The Indomitability of Lions
In 1990 Cameroon overcame shambolic preparations to shock the world
The one who doesn’t remember — that’s what the word nepomnyashchy means in Russian. It doesn’t suit Valery Nepomnyashchy. Interviewing him is an extraordinary experience: he remembers every single day of his astonishing two-year adventure in Cameroon, the pinnacle of which was their run to the quarter-final of the World Cup in 1990, the furthest any African side had gone and since matched since only by Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010.
All three of those teams were led to coaches who were previously little known in the wider footballing world. Familiar names like Henri Michel, Sven-Göran Eriksson, Bora Milutinović, Carlos Alberto Parreira and Roger Lemerre have tried their luck with African teams at the World Cup, but the glory went to the late Frenchman Bruno Metsu and Milovan Rajevac of Serbia. Compared to them, though, Nepomnyashchy was anonymous before 1990. Even in the Soviet Union few knew who he was; mentioning that at the start of our conversation, though, probably wasn’t a good idea.
“Well, let’s see,” Nepomnyashchy said, softly but strictly. “I started my career as a coach in 1968, so I had 20 years of experience before arriving in Cameroon in 1988, right? First I worked with children, then with youth teams at the Turkmenistan football academy. In 1978, I became the youngest coach in the Soviet Union with Kolkhozchi Ashgabat in the second division and later I was one of the best graduates from the coaching academy in Moscow and took over the Turkmenistan national youth team. So I had quite a good resumé at lower levels, but it is true that I’d never imagined that I could work abroad and compete for World Cup qualification.”
Turkmenistan is a former Soviet republic that borders Iran and Afghanistan. Ashgabat, the capital, is more than 3,000km from Moscow, but Nepomnyashchy had to make the journey regularly to take various courses and on one of those trips he was offered an unexpected opportunity. “The Soviet Union actively aided various African countries in different sports in those days, helping to raise their level,” he said. “They did a great job. For example, a Soviet volleyball coach worked in Cameroon when I arrived there and he made them the strongest team in Africa. In 1985, when I visited the coaching school in Moscow to attend some lectures, the director asked me if I felt like working abroad with a national team. I said I did and was included in a pool of specialists designated for a mission in Africa. There were links with Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco and I even signed all the documents several times, but for various reasons that didn’t work out.”
Three years later, his luck changed. “In October 1988, I finally got a job in Cameroon and was sent there along with my friend Lev Brovarsky,” he said. “We were supposed to manage the youth teams there, but upon arriving it turned out that the Cameroonians needed a national coach. I landed on November 2 and on November 8 a West African tournament began with six teams taking part. We won that cup and then got an offer to continue on a permanent basis.”
Nepomnyashchy’s new life didn’t get off to the smoothest of starts. “Joseph Fofe, the Minister of Youth and Sports, was the one who asked me to sign and so was responsible for my work,” he said. “We had a very good relationship and he asked me to live in his villa in the best district of Yaoundé. In the first few weeks it was being reconstructed, but then we were told that we could move from the hotel to our new home. But when we arrived at the place, it turned out that there was no water or electricity, so we left all our things and returned to the hotel. The next day we found out everything had been stolen. We had to buy everything again and nobody thought of compensating us. Some people might have left after such an experience, but I didn’t think about that. I was fascinated by the project and wanted to continue doing my job.
“The minister told me that I needed someone local to live with me, so that burglaries wouldn’t happen. The Soviets provided me with special budget for a Cameroonian housekeeper and there were no crime problems anymore.”
Money, though, remained tight. “I signed the contract eight months after starting the work and it wasn’t with the Football Federation, but with Ministry of Employment,” Nepomnyashchy said.” I got my salary at the Soviet embassy, though. The Cameroonians paid US$3,000 per month, but my salary was only US$700 and all the rest was sent over to the Soviet government.”
The real project started long before the papers were signed. “The qualifiers started in January 1989 with a home draw versus Angola. The second game in Gabon was crucial and the pressure in the country was enormous. Claude Le Roy, the French coach who led had Cameroon to victory in African Cup of Nations that March, had left, supposedly because he couldn’t agree a new contract. His success, though, led to huge expectations, and nobody would have understood or accepted a failure in World Cup qualification. That was totally unthinkable, and public unrest was very likely.”
