The Lions Sleep Tonight
Ten years after retaining the Cup of Nations, Cameroon failed to qualify. What went wrong?
It hadn’t been a great final, but then it hadn’t been a great month in terms of the football played. Bumpy, small pitches had added to a generally defensive mindset to produce an attritional tournament that had yielded just 47 goals in 31 games. The 32nd game, the final, almost inevitably, finished 0-0.
Two years earlier, in Lagos, Cameroon had beaten Nigeria in the final in a shoot-out. Then, the decisive kick fell to the 19-year-old Pius Ikedia, a slight, short winger. His kick had struck the bar and bounced down, television replays later showed, over the line. He, though, turned instinctively away, believing he had missed. The referee, Mourad Daami of Tunisia, thought he had as well and, as Cameroon celebrated their third title, fans rioted.
The scenes at the semi-final in Mali, when they played the hosts, had hardly been less chaotic. Cameroon’s German coach, Winfried Schäfer, yellow mullet gleaming, had wandered onto the pitch before the game with his assistant, Thomas Nkono, probably the greatest goalkeeper African football has ever produced. They stood for a few moments watching pictures of the first semi-final, between Senegal and Nigeria, on the big screen. Without warning, riot-police grabbed them, slapped them in hand-cuffs and bundled them away down the tunnel. As Nkono struggled, his tracksuit bottoms slid down, bunching around his ankles. The police later claimed they hadn’t been able to see the pair’s accreditation badges and said they thought they’d been placing muti, black magic charms, on the pitch. It looked, though, like a deliberate attempt to unsettle Cameroon before the game. It didn’t work and Cameroon won 3-0.
At the time, Senegal were the coming force in African football. They’d qualified for the World Cup and, with the likes of Pape Bouba Diop, Salif Diao, Khalilou Fadiga and El-Hadji Diouf, they had, as Cameroon did, a muscular side leavened by just enough flair. Physicality won out over technicality in the final, though, and it went to penalties.
Pierre Womé, in a troubling indication of problems to come, missed Cameroon’s first kick, but as Amdy Faye and Diouf both failed to score, Rigobert Song was left with the chance to win it. He missed, but when Aliou Cisse missed Senegal’s last kick, Cameroon became the first side since Ghana in 1965 to retain the title and joined Ghana and Egypt as the most successful sides in African history with four Cups of Nations.
Ten years on, Cameroon failed even to qualify for the Cup of Nations in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
We had, thank goodness, set off early from Takoradi to Kumasi. We’d just turned north at Cape Coast when my phone went. It was the sports editor of the Sunday Herald. “I was just wondering,” he said after the usual pleasantries, “what you were up today? Are you at a game?”
I replied I’d be at Cameroon v Zambia.
“Aye, we’ll take 800 words,” he said.
“800?” I asked, a little stunned. Very few league games get more than 600, let alone an obscure Cup of Nations group stage match. “Errr, OK.”
“And you haven’t got a feature in the locker have you? Something you could maybe rattle out for us?”
“I could knock out something on how Berti Vogts is messing up Nigeria?” I suggested, knowing Berti-bashing was a popular Scottish pastime.
“Great. 1200. Thanks.” Again, 1200 words seemed disproportionate, but freelances don’t argue.
Two minutes later the phone went again. This time it was the sports editor ofScotland on Sunday.
“Which game will you be at today?” he asked.
“Cameroon v Zambia.”
“Great. 800 words, thanks.” I was recognising a pattern.
“You don’t fancy a feature on Berti fucking up Nigeria, do you?”
He did. And commissioned 1200 words. I asked, as diplomatically as possible, what on earth was going on.
“Snow,” he said. “There’s snow everywhere. The whole fucking programme’s cancelled. We’ve got nothing.”
And so the mystery was explained.
