World Cup qualification has extended Cameroon’s record as the African side with the most appearances at the finals – this will be its seventh – but, more important, it has lifted the Indomitable Lions out of a spiral of poor performances.
Although this is the team’s second successive trip to the World Cup, it comes after some four years of dismal form, player friction and a general malaise around a team once regarded as a standard-bearer for football on the continent.
The squad has been riven by divisions created at the 2010 finals in South Africa, with captain Samuel Eto’o at the centre of the fray. He has consistently fallen out with his colleagues, most recently in a bizarre outburst by the Chelsea striker during which he said there was a plot among his teammates not to pass him the ball.
Recent setbacks include the embarrassing aggregate defeat by the tiny Cape Verde Islands in the 2013 African Nations Cup qualifiers. Cameroon also did not qualify for the 2012 tournament.
But their fortunes have suddenly changed for the better, starting with a let-off after last June’s defeat to Togo in a World Cup qualifier, when FIFA awarded them all three points after their opponent used a suspended player.
This catapulted Cameroon back into qualification contention and won them a playoff spot, where they drew in Tunisia and won the second leg 4-1 at home to book their trip to Brazil.
German Volker Finke has been coach for a little over a year and has had to act as peacemaker as much as tactician for the side.
He replaced Jean-Paul Akono in May 2013 and under a month later was already embroiled in World Cup qualification, attempting to change the fortunes of a nation which was underachieving given their talent.
The job is a first in international football for the 66-year-old, who is perhaps best remembered for a 16-year spell with Freiburg in his native Germany. He also coached for one season in Japan with Urawa Red Diamonds.
Coaching in Africa a totally new experience for him, with all the politics on and off the pitch, but one Finke has adapted to remarkably well.
“Patchy” is the only way to describe it. Cameroon has not recorded back-to-back victories for two years and was routed 5-1 by Portugal in March. That was followed by a decent enough win in Macedonia, but they then lost to Paraguay. Their last outing at the weekend was an excellent 2-2 draw with Germany, yet another sign that they can compete when they get it all together.
Unfortunately they have been too hit-and-miss, with good performances followed immediately by bad. It makes them unpredictable as an opponent, and whether they can string a run of results together at the World Cup is a big question they need to answer.
As ever Samuel Eto’o will be tasked with leading from the front. His effectiveness as a player has waned over the years, but he brings experience, steely determination and a fair amount of gravitas to the side. Other teams will plan around, containing him and that may well open up opportunities for others.
He also remains a clinical finisher and despite his fallouts with his teammates, they do still look up to him as a leader.
GROUP H OPPONENTS
June 13 vs Mexico (Natal) – Probably the easiest of the three matches to start for Cameroon. The Mexican side can be very good but have proven all too brittle in the past. Certainly the Indomitable Lions have the firepower to get their campaign off to a winning start.
June 18 vs Croatia (Manaus) – A very technically gifted Croatian side with plenty of experience will present a challenge for Cameroon, who will likely hope to use their greater physicality to upset the European side. Croatia might not be the side of 1998, but they have a lot of talent.
June 26 vs Brazil (Brasília) – Cameroon will hope that by the time this game comes around, Brazil will have already secured their passage into the next stage and be in a relaxed frame of mind. Should the Indomitable Lions get a win, it will be one of the great World Cup upsets of all time.
It won’t get any easier for Cameroon if they do make it out of their pool as they will face one of the top two teams in a Group B that includes world champions Spain, Netherlands, a very talented Chilean team and Australia.