Plans were made, therefore, in case the Gabon game went wrong. “I was told that if we lost they would fly me to Paris directly from Libreville, because coming back to Cameroon would be dangerous. But we won 3-1 and everyone was happy. Afterwards we won almost all the games, finished first in the group and then recorded two wins against a very strong Tunisian side in the playoffs.” That was mission accomplished, but it didn’t make life any easier for Nepomnyashchy.
“After we qualified, the press — especially in France — started a campaign to replace me. Maybe they liked Le Roy too much, I don’t know. The word was that Cameroon needed a coach who spoke fluent French and had good contacts with the players. I didn’t speak the language at all and only learned a few words, so they had a case. Such coaching changes were not uncommon. For example, in 1982 the coach who took the team to the World Cup [the Yugoslav Branko Žutić] was fired and the Frenchman Jean Vincent took over. The influence of French journalists was very strong. There are coaches who don’t read newspapers at all, but I am not one of them. My skin is not too thick, and when someone insults me it hurts.”
Nepomnyashchy survived, although there was a significant test ahead of the World Cup — one he didn’t think was worth wasting effort on. “The African Cup of Nations was staged in March 1990. We had a meeting with the bosses and I explained to Monsieur Fofe that it was impossible for the team to peak both in March and in June, and therefore we had to choose. In addition, we had to take into account that the Cameroonian league only started in February and so many players were very far from their top form. It was clear that it was necessary to sacrifice the African tournament in order to perform at the World Cup. The results were as poor as we’d expected — we lost to Zambia and Senegal and finished third in our group,” Nepomnyashchy said.
There were persistent organisational difficulties. “Training sessions always took place in awful conditions. In Cameroon, we used a sand pitch and sometimes we only had one bottle of water for all the players for the whole workout — and it was really hot!” That didn’t change when the preparations for the World Cup started. “When we arrived in Yugoslavia for the final training camp, there was no kit at all and just four lousy old balls. We were lucky that our hosts provided us with two sets of kit to wear and even gave us 10 new balls.”
Before going to Yugoslavia, a preliminary training camp was staged in Bordeaux. On departure, the veteran midfielder Grégoire M’Bida, a hero in his country for scoring Cameroon’s only goal in the 1982 World Cup, and the defender Benjamin Massing were late for the bus taking the squad to the airport for the flight to Belgrade. “The officials were very angry and decided to exclude them from the squad for indiscipline. Grégoire told them that he was the only one to blame and asked them to forgive Benjamin. And that’s what happened. Only M’Bida was omitted, while Massing was forgiven and boarded the plane.”
The 38-year-old Roger Milla wasn’t in Bordeaux and he wasn’t supposed to go to Yugoslavia either, but everything changed just a few days before the squad had to be finalised. “Before I took the job, I’d watched the games of Cameroon at the 1988 African Cup of Nations, which they’d won. Milla played well there and scored a couple of goals, but he’d retired from the team after the tournament. When the 1988-89 season ended in May, he quit Montpellier and moved to the island of Réunion, where he played for some amateur team. I had a chat with him in March 1990, when we failed at the African Cup of Nations and he made it clear that he was not a professional footballer anymore.
“Then, after we had some poor results in the preparation games, the people of Cameroon started to demand Milla should be called up. Monsieur Fofe arrived at our camp and told me that the president himself, Paul Biya, personally had asked me to include Milla in the squad in order to prevent massive unrest in the country. I replied that it would only be possible if I had a chance to see him in action. Milla finally arrived about two days before the final squad was to be sent over to Fifa. At the training, I let him play for our second team. With his very first touch he left the pair of centre-backs, Massing and Emmanuel Kundé, behind, and scored a brilliant goal. It was amazing. I told him that he would have to work hard on his physical fitness in order to be ready. He agreed and was included in the squad.”
Nepomnyashchy takes great pride in the fact that he had no big stars at his disposal. “I took 22 players to the World Cup. 11 were from the Cameroonian league and 11 from Europe, out of which only Joseph-Antoine Bell played in the first division — for Bordeaux. All the rest played in the lower divisions, including Thomas Nkono.”
They were at the heart of the other big selection problem: the goalkeeping position. Bell and Nkono have good claim to be the best two keepers Africa has ever produced. Their rivalry simmered through the eighties, with neither player ever establishing themselves as the clear first choice. Part of the problem was that stylistically they were very different.
