Indomitable Lions in trouble
For many years, Cameroon were the pride of Africa and a role model for a whole continent. But the current situation in this football-mad country is delicate. If Cameroon cannot solve the problems they face, the future does not look bright.
With four African titles, an Olympic gold medal and that unforgettable run to the quarter-finals of the 1990 FIFA World Cup TM (where they eventually lost 3-2 to England in extra time) to their credit, Cameroon have been handed the onerous responsibility of carrying the lofty dreams and hopes of a football-mad continent that expects them – or their arch-rivals Nigeria – to win the sport’s ultimate prize in the not-too-distant future. But despite the country’s rich traditions and the constant stream of exquisite talent that it exports to the world’s top clubs (as symbolized by Barcelona’s Samuel Eto’o) there are very few fans and stakeholders who are optimistic about Cameroon’s future in world football.
When the “Indomitable Lions” failed to beat Egypt on home soil in Yaounde in October 2005, consequently missing out on the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany – the first time since 1986 that they failed to qualify – many believed that Cameroon were finally paying the very high price of years of neglect by the country’s government and football authorities.
Bell highly critical
The comments of Edembe Joseph, a seller of replica football shirts in Yaounde’s central market, reflect the depth of anger still felt by ordinary fans throughout the central African country of 15 million people. “When he failed to qualify for Germany, Yaounde and indeed the whole nation was like a graveyard because what happened was a disaster for us,” he said. “How can Cameroon, with all its big players, fail to reach the last World Cup?”
It is a question that provokes a very blunt and firm answer from Joseph-Antoine Bell, the former Cameroon goalkeeper. “Our failure to qualify for the 2006 World Cup is a very clear reflection of the very poor state that our football is in,” he told in his Douala home. “Let us not pretend. Football at all levels in our country is very sick. And if care is not taken, we will also fail to qualify for the 2010 World Cup finals as well.”
Bell, who distinguished himself as a player in the French league with Marseille, Bordeaux and St Etienne and was a member of Cameroon’s 1990 World Cup squad, claims the lack of a blueprint for the development of the game has kept Cameroonian football in reverse gear.
“Many people in the country are still basking in the glory of 1990, which happened 17 years ago, while we need to tackle the present-day problems that are killing football here,” Bell said. “Nothing concrete is being done to ensure that we can develop good players within our own local championship or ensure that the right people are in charge of our national teams and driving the much-needed development of the league. We are relying on European clubs to discover our best young players and develop them for us, when we should have a league that is able to do part of this. If we do not have a structure that can ensure that players can also develop within Cameroonian football, there is no way that we can prosper. No country’s football can thrive without a good league.
Bell’s stinging criticism is not without merit, as the footballing facilities in one of Africa’s leading nations can only be described in one word – appalling. Cameroon, which has not hosted the African Cup of Nations finals since 1972, lacks a single stadium that meets stringent international standards.
The Reunification Stadium, located in the commercial nerve centre of Douala, has not been renovated in over 20 years, with several parts of its rotting away; Yaounde’s Ahmadou Ahidjo stadium, the country’s major arena – but never completed according to the original architectural plan – is now being renovated by a Japanese firm, but it came close to a ban when the ground’s facilities failed to meet standards during a FIFA inspection visit at the time of the 2006 World Cup preliminary competition, forcing an emergency job by the authorities.
“There is no doubt that the condition of our stadiums is very bad, catastrophic even,” Cameroonian legend Roger Milla admitted after attending a recent league match involving his old club Tonnerre. “But we are expecting that the plans to build new grounds around the country, as well as repairing the existing ones, will ensure that there are suitable grounds for football in the country,” said Africa’s player of the 20th century.
Even the clubs with a rich tradition are not immune from the deep decay that has eaten into the country’s infrastructure. Canon and Tonnerre, the two Yaounde-based teams, as well as Union Douala, who were dominant in the domestic championship and African club competitions in the 1970s and early 1980s, are struggling for survival, training on sandy, undulating grounds, with players unhappy at the poor wages and welfare conditions.
