Roger Milla’s big brother
Jean Onguene Manga
Name: Jean Onguene Manga
Born: 12 June 1946 in Ngoulemekong (Cameroon)
Playing career: 1966-1982: Canon Sportif de Yaounde
Honors as a player: Winner of African Cup of Champions Clubs (now Champions League) in 1971, 1978 and 1980 and African Cup Winners’ Cup in 1979. Five Cameroonian league titles (1970, 1974, 1979, 1980 and 1982), African Footballer of the Year (1980) and over 100 caps for Cameroon.
Career as a coach: 1989 – 2002: Cameroonian national team (stints as both head and assistant coach).
Honours as a coach: Qualification for the FIFA World Cup TM finals in four consecutive occasions (1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002), winner of African Cup of Nations (2002).
Roger Milla and Samuel Eto’o may be world famous, but many experts consider Jean Onguene Manga to be the best footballer that Cameroon has ever produced. The 60-year-old has worked for FIFA since 2001.
Manga can remember the events that took place in the Cameroonian capital, Yaounde, 41 years ago as if it were yesterday. He lived there with his parents and brothers and sisters in very modest surroundings, attending school regularly and playing football in his spare time, just like tens of thousands of other young men in his country.
A few months before his 20th birthday, Jean’s slightly-built figure could be seen knocking in goal after goal in the dusty streets of his home town. He had already stood out as the best player in his local championship. Then one day he was spotted by chance by Abena Gregoire, the coach of Cameroon’s best and most loved club, Canon Sportif de Yaounde. He went up to Jean and asked him if he would like to play for his team. “I thought Gregoire was joking when he said he wanted to put me in the first team as soon as possible. I had never wanted to play for Canon because I had been a supporter of their city rivals, Tonnerre, since my early childhood,” says Manga.
But Gregoire was serious; he really did wand Manga in his team – and quickly – before another team snapped him up. The legendary Cameroonian coach, who would later become one of Manga’s closest friends and a father figure to him, was convinced that he discovered an extraordinary talent. His instinct had not failed him.
Only a few days after Gregoire and Manga’s first encounter, the team – with Jean on board – set out on a bumpy ten-hour train journey to Douala, a city 230 km from Yaounde, for a match against defending champions Caiman. He was unknown to coaches, journalists and alike; even his team-mates had scarcely met him, which is perhaps unsurprising considering he had never played club football before. So what did Gregoire do against the hot favorites, who boated no fewer than five internationals in their rank? He threw the new boy straight into the starting eleven, earning shakes of the head across the board and some harsh criticism in the process.
By the end of those ninety minutes, however, Manga had become famous all over the country. Canon had caused a complete upset by trouncing their opponents 7-1. The whole of Cameroonian football was left speechless: the newcomer to the winning team had scored no fewer than five goals. Five goals! As the train Canon were traveling on pulled into Yaounde station, it was greeted by thousands of fans anxious to acclaim their new idol Jean Onguene Manga. He also received his first ever win bonus, worth just under two euros.
Manga scored another three goals in the next two league matches before former French international goalkeeper Dominique Colonin calling him up to the national side. The pacy, agile and skilful forward made his debut in Cameroon’s 1-0 home victory over Ghana courtesy of a goal from – you guessed it – Manga himself.
After his meteoric rise, Manga’s career followed the same glorious projection for 17 years, all of which were spent at the same club. He also won over 100 caps for his country, scoring countless goals. “I don’t know often I played and how many goals I scored,” he says today, “in those days there were no statistics or records in Africa.”
In 1980, Manga was voted African Footballer of the Year and received the ?Ballon d’Or’ for Africa from prestigious magazine ?France Football’. Nevertheless, as the 1982 FIFA World Cup Spain TM approached, he was scarcely known outside his own continent. That tournament was supposed to be the scene of his greatest triumph yet and there was every indication that it would be: Manga was in top form and was both the captain and star of a strong team which was taking part in the World Cup finals for the first time – largely thanks to Manga’s goals in the qualifying stage. Since Cameroon often played with only one attacker, a certain Roger Milla was relegated to the substitutes’ bench. “Roger was my little brother,” laughs Manga.
Sackfuls of money
Manga never earned big money in football. He was an amateur throughout his career and never received anything more than a win bonus of around EUR 30 per game. In 1980, he could have made his fortune when representatives from a Saudi Arabia came calling and asked Canon to transfer their star immediately. “The Saudis had a suitcase that was full to the brim with banknotes – all for me, provided I signed for them straight away,” says Manga, who was keen to go, but encountered opposition from the Cameroonian minister of sport.
Then, two years later, after the World Cup in Spain, Manga was again due to sign professional terms in French club Stade Rennais and finally earn some real money, but the serious knee injury, which is still clearly visible today, put paid to all that.
Like many former footballers, Manga moved into coaching after his playing career was over. He worked for his home country’s football association for thirteen years, serving as both head coach and assistant coach. . “We won the African Cup of Nations in 2002 and I led Cameroon to four successive World Cups, but the team was always coached by foreigners at the finals: Valeri Nepomniachi from Russia in 1990, Henri Michel from France in 1994, Claude Leroy from France in 1990 and Winfried Schafer from Germany in 2002,” he says.
Manga has discovered and nurtured many home-grown talents, including Rigobert Song, Pierre Wome, Geremi Njitap and Marc-Vivien Foe, who tragically died of heart failure in 2003. by 2002, however, Manga was fed up. It pained him to continually – and despite his good work – remain in the shadow of people who in his opinion were only the head coach on paper. He felt that his association was not giving him sufficient credit for his work. “I also did not want to put myself under pressure to succeed any longer; coaching is too stressful for me,” he says, citing another reason for his departure from the Cameroonian FA.
Today however, he is hardly any less busy. Manga has been a FIFA instructor since 2001 and is in charge of the FIFA Development Office in Yaounde. He looks after FIFA’s development projects in thirteen different African countries. “I travel a lot and the work is great fun; it’s varied and very interesting. It always fills me with enormous satisfaction to see how many people we are helping and the joy we are bringing them,” he says.
His work means that the father of five is abroad more than 200 days a year, which does have its benefits: “In Cameroon, where I own property and a restaurant, things are never easy for me. I am continually mobbed for autographs and photos. I am proud that people still admire me after so many years, but sometimes I wish things could be quieter. That’s difficult in a country where 99 per cent of the population knows me, though.”
Even being a national hero can have its downside.