“Bell’s style didn’t always suit the team,” said Nepomnyashchy. “I had two options in central defence. The first one, which I preferred, was to play two experienced players who were rather slow — Kunde and Massing. The second included two younger and quicker stoppers who were inexperienced — Victor N’Dip and Jules Onana. We played a 4-3-3 formation, but the main difference from the usual system that is implemented nowadays was that the central defenders didn’t play in a line, but rather one of them was positioned behind the other, as a sort of libero. Bell, who was used to the other system in France, demanded that the defenders play high, far from his goal. That could work with guys like N’Dip and Onana who were fast enough to recover even when caught out of position. However, playing Kunde that way was extremely risky because he was too slow. That’s why it was more logical to choose Nkono in goal — he was comfortable with his defenders playing deeper.”
There his memory differs from Nkono’s. “We had a very bad Cup of Nations,” he said. “There were big problems in the national team. I arrived two weeks before the tournament and I got a call from the coaches and had a meeting and they said they wanted to tell me I would be second choice, not first. I asked why. The coach said he wanted to change the system and play with a keeper like a libero. In the Senegal match in the CAN I’d played like a libero so there was no argument to justify the decision. Espanyol were then in the second division and I was the captain. I said to the coach I wanted to go back to Barcelona. Eventually they convinced me to stay in Yugoslavia.
“We lost all the preparation matches. We lost the last match of Olympic qualification. So we had a meeting with Milla, Bell, Ekeke... the senior players. And we said we couldn’t go to the World Cup playing that sort of attacking football. We had to change the system and change to 4-4-1-1. We decided which players had to be sacrificed. And the player to go was Milla. All the squad told the coach this was what we needed to do. We changed the system for the last match; I played and we won. The next day we went to Italy.”
In the tournament itself, a different tactical formation was used, with N’Dip partnering Kunde and Massing. The real explanation for Bell’s omission was his attitude. “A few days before the World Cup started,” Neponmyashchy said, “there was a big interview with Bell in France Football, in which he stated that the team was totally unprepared. ‘The training camps were dreadful and it will be a decent result if we lose only 3-0 to Argentina’ — that’s what he said. When I saw that magazine, I was appalled. He was right about the preparations, of course, but you can’t say things like that in the press. We went out and bought all the France Football magazines in the village so the players wouldn’t have a chance to read that interview. Then I called Bell and asked him, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ He didn’t see anything wrong and said, ‘I’m a free man, and I can say what I want. If you’re not satisfied with that, then I won’t play.’ Those are his exact words.”
That’s when the coach made up his mind. “We called the federation president and the decision was made not to release Bell and retain him in the squad as the third keeper. Jacques Songo’o was always named as a reserve, Nkono played in goal. In order not to make the conflict public, we made up a cover story for Bell’s demotion. Our kits were made by Adidas, while Bell had a personal contract with Reusch. We said that Bell refused to play in Adidas gloves and therefore couldn’t take the field. That’s the version all the players believed during the World Cup.”
From that point on, Nepomnyashchy has nothing but praise for Bell. “Joseph-Antoine behaved brilliantly during the tournament — he sat on the bench, encouraged the players and was influential in the dressing-room. I respected him very much, but couldn’t use a keeper who didn’t believe that we could succeed.”
Jules Nyonga, who was one of Nepomnyashchy’s assistants, has similar memories. “Bell was in the team in 1990 but he made remarks in newspapers discussing the team, saying that they were heading for a very poor preparation and so on — and he was thrown out,” he said. “They wanted to expel him from the squad, but the players pleaded insisted he stayed but was sidelined so he could get his match bonuses. That’s the difference between the two: Tommy [Nkono] was calm, discreet, as opposed to Bell who was erratic and unpredictable. If you ask all the players in the national team which goalkeeper they trusted the most, and they’d say that they felt a lot more reassurance when they knew it was Tommy. He was a strong goalkeeper with rapid reactions and great reflexes when he came out for balls inside his box. Bell was less reassuring.”
Nkono’s version of events, though, is a little different. “We did the last training session and it was spectacular,” he said. “People began to say they couldn’t understand why I was on the bench. The first game was against Argentina but Bell didn’t want me as a substitute — he lacked respect. So I was supposed to be meeting my wife to watch the game with her. If Bell played I couldn’t be on the bench. So I was going to the stadium just to watch the match. I’d got my wife tickets. I thought it was a very bad team and we were going to lose. And suddenly the coach said I was going to play. Five hours before the game.