Just as I was congratulating myself on four big commissions, though, there was a mighty thump. The engine of the van we were travelling in spluttered and wheezed. Our driver slowed and stopped by the side of the road. Cautiously he started the engine again. It sounded no better. He coaxed us to a garage a mile or two down the road and, as I paced about anxiously in the bright white sunlight, about a dozen local men pored over the open bonnet. At least one of them, thankfully, was a mechanic and we arrived at the stadium in Kumasi an hour or so before kick-off. I remember little of the 2400 words I bashed out before kick-off, but writing two match reports, thankfully, means the game is etched clearly on my mind.
There had been a lot of talk around the 2006 World Cup of the rise of a new Africa. Cameroon had missed out for the first time since 1986 and with Nigeria, after three straight finals appearances, also failing to qualify, four of the five African sides in Germany were debutants (admittedly one of those was Ghana, who had been the first great footballing power in Africa, but they hadn’t won the Cup of Nations since 1982). Cameroon had been outplayed by a superb Egypt in their opening game, losing 4-2, while Zambia had been quietly impressive in beating Sudan 3-0. This seemed like a classic meeting of new and old, a gauge of how far the grandees had sunk.
Cameroon won 5-1. So much for the revolution.
Two years later, the sides met again in the group stage in Lubango. On that occasion — the only time Hervé Renard, the Zambia coach, has not worn a white shirt for a finals game and still his only defeat — Cameroon won 3-2. That is why Zambia’s success in this year’s tournament hurt Cameroon so much: in four years they went from hammering them, to beating them narrowly, to not even qualifying for the tournament in which they became champions. The difference in approach, the difference in philosophy, the difference in outcome is clear.
“In 2008,” said Joseph-Antoine Bell, the great former Cameroon goalkeeper and now an eloquent and outspoken television pundit, “it was 5-1, but Zambia played well and gave four goals away and I said, ‘Don’t just look at the score: look at what happened.’ They really did well but gave away four goals. If you’d played this game two or three times, it wouldn’t be 5-1. Then, in 2010, Zambia were holding Cameroon really well, playing well, leading 1-0 and then Geremi kept a ball in play and that was how things changed. If we don’t watch how games go, we don’t see beyond the score. This is the way politicians see football. They just talk about the score and you don’t look at what happens.”
This, of course, is the argument Juanma Lillo made passionately in Issue One of The Blizzard, that the tendency is to look only at the outcome rather than the process, to become what he termed “prophets of the past” by taking the conclusion and working back through the game to find out why it was inevitable that the result fell that way.
And, looking at my match reports from that game in Kumasi, the evidence was there. “Cameroon had offered next to nothing as an attacking threat in the early stages,” I wrote then, “and their only shot in the opening quarter was the result of a dreadful error from the Zambia goalkeeper, Kennedy Mweene, but when Geremi was presented with a free-kick opportunity 20 yards out on 28 minutes, he whipped his shot into the top corner with all the devil of old.” Thanks to Zambia’s rickety offside line, Joseph-Desiré Job and Achille Emana added further goals before half-time, at which Cameroon rather switched off. “Against a side with better finishers than Zambia,” I wrote, “they might have sleepwalked into trouble. As it was, Zambia were poor enough defensively to gift Cameroon a further two goals.” The fourth was the result of a penalty for a soft handball, the fifth came from a weak backheader. “They were lucky in that we created all the goals for them,” said the Zambia coach Patrick Phiri. “All their goals were from mistakes or misunderstandings between the defence and the goalkeeper. I have never seen them play that way in 18 months of working with them. Maybe they were scared of the big names, I don’t know.”
Zambia were eliminated in the first round, while Cameroon, battling and scrapping, dragged themselves as far as the final, where they were beaten again by Egypt, this time 1-0. In the wider scheme of things, though, they were sleepwalking into trouble. Their preparations for the tournament had been appalling. In 2007, they’d played fewer matches than any other of the sides who qualified for the Cup of Nations finals in 2008. The German coach Otto Pfister, an irascible hard-drinking septuagenarian, had been imposed on the squad by the Sports Ministry. And Samuel Eto’o had been allowed to play one last league game for Barcelona so he joined up with his teammates a day before Cameroon’s first match. It was chaos.
