THIS MILLENNIUM, the only thing making the Cameroon national football team stand out from the pack is their penchant for ‘alternative’ kits – think the revolutionary sleeveless shirt from 2002, or the infamous all-in-one ensemble that saw them docked six points from their 2006 World Cup qualifying group.
The Indomitable Lions are the all-time leading African team in World Cup participation – but go in search of their fifth African Cup of Nations (C.A.N) crown this month as rank outsiders for the first time since the 20th century.
The Cameroon squad that will travel to Angola is not the formidable Cameroon squad of the late 1990s but, as with most African sides, what they lack in talent and cohesion they more than make up for in passion and heart. In qualification, they won just two points from nine – in came Frenchman Paul Le Guen, out went captain Rigobert Song and Cameroon qualified for the World Cup – and the African Cup of Nations – after picking up nine points from their final three games.
Cameroon’s controversial sleeveless kit
Le Guen initially only signed a five-month contract with the Lions, and wasted no time making his presence felt. Song, the former Liverpool and West Ham defender who has 131 caps to his name, was stripped of the Cameroon captaincy after 10 years, and youngsters such as Nicolas Nkoulou and Tottenham’s Sébastien Bassong were called up.
The Frenchman’s managerial pedigree cannot be debated, after leading Lyon to three successive French championships and taking them to the quarter-finals of the Champions League – and neither can his ability – and apparent enjoyment – to take tough decisions.
Le Guen, after all, is the man who promoted an unknown reserve to captain of Paris Saint-Germain, and clashed with Barry Ferguson at Rangers. Reports suggested Ferguson would not play for Rangers again under Le Guen after he too was stripped of the captaincy. And after taking over at Cameroon, Le Guen was in no mood to change his stance.
Aware that his predecessor, Otto Pfister, quit after becoming disillusioned with the amount of ‘advisers’ surrounding him, Le Guen only took the job on the proviso he could choose his own backroom staff. He also made sure that the amount of officials travelling with the team was cut down, insisting only 13 non-players should travel with the squad to his first game in charge, a 2-0 friendly win in Austria.
Le Guen’s exit from Ibrox was accelerated by a Scottish League Cup quarter-final defeat at the hands of First Division St. Johnstone, and there is plenty of opportunity for a similar shock in Group D of the African Cup of Nation where his charges will come up against Gabon, Zambia and Tunisia.
Gabon were the team that troubled Cameroon in qualifying, and it was only the death of the country’s president in June which prevented them winning the group. Their game against Cameroon was postponed, and by the time it was re-arranged Le Guen had arrived and rejuvenated the Lions. Cameroon duly won, and Gabon finished second. A country rich in oil money but lacking in genuine, world class football talent, Gabon’s hopes rest upon the shoulders of Rangers striker Daniel Cousin.
If there is such a thing in football as a ‘Group of Death’, then this is far from it. In reality, Tunisia and Gabon will probably challenge for second place, and neither appear to be any real threat to Cameroon’s qualification. Tunisia, the 2004 champions, will rely on Mehdi Nafti to bring experience into the squad. Like Gabon, Zambia’s footballing narrative is tinged with a hint of human tragedy. The country’s football team is still struggling to recover from the 1993 plane crash which killed all but one of their squad, forcing them to assemble a new squad within months which nearly reached the 1994 World Cup. Le Guen will be without injured Spurs full-back Benoit Assou-Ekotto for the tournament, but Stéphane M’bia may prove to be Cameroon’s young star of the tournament, wearing Marc Vivien-Foe’s number 17 shirt and in Idriss Carlos Kameni, they possess Africa’s best goalkeeper.
As usual, Cameroon’s hopes will rest with newly-appointed captain Samuel Eto’o, the Inter Milan striker who has scored 42 goals in 89 appearances for his country.
But one man hoping for an early Cameroon exit is Inter boss Jose Mourinho.
“I hope Cameroon go out quickly and don’t make it all the way to the Final,” he said.
“At least that way we’ll have him back before January 31.”
Fans of the Lions hope not.