Cameroon, the Indomitable Lions of Africa. A legend unparalleled on the African footballing continent. The list of names who’ve defended the famous colours is immense – Roger Miller, Francois Kana-Biyik, Patrick Mboma, Thomas Nkono, Rigobert Song and, of course, Samuel Eto’o.
Cameroon still inspire a nostalgia, a longing for a time when African football remained the global game’s great unknown. It’s easy to forget that pre-internet, our access to African football was extremely limited. This absence from mainstream consciousness only added to the continent’s footballing mystique.
In the warm up to AFCON 2015, I couldn’t help but go back over old YouTube clips from Cameroon’s last two victories in 2000 and 2002. This trip down memory lane raised a few questions, one in particular stuck in my mind. That question is why, despite a series of significant achievements, is there still a strange indifference towards Cameroon’s achievements during the 90s and early 2000s?
Cameroon 1990-2002 – Highlights
World Cup 1990 – Quarter Finalists
Africa Cup of Nations 1992 – Semi-Finalists
Africa Cup of Nations 1996 – Group Stage
Africa Cup of Nations 1998 – Quarter Finalists
Sydney Olympics 2000 – Gold (U-23 Team + 3 Overage Players)
Africa Cup of Nations 2000 – Winners
Africa Cup of Nations 2002 – Winners
Looking at the above list makes me wonder why weren’t Cameroon able to develop the promise of those golden years into a more long-standing legacy? When we examine the history of African football, why aren’t Cameroon’s achievements held up in more favourable light, especially when compared the more recent achievements of Ghana, Egypt or Nigeria?
Shambolic World Cup appearances
Following the 1990 World Cup, Cameroon’s participation in World Cup’s had been a consistent process of group exits in 1994, 1998, 2002. It’s easy to forget what their performance at Italia ’90 meant to African football. They were the first sub-Saharan African country to really stamp their authority on the tournament. They took Bobby Robson’s England to within a whisker of elimination.
They dazzled with a brand of football which was both brutal and swashbuckling. Cameroon inspired a generation to look beyond lazy stereotypes of Africa and see a continent of possibility. Contrast this with a rudderless performance at USA 94, the non-event at France 98 and elimination at South Korea/Japan 2002 World Cup, it’s easy to see why the heroics of 1990 are rightly looked at as a ‘one off’.
Lack of dominance
Despite a long list of achievements, it could be argued that Cameroon never really exerted the kind of dominance required to put the 1990-2002 generations into the pantheon of greats.
Some would argue that Olympic Gold and double AFCON championships 2000-2002 arguably mark the zenith of their reign. On closer inspection, one uncovers a vastly different viewpoint – one which paints Cameroon as a talented collection of individuals, average as an overall team, yet well drilled and experienced enough to pull it together during crunch moments. Where’s the evidence?
Olympic Games 2000 – Final Victory (Penalties vs. Spain) *U23 Side + 3 Over-age Players*
AFCON 2000 – Final Victory (Penalties vs. Nigeria)
AFCON 2002 – Final Victory (Penalties vs. Senegal)
It can, and has been asserted by some, that in order to be considered to be truly ‘great’ you had to have dominated your rivals. Perhaps international football’s intermittent nature doesn’t allow us to measure this with same ease as the domestic game. Yet, if we look at another trophy laden generation, Egypt 2006-2010, what remains undoubted is that they were, as a unit, head and shoulders above their rivals during the same period.
Team of individuals; hard to Love?
This may seem superficial, were Cameroon simply hard to love? The AFCON titles of 2000 and 2002 did much to paper over emerging cracks. Just look at their record at AFCON 1990-1998 – during that period Cameroon exited at the group stage twice and totally missed out in 1994.
At a management level, between 1990-2002 the Indomitable Lions had 12 coaches, of every ilk, from those more prominent within African football (Claude Le Roy) to those who seemingly came out of nowhere, only to enjoy relative success and then simply fade into the background once again (Winfried Schaefer).
Combine this constant chop-and-change with an inevitable dressing room clash of egos, financial disagreements and pragmatic performances, perhaps what you end up with is a team like Cameroon.
Cameroon will always be remembered. They’ve set a gold standard to which no African nation has yet to surpass. They made us believe, initially, in the collective power of a group of unknown individuals on the world’s biggest stage.
Perhaps they were guilty of dining out on past success for far too long. In more recent times Cameroon have resembled an ageing rock star on a never-ending farewell tour. Still able to draw a crowd, still able to able to spark us into joyful nostalgia, yet seemingly irrelevant in comparison to the shining lights of the present.
1990-2002 may never represent an era of true dominance, yet Cameroon can and most likely will look back on the period as time when they were Africa’s footballing ambassadors. A time when the decisions they made, steps they took were noted by their rivals.
The journey back to a similar level of success starts in the present. AFCON 2015 would seem like the perfect opportunity.