger than he is. Though Ospina’s not quite as comfortable with the ball at his feet as many of his predecessors in the Colombia goal have been, he is effectively two-footed and almost never panics under pressure. He’s also resilient. Having shouldered great responsibility at an important club in Colombia when he was really just a kid, the pressures of facing Lyon in France were nothing new to him, nor the shame of punching a cross straight into his own net on a dreary, rain-soaked afternoon.
And resilience was required during those early days in Nice. Though the club finished comfortably mid-table in his debut season, the decline began shortly thereafter, resulting in several years of last-day survival, and an embarrassing revolving door of leadership that sometimes seemed to involve throwing darts around the club offices and hiring whoever was unlucky enough to be hit that day. Through it all, however, Ospina silently persevered. As coaches and teammates came and went, he became an unlikely anchor, the quiet Colombian kid with the bashful smile and outrageous reflexes around whom, one day, a successful team might be built.
Twice, Ospina himself was even replaced. Peruvian international Raúl Fernández was signed in December of 2010, on the assumption that Ospina would leave the following summer for a more competitive, more stable team. But Ospina stayed and played while Fernández watched, then quietly left last season for MLS. Then Joris Delle came in to take over in the summer of 2012, with Ospina again expected to leave, this time perhaps for Turkey. Though he – again – stayed, Delle was briefly the first choice of Claude Puel, who chose to start his revolution at Nice with a new keeper. As is his way, Ospina kept his mouth shut and his head down, and within a few months he was again the number one. Delle, too, has gone, in his case on loan to Cercle Brugge. And Ospina remains. Quietly, contentedly, he remains.
Watching the highlights of what the official Ligue 1 YouTube channel calls his “match parfait” against Marseille last week, what’s most remarkable about Ospina’s performance is the contained way he goes about his job. He’s not a shouter in moments of stress, and he’s never been one to roar his delight after a great save. Instead, he simply makes the saves he needs to make, scrambles up, and gets in position to make the next one. In that way, he’s been the perfect successor to Lloris, another goalkeeper who dominates the box quietly, with a confidence that doesn’t require accolades or attention. The only area in which Ospina is a bit of a showman is in his strangely charming response to contact – he’s a brave, brave player, but when he’s hit and collapses dramatically, you can see a shadow of the shameless striker he was as a youth player, milking the moment of quiet for all the suspense and tension it can produce.
In the five-plus years he’s spent at Nice, something has changed in David Ospina. He’d still prefer to see others in the spotlight, and it will never be his first instinct to step willingly before a microphone, whether he’s speaking French or Spanish. But he’s a leader now, for both club and country. At Nice, the departure of Renato Civelli has unexpectedly opened up space for Ospina to assert himself, something he’s done easily and without hesitation. The Colombian now carries himself with a comfort he’s not shown before in France, projecting an air of confidence in his every moment around the team, on and off the pitch. Ironically, while the presence of the loquacious (in any language) Civelli may have helped Ospina gain access to the French-speaking heart of the team, it’s been the departure of his friend that’s allowed Ospina to truly claim his place there.
If this is Ospina’s last season in red and black, so be it. He’s still only 25, but he’s reached his footballing adulthood on the French Riviera: he’s refined his game, his confidence has grown, and he’s learned to lead. He started the season playing in Europe and will end it in Brazil, helping lead Los Cafeteros to their first World Cup since 1998. Colombia’s goaltender might play for a small club that’s not much known outside of France, but his teammates know that at their back they’ve got an elite keeper, one who will give them a chance against any team and any player in the world.