The man Pfister replaced was Jules Nyonga, who worked with the national team as either assistant coach or head coach from 1984 to 1996, returned as assistant in 2004 and then replaced Artur Jorge as head coach after the Cup of Nations in 2006. He led Cameroon through qualifying for the Cup of Nations in Ghana, but was ousted as the Cameroonian Football Federation (Fecafoot) turned — yet again — to a European coach.
Nyonga is a quietly-spoken bespectacled man in his mid-sixties. The courtyard of his house is dotted with pot-plants, the room where we spoke lined with objets d’art. In terms of temperament he seems more like an academic than a football coach but his anger about what is happening to Cameroonian football is clear enough. He led Cameroon through qualification for the 1994 World Cup but was replaced by Henri Michel for the tournament itself. Having worked with Jorge, he was then asked to serve as deputy to Arie Haan. Nyonga had met him before, on the coaching course in Cologne from which he graduated in 1987; Haan never completed his diploma. The former Holland international lasted just three months — “embarrassed” by working with his former classmate, Nyonga believes —at which Nyonga took over and completed qualification only to be shoved aside for Pfister.
“There’s a problem signing competent local coaches, a psychological issue,” Nyonga said. It’s a common enough problem in west Africa, the usual explanation being that players used to playing at a high level in Europe find it difficult to listen to a coach who has no experience of the Champions League. Nyonga refutes that, asking, quite reasonably, why any European player would respect the present coach, Denis Lavagne, a Frenchman who has no European experience at all but succeeded Javier Clemente last October. “There was no conflict when I was in charge,” he said. “But there is stupidity. The current coach, who was drafted in from Coton Sport, doesn’t even have the qualifications. He’s qualified only to coach children. That kind of person would never get a job in, say, France. Maybe it’s because he’s white. Clemente was on CFA 52million (£65,000) a month. [Paul] Le Guen was on CFA 72m. The likelihood is that it’s like a mafia arrangement. If you appoint a local coach you don’t pay them as much so there’s less for kick-backs.”
When African countries first started turning to European coaches, there was a certain logic to it. They brought expertise, experience of tournament football and, to an extent, prestige. They could be trusted to overlook tribal distinctions between players. But even if Nyonga’s suspicions about the money are inaccurate, European coaches have their drawbacks. “They definitely had a problem with the fact that very often they didn’t understand local realities about how to prepare the team,” Nyonga said.
For him, the classic example came in October 2005, when Cameroon went into their final World Cup qualifier, at home against an Egypt side that had already been eliminated, needing a win to finish above Côte d’Ivoire and secure their place at the 2006 World Cup. “We didn’t qualify for the World Cup because Artur Jorge was in charge,” Nyonga said. “I know the mentality of the players and I know the character of the public and the media. I told him not to prepare for this match in Cameroon, that we should go and prepare elsewhere and then come back two days before the game. But he wouldn’t do it. The players kept being told it was a formality because Egypt were already out. They were getting phone calls all the time, from family and friends. Everybody thought it was a foregone conclusion, so the players weren’t focused. The sports minister had put champagne on ice. We were just waiting for qualification.”
It never arrived. Although Rodolphe Douala put Cameroon ahead after 20 minutes, Mohammed Shawkey levelled 11 minutes from time. But then, in injury-time, Cameroon were awarded a penalty. Eto’o was the designated penalty-taker but, depending whose account you believe, either he ducked the responsibility or Womé insisted he felt inspired. Womé’s shot was hard and low, but struck the post and the rebound eluded him. The full-back had to be smuggled to the airport the following day in an unmarked police car as gangs of youths sought retribution, attacking his family home, smashing his Mercedes and vandalising his girlfriend’s hair salon.
