By Zelifac Asong*
Once upon a time football was the pride of Cameroon. It brought solace to the people, the exploits of its clubs in the continent were legion, and the glory brought by its national team was aplenty. The name Indomitable Lions was amply justified and opponents dreaded prospects of playing with Cameroon .Every football loving Cameroonian will honestly admit a love affair with the indomitable lions, the Cameroonian senior national football squad. My love affair with the lions started in 1981, during the African eliminatory rounds of the 1982 world to be held in Spain. It was the first time I remember being aware of our national team, and of the pride and joy the team brought me and many other Cameroonians who love the game of football. Mine began with the qualifying match against morocco.
Like in most, if not, every love relationship, there have been ups and downs. There have been times when the lions have rewarded my loyalty with sweet victories and impressive results. I will never forget Mbida Arantes holding the 1984 African cup of nations high above his head as the lions paraded the streets of Yaoundé on a one sunny March afternoon. Who could forget the repeat of the performance in 1988, together with the memorable semis against Morocco? The long and hard shot from Makanaky? We all still talk about the stellar performance of the lions at mondiale 1990, especially Omam Biyik’s miraculous header against no other than Maradona’s Argentina. Who does not remember the pride he or she felt when the lions made Africa proud by winning the Sydney Olympics in Australia. The Indomitable Lions
Despite all these great moments there have equally been moments of frustration, sadness and almost certain divorce. The abysmal performance in 1996 Nations cup in South Africa, when an emerging South Africa, led by Dr. Khumalo and Mark Fish trounced the lions three goals to zero (3-0). A competition for which there were so ill-prepared that there arrived late in South Africa. Hard as well to forgot the 1994 mondiale in the USA. The coach Henri Michel was punched by Pagal for not including him in the list. There had to be a protest march in Yaoundé for Ndip Akem and Louis-Paul Mfede to be included in the list. At the competition itself, the indomitable lions were flogged six goals to one (6-1) by Russia’s Salenko. To crown it all, moneys collected for the players through so called “Coups des Coeur” got missing between Paris and New York according to then Minister of Communications Kontchou Kogmeni. During world cup organized by Korea and Japan in 2002, the same problems resurfaced. Players arrived in Asia with tired and heavy legs, and not enough time to rest before their opening match. Reason? The players had threatened to forfeit the trip if their match bonuses were not paid. As a result, one of the best teams the lions ever boasted of came out of the competition in the first round. In the South African world cup in 2010, Cameroon had its worst performance ever in its six participations at a world cup event.
The indomitable lions of Cameroon where in invited to four nations tournament in Marrakech, Morocco, from the 13th to the 15th of November 2011. The tournament was organized by South Korean based electronic giant LG Electronics. Equally invited were Sudan, Uganda, and host nation Morocco. The Lions lifted the trophy beating host country Morocco. The victory was tonic for disenchanted fans after the failure of the Lions to qualify for the African Nations Cup hosted by the neighbouring countries of Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. The celebration turned sour with when yet another storm brewing within the team over match bonuses became uncontrollable. The result was a decision by the players to refused traveling to Algeria for a scheduled friendly sparking a row which went beyond the confines of football.
The scandal was a stark portrayal of the poor shape of Cameroon football. Beyond the mere aspect of sports, there were strong indications that diplomatic relations between Cameroon and Algeria could be strained. No amount of damage control could mitigate what became a humiliating moment for Cameroon football. The Cameroon Football Federation –FECAFOOT was forced to part with circa $ 500.000 in settlement of damages to the Algerian Federation.
Meanwhile the captain of the indomitable lions, Samuel Eto’o, was summoned to appear before the arbitration committee of FECAFOOT, alongside vice captain, Eyong Enoh, on charges that they were responsible for Marrakech fiasco. Also summoned was Tottenham based defender gone rogue, Assou-Ekotto for refusing to honor call ups for the national team on various occasions. On the 17th of December 2011, sanctions were handed down to the players. These sanctions were at the same time serious and controversial. Serious because there were heavy, and controversial because there did not go to the root of the problem, but seemed instead to target a particular group of players, and could therefore destroy the unity that was slowly returning to the team after the complete breakdown of team harmony during , and after the South African world cup. Samuel Eto’o was suspended for 15 matches with the national team, vice captain Enoh was sanctioned for 2 matches, while Assou-Ekotto was handed a fine of FCA one million.
FECAFOOT came under severe criticism from virtually all quarters with disgruntled fans threatening to take to the streets of Yaoundé and Douala. There were even fears that these marches, if held, could turn into a Cameroonian Arab spring. Very vocal in their criticism, were former players of the indomitable lions. The outspoken former goalkeeper of the Lions Bell Joseph Antoine condemned the sanctions as misguided, and partial. Said Bell “this is not an Eto’o problem that is why I find the sanctions unjust. The problem does not concern him personally; therefore, there is no reason for him to be singled out.” Bell felt that as captain, Eto’o had acted in the name of the team, and ought not to be singled out for sanctions. The legendary Roger Milla no stranger to controversy himself and not a big fan of FECAFOOT felt the punishment was uncalled for. Milla threatened to march himself if it was the last thing he had to do.