“I asked, ‘Five hours before the first game of the World Cup? How can I play?’ We had a meeting with all the coaches and I asked why they were changing their minds. They said I’d played the last match and not to forget that. So I was trying to reach my wife to tell her things had changed. She’d gone out shopping with the wives of the other players. Then I had to take a decision. I was talking to Jacques Songo’o. I said no way. I had no confidence in the coach. I was looking for my wife. The federation, the minster of sport, seven or eight people were telling me I had to play and I was saying I didn’t feel ready. They said if I was going to play they would play Songo’o, and if he didn’t want to play they would put an outfielder in goal. I had experience. Songo’o was very young. I went to talk with president of Cameroon, Paul Biya. And eventually I agreed to play.’
Bell’s version is different again: “In 1990 Nepomnyashchy came and told me openly, ‘Your country doesn’t want you to play because of politics.’ We have become accustomed through politics to understand that if somebody stands up and says this is not right, then he is a dangerous man. I was not dangerous to the country, but the people in charge of the federation didn’t like those who stood up and said what they thought. It means they were afraid of leaders.’
Goalkeepers weren’t the only problem in those turbulent final days before the first game. “The players threatened to boycott the tournament if they were not paid the bonuses from qualification,” Nepomnyashchy said. “They felt cheated. The president, who attended the opener against Argentina, personally promised that the money would be transferred before the game and saved the situation.”
Despite all the problems, Nepomnyashchy was confident his side could unsettle Argentina: “Before the game, I told the players that it would probably be the easiest one. The Argentinians arrived knowing that they wanted to play seven games in the tournament. Carlos Bilardo was a clever coach and I didn’t expect them to be in the top form a month before the final. It was clear that they would underestimate us and try to take the game easy. In addition, the biggest fear of the Argentinian stars was that they would get injured at the start of the tournament. I told my players that they would be afraid of us if we took them on really hard. The plan was to play as tough as possible, even fouling a lot. I knew that if we caught Maradona and Caniggia many times, we could expect a draw. That’s how it turned out, but the result was even better than I’d expected.”
Massing and André Kana-Biyik were sent off, but François Omam-Biyik scored the only goal, out-jumping the defence and taking advantage of Neri Pumpido’s mistake. Milla only played nine minutes against Argentina, but that was part of the plan as well. “His physical form got better every day,” said Neponmyashchy. “I told Roger that he wouldn’t be fit to play in the starting line-up and that I’d use him as a substitute after Omam-Biyik had worn out the opponents. I also had a very useful guy in Emmanuel Maboang. He was short but strong and energetic, and it was difficult to play against him. This duo did their job at the start and then it was time for Milla to take the stage. In the first game against Argentina he entered late but scared everyone. Then he played about half an hour against Romania, came on in the first half against the Soviet Union and in the knockout stages he was fit enough to play not only the second half but also in extra time.”
The game against Romania was the one in which Milla made his first big headlines. “Before that one I also felt the opponents would underestimate us,” said Neponmyashchy. “I watched their game against the Soviet Union, when they won 2-0 without Gheorghe Hagi. Marius Lăcătuş was great and they were certain of qualifying for the next round if they won against us. They were pretty sure of themselves. That was a great game from Milla. I don’t know why people don’t show one of his goals in that game more often — the way he provided the assist for himself was absolutely amazing.”
Qualification for the second round was thus sensationally assured and Cameroon had little to play for in their final group game, awkwardly for Nepomnyashchy against the Soviet Union. The Soviets had lost their first two games and needed to win by a large margin to have a chance of going through. They won 4-0, but with Argentina and Romania drawing, it wasn’t enough. “The game against the Soviet Union left a stain, because many people think we lost it on purpose, but it wasn’t the case,” Neponmyashchy insisted. “The story is complicated. Two days before the game I informed the federation president, Monsieur Fofe and even the journalists that I planned to put out a reserve team for that match. We had already qualified and it was important to avoid injuries and yellow cards. The training process was planned accordingly — those who were supposed to play had relatively easy training, while those who were going to be rested did more work.”