After four successive qualifications, that should have been a warning, but it wasn’t heeded. Fecafoot continued its policy of bringing in Europeans for major tournaments and that, inevitably, engendered a short-term outlook. As outsiders, their focus was rarely on anything other than the tournament that fell within the term of their contract (Nyonga names Claude Le Roy as an exception to this, pointing out the work he has done in developing African coaches; Alain Giresse’s stint in Gabon, similarly, appears to have had long-term benefits). Perhaps more damagingly, they often thwarted the development of local coaches. The Catch-22 is obvious: European-based players don’t respect a coach without European experience, but European clubs don’t appoint African coaches because they so rarely see them working in an international environment.
While the urge to see white skin in the dugout doesn’t seem to have gone away in Cameroon, steps have at least been taken to improve the basic structure of the game and, in 2010, after a dismal World Cup in which Cameroon, having lost to Japan and Denmark, were the first team eliminated, the position of technical director was created within Fecafoot.
Jean Manga-Onguene won the African Champions Cup in 1978 and 1980 with Canon Yaoundé and in 1980 was named African Footballer of the Year. When he ruptured knee ligaments at a training camp in Germany shortly before the 1982 World Cup, the journalist Willie Niba said, there was “national mourning”. Manga-Onguene is also Cameroonian football’s first technical director. He is an elegant, slim man. When I met him in a restaurant in Yaoundé, he was wearing a dark suit and a purple-and-white striped tie; a diamond stud glistened in his left ear. His deputy, the former centre-back Jean-Paul Akono, another veteran of the great Canon and Cameroon sides of the late seventies and early eighties, could hardly be more different in appearance, a vast man with a high broad forehead sweeping up to a mass of tight grey curls. Manga-Onguene seemed the more thoughtful, speaking in short, precise bursts; Akono, swigging beer liberally, was quicker to laugh, anecdotes spilling from him. Both were good company, both, in different ways, blessed with an easy charisma.
“We had a very high position in Africa in the eighties and the nineties and we did not do what needed to be done to consolidate those achievements,” Manga-Onguene explained. “We used to have academies across Cameroon where young budding talent could develop. In ’91, ’93 and ’95 we went round the country prospecting for talent and at every stage we took the youth teams to join the sides preparing for continental competition. In 1995 we won the Under-17 Cup of Nations and a lot of those players progressed to the senior team. When you’re doing well, the tendency is to stop investing, thinking things will always be the same. Now you have an Under-17 team where you see nobody coming from the Under-15s — and that means something is fundamentally wrong.
“Too many players have been getting into the national team without having the appropriate training and that’s problematic. If you have proper training, coaches can determine what their weaknesses are and try to improve them before they join the first team. Sometimes they are players knocking on the door of the first team who have not been drilled, who don’t know what being part of a team is.”
For Akono, the problems weren’t just structural but to do with a change of attitude that has arguably been caused by Cameroon’s success. As more and more players went to Europe and started to earn what by Cameroonian standards were enormous salaries, the mindset changed. “There was too much ego,” he said, “each player trying to justify their roles in the team and make money. The issue of ego was not restricted to players at all, but also affected team officials, the federation. They have to take part of the blame for thinking the achievements of previous years were a natural phenomenon that would be hard to take away.
“For some time even when we were unable to win trophies, we were still performing. That was the time when we needed to be vigilant, when we should have been looking at the talent in the junior teams. The writing was on the wall from the bad run of results. We didn’t look behind us to see others were making progress. Now they have caught up with us and we have only our eyes to cry with. It took a long time for people to realise the importance of having a technical manager at the head of the team.”
A technical manager feels like a step in the right direction. It should at least encourage long-term planning and perhaps provide a thread of continuity beneath the knee-jerk populism of the sports ministry. And, as Zambia proved, continuity of selection can bring astonishing results. In a world of short-termism, the planner is king, even if only two of his squad play in Europe and one of those in the Russian second division. “There are now regional technical advisors at the level of regions and districts,” said Nyonga. “They’re starting to take care of looking after budding talent and trying to organise how young talent can come through. There are some players who have played for the first team for 10 years and only now they’re fading are we looking for new players. That’s the problem we’re facing right now. The absence of a policy of continuity, of a permanent injection of young talent in the national team, so they can be heirs in waiting: now the whole team has to be reshuffled.”
