Cameroon have won the Nations Cup. But…

February 13, 2017 Articles Leave a comment

When seven of Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions, all featuring for European clubs, were unwilling to play at the Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon, it didn’t leave new manager Hugo Broos in the most fortuitous position.

Compelled to forge together a team of younger, less experienced players, the Belgian had to made lemonade with the fresh lemons.

But even the 64-year-old coach could not have imagined that this group would be good enough to win Cameroon’s fifth Nations Cup trophy and their first in 15 years.

“I have been a coach for 29 years and I have never had a group of players like this. It is a group of 23 friends and I never saw this in a football team – there are normally arguments.

“Here, they are 23 friends who like to play football and do everything to win the game. So, for me, it’s very easy as a coach.”

ALSO READ: Osasu Obayiuwana’s Postcard from Gabon: El-Hadary – A goalkeeper for the ages

As Broos admitted to me in Libreville, his baptism of fire at the blue-ribbon event in African football, was far from easy.

“The biggest task was just putting a team together. This was not easy at all. Just getting our team through the preliminary stages was a big achievement in itself.”

With years of underachievement by a team used to success – and having one of the highest coach casualty rates on the continent – Broos was not exactly walking into paradise in Yaoundé.

“I had a choice to do things the way they had been done in the past. Or do things my own way. I think that as a coach, there is no other choice than to go with what you believe in.”

Hugo BroosBroos (pictured) lost his Nations Cup virginity in Gabon. But he is anything but a novice in the coaching business.

Having been voted Belgium’s top club coach four times – twice at Club Brugge in 1992 and 1996 (with Nigeria’s Daniel Amokachi as a key player) – he is respected by his peers for his tactical acumen.

“He is a brilliant coach. This is the information that we got, when we went to Belgium to find a coach for the national team. All the people that we asked told us that Broos is, tactically, one of the best,” FECAFOOT president Tombi Roko Sidiki told me.

Sidiki said that Broos was most suited to deal with the fall-out resulting from the absence of players like Joel Matip of Liverpool and Andre Onana of Ajax Amsterdam.

“When he was a club coach in Belgium, Broos told me that he was used to promoting promising young talent to the first team, so dealing with the situation we found ourselves in was not particularly strange to him. Playing with youngsters was a risk but we had no other choice.”

With the prestigious Cup of Unity in their grasp, Broos says Matip (pictured) and other players that refused to come for the tournament are not banished from international football. But the onus is now on them to prove their loyalty and dedication to the country.

“There were some players who didn’t come – I think maybe now they regret that they are not here with us. They still have a future, but the decision is now with them.

1024x534.7096774193549__origin__0x0_Joel_Matip_Liverpool“I will not phone them and ask them if they will come. They’ll have to phone me to say, “I’m ready to play for Cameroon”. And it is not [for] only one game. Because when they come, they stay. It’s not today I come and the next day they go.”

But former Lions goalkeeper Joseph-Antoine Bell, a 1984 and 1988 Nations Cup winner, says it is time for the misgivings of Matip and others, who turned down call-ups, to be looked at closely.

“If a child does not want to come home, a parent should look at the reasons why that child does not want to return home,” Bell says.

“The national team has to be made attractive, so that people will not hesitate to play for the team. This is something that the Federation should look into seriously.”

Allan Nyom, one of the players that rejected a call-up from Cameroon, stubbornly insists he has no regret for staying with English side West Brom instead.

Let him [Broos] know that I don’t have any regrets,” Nyom told BBC World Football.

“It’s true, at first I didn’t want to go, but afterwards I changed my mind. But he knew that and he knows what he told me, so I have no worries, no regrets … I don’t mind because I’m happy I’m playing for my club – it’s much more important for me.”

Cameroon’s road to triumph was anything but smooth. After a rather rocky start against Burkina Faso, the young side improved in confidence against Guinea-Bissau and Gabon, before taking on Senegal in what was a tough quarter-final in Franceville.

That victory, through a penalty shoot-out, was their first tough game of the entire tournament, which they won by the skin of their teeth and after the players had to resolve a payments dispute with FECAFOOT.

The Lions finally roared against Ghana’s Black Stars in the semi-final, with a 2-0 victory – although the scoreline betrayed the difficulty of this keenly contested game.

The 22-year-old goalkeeper Fabrice Ondoa, with Spanish side Seville, got the Lions out of many tricky situations with his cat-like reflexes.

Otto Pfister, the legendary German coach that led the Lions to their last final in 2008, picked Ondoa as Cameroon’s most promising talent.

ALSO READ: Osasu Obayiuwana’s Postcard from Gabon: A German in Africa

As Broos readily admitted, “Ghana have more experience than us. But since the start of this tournament, we have shown we keep going right to the end, in every game.”

And that is certainly what they did, in the final against Egypt, seven-time winners of the trophy, who have beaten Cameroon in two finals – at home in 1986 and at the 2008 tournament in Accra, Ghana.

Mohamed El Neny’s 22nd-minute strike certainly gave the North Africans the belief that their eighth trophy was in sight.

But they did not contend with the persistence and fortitude of their young Cameroonian opponents, unburdened by the shackles of the past. Goals from Nicolas Nkoulou and Aboubacar Aboubacar closed that chapter and guaranteed Egypt’s first-ever defeat in an Afcon Final.

It was a loss that cut deep into the Egyptians, who refused to talk to the media in the mixed zone, walking straight to the team bus.

That was in stark contrast to the festive and jubilant Cameroonians, who danced and sang in celebration, over a triumph that no-one back home expected.

“Our victory has shown the world that we still have good football players in Cameroon,” says FECAFOOT president Sidiki.

“As for the players that did not come, we will never close the door on them. They are Cameroonians. But they must show us that they are ready to defend the colours of Cameroon.”

Although the Nations Cup will be in Yaoundé for the next two years – and Cameroon will host the 2019 edition as defending champions – they cannot afford to rest on their championship laurels for the rest of 2017.

Having just two points – out of a possible six – from their opening 2018 World Cup qualifying group matches, they have an uphill task dislodging arch-rivals Nigeria, currently in the driving seat with maximum points.

To have any chance of going to Russia, the newly-crowned African champions will have to defeat the Super Eagles at their Uyo ground on 28 August and repeat the feat on home soil on 2 September. That will, without question, be an arduous task.

Roger MillaCameroon have the record of making the most appearances for an African side at the World Cup finals – 1982, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2010 and 2014. But the Central Africans have only made the knockout stages of the tournament once – during their glorious quarter-final run at Italia 1990.

“It will be very difficult for us to qualify for the World Cup,” admits Sidiki.

“But I believe in our chances, because mathematically, it is still possible. We will work hard. Even if we have a 30 percent chance of making it to the World Cup, we will make every use of the chances that we have.”

The double header between both countries will certainly be a high point of the qualifying series.

If Cameroon fails to qualify, it remains to be seen if January’s unexpected triumph will keep Broos in good stead, in a country where World Cup qualification is regarded as a birth right.

As they say, a coach is only as good as his last result – a brutal but undeniable truism in a sport where failure is given short shrift.

With his years of experience, Broos knows this only too well.

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