Also adding his voice to chorus of criticism aimed at FECAFOOT was Kalkabar Malboum, chairman of the Cameroon Olympic committee. Mr. Malboum said of the decision “this affect the future career in the national team of one of our greatest footballers of the moment.” He went to say that even on the football pitch, referees always protected the star players. Many agreed with him. Other former star players like, Makanaky , Mayebi, Mvoumin, Massing,Libiih, all agreed that FECAFOOT was hasty in its decision to mete out punishment without due consideration for justice. There was near unanimity that the sanction did nothing to address the endemic problems of match bonuses and the cacophony which have resulted in the National Team losing its fangs.
No Prophets in Their Homeland
FECAFOOT and the Ministry of Sports which has an over bearing attitude have over the years engaged in a cat and mouse game with the result been the unenviable position that Cameroon football occupies in the world today. The most recent rankings by the world football governing body FIFA place the Lions at the 56th position. A lamentable position for a country which used to compete with the best in the world. Each time there is a crisis; there has always been a scapegoat. At the 1990 world cup in Italy, it was goalkeeper Bell Joseph Antoine who was almost excluded from the Squad by the football authorities but for the solidarity of his team mates. In 2004, it was Coach Henri Michel who bore the brunt. At the 1996 Nations Cup in South Africa, it was Coach Jules Nyonga. At the 1998 Nations Cup in Burkina Faso, it was coach Manga Ougene and Goalkeeper Jacques Songo. After the non qualification for the 2008 world cup the scape goat was Pierre Wome Nlend. In the Ghana 1998 Nations Cup, the culprit was emblematic Captain Song Bahanack. The abysmal performance of the Team at the 2010 Nations Cup was placed on the shoulders of Goalkeeper Kameni, Alex Song and Achille Emana.Today it is Marracketchgate and the blame is dumped on Eto’o.
After the 1990 world cup where the Indomitable Lions became the first African Team to reach the Quarter Finals, Bell Joseph Antoine sensationally opined that what the Lions did to make Cameroon known around the world was a feat decades of diplomacy could not achieve. He probably was very right. For a long time and even today, tell anyone around the world you are from Cameroon and the first response will be Roger Milla or Samuel Eto’0. Milla was voted best African player about twice. Manga Ougene, Thomas Nkono, and Patrick Mboma equally were voted as Africa’s best in the past. Samuel Eto’o holds the record having been voted best footballer in Africa about four times. He is today the most expensive footballer in the world after winning all that Europe has to offer as trophies with elite clubs like Barcelona of Spain and Inter Milan of Italy.
Despite their talent, the players certainly have their fair share of short comings but the management of football in Cameroon has been at best chaotic. How comes that for all its stars, glory and stature, there is no International Stadium worthy of the name? How comes that Cameroon has not been able to host the African Nations cup since 1974? Many find it that the country of origin of Issa Hayatou who heads the Confederation of African Football since 1988 is unable to host the Nations Cup. Even President Biya who has used the glory of lions for political gains does little to encourage the sport. Recently he had to keep finalist of the Cameroon challenge cup waiting for months just to set a date for which he could be present at the final. In 1990 he claimed credit for the inclusion of Roger Milla in the world cup squad. At the 1992 elections which almost flushed him out of power, the Lion was the symbol he used .In 2002, of all the dates available, he timed the Legislative and Municipal elections to coincide with the world cup in Korea and Japan. Some thought the political calculus was to cash in on the anticipated good performance of the Lions. The strategy backfired as against all odds; the Lions could not go pass the first round. Why are FECAFOOT and the Ministry of Sports always at logger heads? Money is the answer. Everyone is fighting to get a chunk off the huge revenue generated by the National Team and putting in place structures that will facilitate the emergence of talent and sustain top notch performance is secondary. FECAFOOT has cover in the autonomy that FIFA accords its member Associations. The skeletons within the closet of Cameroon football are mammoth.
Although the 15 match sanction on Eto’0 was later reduced to an eight month suspension, kicking the can down the road is a stop gap measure which will not provide lasting solutions. Cameroon has produced enough stars whose experience could be used in moving the game to the next level. From the Federation to Coaching Assignments, the former players have at best a peripheral role. A perfect example of what they could bring to the table is the goal medal obtained at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 under Coach Jean Paul Akono. Toying with football could have political fallouts. Football has for a long time shielded the regime from its severe short comings. When the Lions, Cameroonians tend to forget that they have problems. When the National Team does not do well, it seems to dawn on many that things are not going right for the country.FECAFOOT President Iya Mohammed and his group may be stirring the hornets’ nest and better be ready for the consequences that may eventually come with that.
In the midst of the ineptitude of Football and sporting authorities, the Lions remain very popular and continue to fly high the flag of Cameroon all over the world. Some of them have football academies in Cameroon to fine tune budding talents. Bertin Ebwelle, Samuel Eto’o just to cite a few run football academies. Eto’o recently launched a telecommunications company in Cameroon. Roger Milla runs a Foundation in Cameroon through which he has sort to dignify former International Stars with activities which stop them from fading into obscurity. Marrackechgate may have been swept under the rug for now but it is safe bet to say beyond the damage it has had on the aura of Cameroon, there likelihood of the same problem or similar ones resurfacing remains pretty high.