Friday, September 4, 2009

CAMEROON - Wounded Lions, battered pride and an uncertain future

As the only African team to make five appearances at the World Cup finals, having a historic Italia ’90 quarter-final run, as well as being four-time winners of the Cup of Nations, Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions have, until recently, been worthy of their moniker.

But their stunning failure to qualify for the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany and their precarious situation in the 2010 qualifying series, where they find themselves at the bottom of Group One, (with Gabon, yes little Gabon, sitting atop of it) reminds me of a stern warning I heard in Yaoundé two years ago.

Fon Echekiye, one of Cameroon’s leading football commentators on television, told me they were at real risk of “disappearing from the global football stage.”

“Without a complete overhaul of the administrative structure of Cameroonian football, we stand a real risk of not qualifying for the 2010 World Cup,” he said.

During my one-week trip in 2007, to research a feature I was writing
on the state of Cameroonian football for Fifa magazine, it was clear that Echekiye’s comments were far from alarmist and seem to be chillingly prophetic at the moment.

Joseph Antoine Bell, the former Cameroon goalkeeper (pictured above), who graciously let me into his expansive house in Douala when I showed up, unexpectedly, for a conversation on the Lions, was no less critical than Echekiye.

“Cameroonian football, at all levels, is very sick”, he said, noting that his compatriots were steeped in the nostalgia of their 1990 World Cup performance, at the expense of tackling present-day challenges that threaten to undo the image that has earned them the respect of the global football fraternity.

My fact-finding visit to the tattered Reunification Stadium, home of Union Douala, one of the country’s most distinguished clubs, was a sad eye-opener about the state of football facilities in Cameroon – it had a tattered roof, a patchy turf, dilapidated stands, as well as smelly and nasty-looking dressing rooms, which left me deeply shocked and saddened.

And Yaoundé was only slightly better… Players featuring for Canon Sportif and Tonnerre, Roger Milla’s old club, train on grounds that were as hard as granite and would break every bone that had the misfortune of making improper contact with it.

FECAFOOT, Cameroon’s Football Federation, is supposed to exclusively manage the affairs of the Indomitable Lions. But it is no secret that whoever occupies the sports minister’s chair has the ultimate word.

German Otto Pfister, the rolling coaching stone that has gathered Ghanaian, Congolese and Togolese moss, profited from this clash of wills.

The minister appointed him manager of the Lions for the 2008 Nations Cup campaign, even though Mohammed Iya, the FECAFOOT president and his executive board, clearly preferred another candidate.

But like all other European coaches before him, it was not too long before the old man went through the revolving door, despite taking the Lions to the 2008 Nations Cup final – although many of his critics can validly question whether his tactical acumen played any meaningful role in that.

With an enviable record of managing Lyon to three consecutive French championships, but unable to repeat the feat at Paris St Germain or Glasgow Rangers, Paul Le Guen has certainly not opted for a comfortable life by opting to take charge of Cameroon.

With the team in dire need of fresh legs and better administrative support, one wonders how Le Guen, used to working in an environment where clockwork efficiency is the rule rather than the exception, can cope with the maddeningly undulating Cameroonian terrain.

As a close friend, who is a FECAFOOT official, confessed to me, the administration of football in Cameroon is akin to a game of Russian roulette – no one knows when his head could be blown off by an adversary’s unexpected bullet!

Perhaps the unspeakable but stark possibility of missing out on another World Cup tournament may force Cameroon’s clueless sports mandarins to provide Le Guen, who is no shrinking violet, with the tools he requires to pull the qualifying chestnut out of the fire and pilot Cameroon to South Africa.

For readers acutely aware of my Nigerian heritage, and my country’s fierce rivalry with our next door neighbour or adversary, they might be shocked that I am quite concerned about their floundering fortunes.

But, as I told Issa Hayatou, the president of the Confederation of African Football, during a dinner table conversation in February, Africa will find it extremely tough to perform creditably at the 2010 World Cup if Cameroon and Nigeria are absent from it or are unable to present strong teams in South Africa.

So, it is for Africa’s sake that I worry about Cameroon’s precarious state. I sincerely hope they can conjure some sort of qualifying miracle out of the hat before disaster strikes twice…

Postscript - Goals from Achille Emana and Samuel Eto'o ensured a 2-0 win for Cameroon over Gabon in Libreville on Saturday September 6th,  giving them their first win in the final round of qualifying.

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