Théophile Abega was Cameroon’s captain at the 1982 World Cup and a key part of the great Canon side. A sublimely gifted midfielder, he was nicknamed ‘Doctor’, and scored a magnificent goal in the final of the 1984 Cup of Nations when Cameroon beat Nigeria to claim the title for the first time. After initially responding positively to a request for an interview, he stopped taking phone calls but as he is now the mayor of the fourth arrondissement of Yaoundé — the largest district, with a population of 600,000 — he wasn’t too hard to track down to the mayoral office, a low structure with a corrugated iron roof. After negotiating a busy ante-chamber in which women pushed paper assiduously, I was shown to a small, dark room at the back of the building.
A desk, stacked with mounds of paper, dominated the room, taking up at least half the available space. A lethargic ceiling fan did little to penetrate the stifling heat. Squeezed onto seats along one wall were three men, whether lackeys or petitioners I couldn’t tell. And amid the paper, signing documents, was Abega, a cream-coloured stetson perched on his head. As I waited for him to finish, one of the three other men told me, as though imparting a great secret, “Abega wore the number 14 shirt at Italia 90, and it was the fourteenth World Cup. That’s not coincidence.” Maybe not, but neither was it true; Abega retired in 1987. Eventually Abega finished with his documents. He apologised for not returning my calls; he’d changed networks, he explained. And would I like to go to his place for dinner that evening.
Abega is now a full-time politician, a staunch supporter of Paul Biya, who has been president since 1982, but just because he is out of football doesn’t mean he doesn’t regret Cameroon’s decline. “African football is on a downturn, because teams like Equatorial Guinea and Gabon are beating sides like Morocco and Senegal,” he said. “Something is fundamentally wrong. In my day we went and beat these countries 7-0 or 9-0.
“Cameroon had great fighting spirit. That was our modus operandi in our heyday. Cameroonian players were once big and strong, but now they are like the Gabonese. We used to play a strong game with towering players, but now it doesn’t look like Cameroon. I don’t know why, but nowadays they are not physical any more. Sometimes we won games before they had started with our size. We intimidated the Italians in ’82 [when Cameroon were a touch unfortunate to draw 0-0] even though they were notorious for the rugged game that they played. We could feel that they were scared to death. Now when we play Gabon or even Equatorial Guinea, they think they can win because they’re capitalising on the sizes of the players. They realise that Cameroon don’t have impressive footballers any more.”
If Cameroon’s players really have shrunk relative to other African sides, of course, there’s not much they can do, but Abega sees other issues that go far deeper than football. “We have a federation which is not playing its role these days,” he said. “They are playing politics, not football. There are some delegates who are trying just to bring players from the north because they control the federation. You have to pick the best players, wherever they come from. If they are all from the south, they are all from the south. You can’t just pick people to keep each area happy.”
Although Abega thinks the appointment of a technical director is a positive step, he is sceptical about the ability of his former teammates to do the job. “The coaches here have no professional experience,” he said, by which he clearly meant “European”. Côte d’Ivoire, despite their penalty shoot-out defeat in the Cup of Nations final in Libreville, Abega felt had got it right by appointing François Zahoui, an Ivorian who played for Ascoli, Nancy and Toulon. “We have nobody,” he said. “Even Manga and Akono haven’t played in Europe. Manga was a fantastic player but he didn’t play professionally. He doesn’t know what it is to be a professional. Professional is in your mentality, in your habits.”
Even recent attempts to reform and professionalise the Cameroonian league Abega sees as doomed. “I doubt the professional league will help because the players are coached by managers who have never been professional,” he said. “A lot of these teams don’t have bank accounts, they don’t have buses, they don’t have the right structure.” Certainly there was little in the game I saw, in which Canon beat Tiko United 2-1 in front of a few hundred people, to suggest any great quality waiting to emerge. Perhaps significantly, both sides were playing their first game under new coaches.
