WHEN they write the definitive textbook on how to be successful in soccer, there will be no guiding lessons offered by Cameroon. That is because the country long discarded the traditional recipe for achievement, yet have just been named as the best African side of the past century.
On top of that, the Indomitable Lions have been to more World Cup finals than any other African country (save for Morocco, who have also made four appearances) and still boast the best performance at the finals, reaching the last eight at Italia 90.
Last year, they won a third African Nations Cup title, earning the right to keep the trophy for ever. This year, they are already streets ahead of the opposing teams in their World Cup qualifying group, heading easily, it would seem, for Japan and South Korea next year.
It has been an extraordinary run by the Lions, and against all the odds, for behind the charismatic performances on the pitch has been a history of folly in the administrative department.
To start with, Yaounde’s Ahmadou Ahidjo stadium boasts one of the worst pitches in Africa, and other facilities around the country are in a state of utter disrepair.
The federation has been a bordello of chaos, with five presidents over the past decade D one of them jailed for pocketing the takings from World Cup ticket sales and others accused of lining their own pockets with gate proceeds.
Government influence remains powerful as revenue to finance the national teams comes from state coffers. The latest Sports Minister, Pierre Bidoung Mkappt, made the bizarre decision to replace coach Pierre Lechantre with Jean-Paul Akono late last year, after Akono had won Olympic gold with the Under-23 side in Sydney.
Lechantre’s last four matches in charge had all been 3-0 wins in the World Cup qualifiers and this time last year he was leading the side to their first Nations Cup title in 12 years.
Coaches have come and gone with alarming regularity. Just before the last World Cup finals, Frenchman Claude Le Roy was hauled in to try to salvage the side; at the 1990 World Cupfinals unknown Russian Valeri Nepomniachi could not communicate with his side because he spoke neither English nor French.
Yet Cameroon have put African soccer on the international map by producing some fabulous football, inspired foremost by a player who should have been on a pension when they enjoyed their biggest moment.
Roger Milla is the most famous son of Cameroonian football and became a hero at Italia 90 at the age of 38. Four years later he was back, becoming the oldest performer at a World Cup finals and scoring against Russia in Detroit.
Milla and his contemporaries, such as Theophile Abega, Thomas Nkono, Gregoire Mbida and Jean-Manga Onguene, later to be national coach, started the footballing revolution in the central African country. In 1982 they got Cameroon to the World Cup finals for the first time, and were unfortunate not to get past the first round in Spain. They were also unlucky not to progress beyond the group stage in France three years ago.
Nowadays, there is an even better set of players, who have the potential to keep Cameroon at the top of the heap on the African continent.
West Ham defender Rigobert Song leads the side, but Parma forward Patrick Mboma is their key to success.
The current African Footballer of the Year is actually more French than Cameroonian, having left Africa at a young age. He is also something of a late arrival on the international stage. But he has made a huge impact, particularly in combination with teenage prodigy Samuel Eto’o.
Other quality players include Geremi Fotso Njitap of Real Madrid and Pierre Wome, the crunching midfielder who was 16 when he first played for the Indomitable Lions.
At the Nations Cup last year, the best player was Lauren Etame-Mayer, now at Arsenal and often unwilling to do national duty when his club interests are better served.