In Yaoundé, on January 6, 2022, an advertising billboard praised the Olembé stadium where the opening match of CAN 2022 between Cameroon and Burkina Faso will take place. DANIEL BELOUMOU OLOMO / AFP There are dances that we do not forget. Like that of old soldier Roger Milla who, to celebrate his goals at the 1990 World Cup, enchanted the Italian public by swaying in front of corner posts. There are gestures that remain memorable. Like the powerful chisel returned from Patrick Mboma, made at the Stade de France in 2000, against the Blues, just European champions (1-1). There are jerseys that will be legendary forever. Like those dressed with an insolent style during the African Cup of Nations (CAN) in Mali, in 2002. “They had no sleeves. We were called the “dismembered” in Yaoundé ”, smiles even today Patrick Mboma, 51, the former attacker of the Indomitable Lions.
Between Cameroon – which hosts CAN from January 9 to February 6 – and football, it’s a story as long and winding as the Sanaga River. “She is glorious”, launches without hesitation Joseph-Antoine Bell, 67, emblematic goalkeeper of the selection (1976-1994). “Our football started from nothing to finally climb the ranks to beat many records,” recalls Mr. Mboma.
“First golden generation”
Difficult to contradict him. The national team’s record is eloquent: five times CAN winners (1984, 1988, 2000, 2002 and 2017); seven participations in the World Cup (no other African nation has done better), gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000… Proof of their talents, Cameroonian players were the most rewarded at the African Golden Ball . This long history begins almost sixty years ago, at a time when local clubs, first of all, began to shine across the continent. In the country, the oldest still remember the victory of the Oryx of Douala during the first edition of the African Champions League in 1965 or the coronation of Tonnerre de Yaoundé, ten years later, at the first Cup of Africa Cup Winners. The Lions will gradually impose themselves on the international level. First big step: the country organized the CAN in 1972 and built two new stadiums for the occasion, in Douala and Yaoundé. Admittedly, the selection finished in third place in the tournament, but the best is yet to come.
“This is the arrival of the first golden generation,” said Michel Kaham, 70, former defender and assistant coach of the Indomitable Lions. He and his illustrious playing partners like Roger Milla or Thomas Nkono took part in the 1982 World Cup in Spain – the first for Cameroon – and were narrowly eliminated from the pool phase without losing a single match. Thanks to its physical and fast, elegant and powerful game, this generation will conquer the CAN 1984 (Ivory Coast) then that of 1988 (Morocco) with a team remodeled by the French Claude Le Roy to the chagrin of Cameroonian supporters “who walk in the street because I am accused of having dismissed players, ”he recalls.
Everything is going to derail
It is also this selection which defeats, during the opening match of the 1990 World Cup, Argentina’s defending champion Maradona (0-1), and reached the quarter-finals – unheard of for an African team – after an intense match against England (3-2). “This team started to sell an image of Africa, we looked at it with respect,” notes Patrick Mboma. “These players were mentally incredibly strong. In the lane before a match, when they looked at their opponents, we could see in their eyes that they were already leading 1 to 0, ”remembers Mr. Le Roy. In the 1990s, most internationals were trained in the country and started their professional life “in a very difficult championship”, he underlines. To be known ! To the point that the Leopard of Douala and other Canon of Yaoundé were able to serve as a springboard for the careers of many players who subsequently signed in large stables in Europe.
Talents from other African countries – like the Liberian George Weah – even tried their luck in Cameroon before also joining a prestigious club from the Old Continent. And yet, it was at this time that everything was going to derail. Despite the arrival of a new slew of stars (Samuel Eto’o, Marc-Vivien Foé, Rigobert Song or Geremi Njitap) who together won the Sidney Games, CAN 2000 and 2002, local Cameroonian football will decline until to sink.
Chaos, amateurism, corruption
Greedy leaders and politicians will plunge their sport into chaos, amateurism, corruption and ridicule. Support for young people is forgotten, training centers and other infrastructures (such as stadiums) do not emerge, the national team is poorly managed and players go abroad very early … Today, the twenty- eight indomitable Lions who will compete in the CAN play abroad. “It is incomprehensible in a country like Cameroon to speak of twenty-five professional clubs. It’s a heresy insofar as the level of the elite championship is very poor today, ”argues Jules Frederic Nyongha, former coach of the Indomitable Lions.
In 2013, Roger Milla had a rant in an interview with Le Monde in which he affirmed that “Cameroonian football has not worked for more than ten years. There are people within the federation who make sure that it does not work. It is not in the interest of the country, but maybe it is in their interest ”. Indeed, money-related stories have replaced sports scores. In 2002, before the World Cup, the Indomitable Lions refused to go to Japan until the bonus issue was resolved and they were not paid the 150,000 francs at the time (some 23,000 euros) promised instead of the 100,000 francs suddenly offered before departure. Ditto in 2014 shortly before the start of the World Cup in Brazil then, five years later, before the CAN in Egypt …
“Between busyness and incompetence”
In 2000, at the Sydney Games, the internationals threatened – at midnight – not to play the final against Spain (2-2, 5-3 on penalties), scheduled for noon. Finally, in the early morning, a few hours from the final match, the leaders had agreed to pay them – at the hotel and in cash – the 5 million CFA francs (7,500 euros) planned even though they had assured that there was no more money. This drift goes back a long way. “In 1988, after our victory at the CAN, the sports minister stole my bonus. This is also why I left the selection, ”says Claude Le Roy. “In 2014, one of the goalkeepers of the Lions had donated his bonus of 40 million CFA francs [60 000 euros] to a person from the federation to be called up for selection, ”explains Achille Chountsa, head of the sports department for the daily Le Jour. “The problems of Cameroonian football are structural: between businessism, incompetence, legal procedures, football in itself is taken hostage”, remarks Jules Frederic Nyongha. “And this despite the huge pool of good players in our country,” adds Joseph-Antoine Bell. Cameroonian football now hopes for better governance. To achieve this, he relies on the country’s icon, Samuel Eto’o, who has just been elected president of the national federation (Fécafoot). The former FC Barcelona and Chelsea striker hopes to revive the national championship by giving it back its former glory, professionalize his institution, and once again attract sponsors to remedy the pauperization of local players. “A pro in the first division earns 100,000 CFA francs [152 euros] per month and this salary is not even guaranteed. In the second division, it’s 50,000 CFA francs [Le salaire minimum au Cameroun est de 36 270 francs CFA], explains Jean-Bruno Tagne, who was Samuel Eto’o’s campaign manager. How can we produce good players under these conditions? ”
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