Abega is first and foremost a politician — even the question of whether he misses football seems to surprise him — and seems obsessed by concessions being made to the north. It is the ongoing wrangling between north and south that he sees as lying behind the most obvious issue Cameroonian football faces in the short term.
Nobody disputes Samuel Eto’o’s talent. The Anzhi Makhachkala forward is clearly Cameroon’s best player, but he is also Cameroon’s biggest problem. Last year, he led protests over the non-payment of bonuses that resulted in a friendly against Algeria being cancelled. Fecafoot banned him for 15 matches but later commuted that to eight months. How keen Eto’o will be to return remains to be seen.
Although many acknowledge Eto’o was fighting a just cause, opinion is divided on whether his suspension is a good or bad thing for Cameroon. At the very least, there is a general acceptance that the gulf between his abilities and those of his teammates created tensions. “There is a tactical problem with the disparity of talent between Eto’o and the rest because every other player rushes to give the ball to Eto’o whether he’s in a good position or not,” Abega said, and that was readily apparent in Angola in 2010 when the forward would regularly pick up the ball 60 yards from goal with little support and a phalanx of opponents between him and the goal.
But that is just part of the issue. There were rumours of a power struggle between Eto’o and Paul Le Guen at the Cup of Nations which were given credibility by the exhaustion and disillusionment the former Lyon and Rangers manager displayed at the end of the tournament. Players too reacted badly to what was seen as the “condescension” shown by Eto’o to younger players. “There is a stark difference between the time when [Rigobert] Song was captain and now,” said Nyonga. “He knew how to rally the team. He was less condescending. He considered himself as part of the team as opposed to Eto’o. He is a crushing personality, because of his wealth and international standing.”
Given that Eto’o also paid bonuses for the rest of the team out of his own pocket, though, it’s hard to deny that he genuinely cares about Cameroon. The problem may simply be that, with a lack of support, he feels he has to do everything himself and the result is that his efforts to improve Cameroonian football simply look egotistical. And, of course, even by attempting to take responsibility, he opens himself to criticism.
“They don’t like leaders,” said Joseph-Antoine Bell, who himself clashed regularly with politicians and Fecafoot officials during his career as a player. That suggests merely a defensiveness or envy on the part of Cameroon’s football hierarchy, but Abega hinted at a conspiracy that went far deeper. “Forces from the north”, he insisted, had deliberately sought Eto’o’s ban to try to bring fans out onto the street in protest, thus potentially destabilising Biya’s government.
Cameroon’s decline is part of a wider trend. World Cups should not be taken as the only way of judging such things, but the fact that no African side has improved on Cameroon’s achievement of reaching the quarter-final in the two decades since is significant. There has been stagnation among the best African sides even as more and more African players have established themselves at major European clubs. Arguably, the exodus of African players to Europe has been counterproductive; the judgement is inevitably subjective, but the best side I’ve seen in a decade of covering the Cup of Nations was Egypt in 2008, the majority of whose players played in Egypt.
Thanks to the familiar problems of poor infrastructure, disorganisation and corruption, African national sides are no nearer winning a World Cup now than they were 20 years ago, but that is not to say African football has not improved. It’s just that it has improved lower down the scale; there are fewer minnows and there are more sides, like Zambia, like Togo, like Angola, who can shock the traditional powers and win the Cup of Nations or qualify for a World Cup.
What that has done is to highlight the failure of the likes of Cameroon and Nigeria to progress and that might be the stimulus they need to start planning and investing seriously. Cameroon’s creation of the post of technical director, perhaps, is the start of that process. Whether it is the right measure, whether Manga-Onguene and Akono are the right people, remains to be seen, but at least there is an acceptance of a problem and that is an essential first step.