“We cannot hide the fact that things are less than ideal at our club and in Cameroonian football as a whole, “ says Essomba Eyenga, Tonnerre’s president for over a decade. “We, and even our city rivals Canon, with all our achievements at home and in Africa do not own stadium of our own. If a club with a rich tradition like ours is struggling to survive in the championship, you can imagine what is happening to the much poorer clubs in the country. I am hoping that building a proper ground for a club that has achieved so much in Cameroon and Africa is one of the lasting legacies that I can leave for Tonnerre.”
But with attendance levels at a league matches in the country at an all-time low and games involving the top teams barely attracting crowds of 4,000 people, reviving interest in the league – plagued by rampant allegations of match-fixing – has been a tough job. Claims that match officials were frequently induced to favor certain teams were given serious credence in July last year, when Divine Evehe, one of the country’s top referees, appealed to clubs to stop offering bribes to his colleagues. “Please stop calling us on the eve of your games,” the FIFA-listed Evehe urged during a meeting between club officials, the referees committee and the Cameroonian football association (FECAFOOT). “If you stop making proposals and attempts to corrupt referees, we shall be impartial. Leave us alone.”
Mohammed Iya, elected president of FECAFOOT in 2000, continues to take very heavy flak for the state of the game, as ardent critics claims his poor leadership is responsible for the country’s decline. But Iya, who initially took over FECAFOOT as interim boss in 1998 following the removal of Vincent Onana (who spent three years in a Cameroonian prison as a result of World Cup ticketing scandal), insists he has been made a convenient target of blame for the problems created by officials in government who fail to respect FECAFOOT’s autonomy.
“I have become the scapegoat for the problems of football in this country and this is really unfortunate because those who are aware of the real picture know what the truth is,” he told.
Iya claims he constantly battles with a section of government officials who refuse to respect the independence of FECAFOOT and attempt to interfere in what are exclusively association matters. “It’s very unfortunate that FECAFOOT always has problems with some officials of the ministry of sport but this is because of their poor interpretation of the role each party has to play in the management of Cameroonian football,” Iya said. “They keep on provoking nasty situations, which frustrates the development of the game … Some people are just not happy with our modern management of things. The time and energy we waste to explain how modern day football should be managed, not to mention fighting to keep our heads above water, is the time and energy we would have used to search for more resources for our football and plan for the future.
But the FECAFOOT president insists he is leading the country in the right direction, with Cameroon winning two of their four African Cup of Nations titles, as well as Olympic gold (in 2000 in Sidney), during his presidency. “I think many things have gone right rather than wrong with the national teams. In the recent past, it is only in 2004 and 2006 that the senior team did not win the African Cup of Nations,” Iya contended. “It is a sad fact that we did not qualify for the 2006 World Cup. But their form since the qualifiers has not been ridiculous.”
Too many changes
That may well be, but there is little doubt that the high turnover of national team coaches over the last seven years has done little for the long-term stability of the “Indomitable Lions”. Frenchman Pierre Lechantre, local Jean-Paul Akono (who led Cameroon to Olympic gold in 2000) German Winfried Schaefer, former Paris St Germain coach Artur Jorge and most recently Arie Haan, the former Dutch international, have all been in charge – with the latter two coaches hired over the past year.
The 50-year-old Haan, who resigned in February, quit less than six months into a two-year contract – forcing Cameroon to search for another European coach. “I am no longer in the position to build a good team for Cameroon because of the interference in my job,” Haan claimed. “This shows that the federations has a different vision from the vision I have for Cameroon football.”
Fon Echekiye, a journalist for Cameroon Radio & Television and one of the country’s leading football commentators, warns that only a radical root-and-branch reform can arrest the dangerous decline and restore health to what is undoubtedly acknowledged as the people’s game. “Left to me, the radical solution is for all those responsible for Cameroonian football to resign and allow a fresh crop of people to take charge of the game here, because the present group has left us down very badly,” he claims. “but the reality is that this is not possible, so it is important that our administrators truly have the country’s best interests at heart and have the needed skills to move us forward. Otherwise, Cameroon may be completely absent from the world stage in the next four years, based on what has happened in the recent past.”
True connoisseurs of the global game, who remember the excitement and panache that the Indomitable Lions added to Italia’90, can only hope Echekiye’s bleak prediction never comes to pass.