Then everything changed: “The night before the game, just after 1am, I suddenly got a phone call from President Biya himself. It was the first time I had spoken to him. He apologised for the late hour and said, ‘I was informed of your plans and the public will be against them. They will suspect that you are going to sell the game. It is very important from a political point of view that the strongest team plays.’ The next morning, I invited the players who were supposed to be rested — Kunde, Louis-Paul M’Fédé, Cyrille Makanaky, André Kana-Biyik — and told them about the demands from above. They agreed to play. We actually started the game very well and had a great chance to score. But then Oleg Protasov scored the first goal, and the team fell apart.”
The draw in the other game meant that Cameroon finished top of the group and faced Colombia in the second round. According to Nepomnyashchy, his team was extremely confident. “Before the game, Milla told me about Colombian keeper Rene Higuita: ‘I will score against that fool’. That’s what he called him — ‘that fool’. I also believed that we could beat them — they had no big stars, apart from Carlos Valderrama and Freddy Rincón. The players were sure of victory.”
They got that win in extra time, as Milla did indeed famously punish Higuita, robbing him of the ball outside of the area to score his second goal of the game, his fourth of the tournament. “The Cameroonians are never afraid of anyone, that’s their mentality. Their main problem is tactical discipline. When they are behind, the entire team runs forward to try to equalise. When they are in front, they start showing off to prove how good they are. That is what cost us against England.
“We knew that England were strong on the wings and I gave instructions to close them down on the flanks. In the second half, when Bobby Robson took off John Barnes and introduced Peter Beardsley, they started playing through the middle and my defence didn’t manage to adjust properly. We scored two fast goals, took a 2-1 lead and should have closed out the game, but kept going forward, while the defence played too high. That’s how we got caught twice and were punished with two penalties.”
Bell insisted that in part Cameroon had been picked apart because of problems of communication between Nkono and the defensive line. “They had to adjust,” he said. “It wasn’t something they were talking about. It was something that happened on the field and I would say I was quite alone in knowing there was something like that. When I was not there, nobody would tell them to play deeper. In 1990 they played deep and nobody told them to move forward and you could even say we lost against England because of that.”
Still, getting to the last eight was a major achievement. “There were no tears after we were eliminated — these players never cry,” said Nepomnyashchy. “They take defeats rather easily and forget them pretty fast. After the final whistle in Naples, I told them to go and thank the crowd that had supported us very well. So they ran around the stadium, waved to the fans and enjoyed the moment.”
Nepomnyashchy and his players were treated as heroes upon their return to Cameroon, but the coach refused to sign a new contract. “I didn’t want to stay in Cameroon afterwards because it was a very tough job. The difficulties were immense all the time and in addition my wife fell ill there. When we returned from the World Cup, the president promised big bonuses to the players, but it took a long time before they were paid. We had to start the qualifiers of the new African Cup of Nations in August 1990, less than two months after the World Cup, and all my players refused to show up if they didn’t get the money.”
He didn’t really want to start a new campaign, but had no choice. “I’d already told them that I was leaving but the contract was signed until November and there was no option but to finish the work. They tried every trick to force me to stay, offered to double my salary and even ‘lost’ my passport. But I had already made up my mind and it was impossible to change it.”
So why didn’t Nepomnyashchy use his sudden fame to get a job in a major league? “I wanted to work in Europe and there were offers from Italy and France, but that didn’t work out. The French option was unacceptable because I knew that it would be impossible for me to convince the journalists of my credentials, even after the World Cup. I was tired of their treatment of me and didn’t want to meet them again. So I went to Turkey, where the mentality is close to the one I knew from Turkmenistan. At my first club, Gençlerbirliği, there were problems because I signed for one president but started working under another. Then I worked at Ankaragücü, and that wasn’t a great success.”
He went on to fulfil his ambitions in the East. Nepomnyashchy is especially proud of his work in South Korea in late 90s with Yukong Elephants [now known as Jeju United]. “I am as respected as Guus Hiddink there,” he insisted. Spells in Japan and China followed, and the 70 year old became an advisor to the CSKA Moscow president Yevgeni Giner, leaving his post in spring 2014. Looking back, he is satisfied, but irritated that people only associate him with 1990 World Cup. “Cameroon is a very important part of my life. That job made me famous and every day was very interesting. However, there were other, even more significant achievements in my career. It hurts me that most people, even in Russia, only associate me with Cameroon. But I can’t blame them. That’s only natural.’
For taking them to the quarter final, he will never be forgotten.