By Angu Lesley
One of the most popular quote from Africa post the playoffs of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup was delivered few weeks ago the president of the Cameroon Football federation Samuel Eto’o.
“We are going to Qatar to play seven games,” these are words from the firebrand president of the Cameroon Football federation which has left tongues wagging back at home and across the continent in which no team has ever gone beyond the quarter-final of the FIFA world Cup.
On Tuesday in an interview with journalists from across the world Lothar Herbert Matthäus revealed the secret to having a long run in tournaments like the World Cup which forms part of coach Rigober Song’s task five months before the start of the tournament.
“Its is about believing in yourselves,” the Italia 1990 great and winner told this reporter after hearing about Eto’o’s dreams for the Lions.
“The coaches just have one major responsibility. The duty of keeping the group happy, especially the players that are not regulars. Once this is right, the team can achieve everything,” the 61-year old who played three FIFA World Cup finals and won the 1980 European championship for Germany told the media in Doha.
Over the years, intestinal problems have dashed the hopes of African nations at the world cup and consequently amounted to an early exit.
The legend’s view on the aspirations of the president of the Cameroon football federation who doubles as ambassador for the upcoming tournament alongside Matthäus could end up being very helpful for coach Rigobert Song and his team.
The five African countries at this year’s World Cup have been handed tricky groups at the tournament. They face five-time winners Brazil in Group G alongside Serbia and Switzerland hoping to make it out of the group stages for the first and second time since 1990 in Italy when they reached the quater-final largely thanks to super substitue Albert Roger Milla.
African champions Senegal will take on the hosts Qatar in Group A while Ghana were drawn in Group H to play Uruguay in what will be a repeat of the 2010 World Cup quarter-final.
How Cameroon qualified for the World Cup
International tournaments take a month, more or less. Most other tournaments are contained within a single season. But international qualification is the real slow burner, unfolding over years, before coming to a messy conclusion in the March international break before the World Cup. Which is to say: right now!
Look at Africa. Ten wonderful teams, 5 palpitating matchups, two legs: winner takes all. You can argue about the allocation, but you can’t argue with the weight of it all. We got a big-team smackdown of the kind generally reserved for World Cup semi-finals. We got one in March.
Years of work, years of hope, years of dreaming, all validated in one glorious moment; or all gone, smoke in the wind. This might be the best week of football in the whole calendar. Or at least the heaviest. Half the planet’s got something riding on the next few months.
The five representatives of World Cup African qualifiers produced high drama and upsets, though the continent’s line-up in Qatar will have a familiar look about it. Morocco, Senegal and Tunisia participated at the last finals in Russia 2018, while Cameroon and Ghana were at the finals four years before that. Both Cameroon and Ghana produced unexpected away success to qualify, eliminating the more fancied Algeria and Nigeria.
Cameroon secured their place with the last opportunity of the match, deep in extra time in Blida, as Karl Toko Ekambi swept home a speculative cross. It left Algeria, who were African champions in 2019 and had breezed through the earlier stages of the World Cup preliminaries, crestfallen.
Cameroon pulled off a stunning 2-1 victory in Algeria after extra time to end 2-2 on aggregate and advance on the away goals rule.
Cameroon, trailing 1-0 from its home leg, scored early to level it. But Ahmed Touba’s header from a corner with two minutes to go in extra time appeared to have secured a dramatic qualification for Algeria.
Cameroon launched a throw and a cross at Algeria’s goal in the fourth minute of injury time at the end of extra time and Karl Toko Ekambi connected with a low volley to see Cameroon take the World Cup place.
“The most interesting thing wasn’t the fact that we won but the spirit I’ve instilled in my players, who pushed themselves to the limit and got the result at the very end,” said Song in reference to the late goal that gave them a thrilling play-off win over Algeria, one that came four minutes into stoppage-time in extra-time.
“That’s what’s important. And that’s what we have to work on even more, because you only win competitions by playing with lots of energy, drive and determination.
“I think the only way is up for us and we’re going to try to go even further because that’s what Cameroonian football is all about. Cameroonian players stand out for their drive and determination. I think we can make it happen and make a difference.”
Cameroon’s chances going to Qatar
No African team has ever qualified for the World Cup semi-finals. Many pundits would argue that now is the time to change Africa’s World Cup story.
The continent has always promised a great deal in the international showcase but delivered very little.
Some of the reasons for failing to qualify for the semi-finals at the World Cup include poor preparation, internal controversies as well as technical and tactical errors at crucial moments in the knock out phases and recruiting foreign coaches at the last minute. Surprisingly though, four out of five African countries qualified for the World Cup had local coaches at the helm.
Looking at the pedigree of the African teams, and their respective opponents, Cameroon and Senegal stand a good chance to qualify for the second round and possibly beyond.
The Indomitable Lions will make their eighth World Cup appearance in Qatar, but it has been 32 years since that historic run to the quarterfinals when they announced themselves to the world. While the nostalgia of Roger Milla dancing pitchside in celebration of his goals has become a totem of football history, the Lions have failed to build on the lofty legacy of that team at subsequent tournaments.
Cameroon have not won a match at the World Cup since 2002, and the last time they played, against Brazil, they suffered an on-field implosion. This year they have an illustrious partnership in the boardroom and in the dugout with legends Samuel Eto’o and Rigobert Song calling the shots. Could this unity of purpose help galvanize the team of Vincent Aboubakar and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting?
In Group G they face Brazil, Serbia and Switzerland. The Lions have a decent chance to make it through to the Round of 16 but it will be an uphill task.
Brazil top the Fifa World Rankings and haven’t fallen at the first hurdle since 1966, while they have defeated Cameroon twice — in 1994 and 2014 — at the World Cup already.
Serbia are vulnerable, but they carry an immense goal threat that could trouble a Cameroon backline that conceded three goals in one half against Burkina Faso in the AFCON bronze-medal match, while Switzerland are a solid, if unspectacular, outfit that finished ahead of Italy in their qualifying group.
Here is a closer look at Cameroon’s chances:
Holding the record for the most World Cups ever with five to their name, it is no surprise that Brazil is being touted as one of the favourites to lift the trophy once again. Following their performances at the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, Brazil has undoubtedly fallen foul of extremely high expectations from their supporters and the general footballing world despite previously being in a transitional period.
They were on the end of a famously embarrassing 7-1 defeat to Germany on their own turf eight years ago, whilst crashed out at the quarter-final stage in 2018 to Belgium in a disappointing collapse. Fast forward four years, there is real optimism that they can avenge these failures and regain their dominance on the global stage.
In CONMEBOL qualification, Seleção scored 40 goals and conceded just five in 17 fixtures. Their imperious forward line has taken the pressure solely off the shoulders of Neymar, with clinical offensive players such as Gabigol, Raphinha, and Vinicius Junior coming to the fore for Tite’s men. If Brazil can keep up their consistent performances, they could have a real chance of bringing a sixth World Cup back to the soccer-crazy nation.
Serbia failed to make it to Euro 2020 but secured a place at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar by finishing top, and unbeaten, in a tough qualifying group which also included Portugal. Indeed, it was a late win against Cristiano Ronaldo and company in November that saw the Balkan nation book a place in the draw automatically.
The creativity and flair of experienced Dusan Tadic will likely pose problems for their group opponents, while there are also other useful attacking options in Aleksandar Mitrovic and Luka Jovic. If they play with cohesion then they could end up surprising many people.
Former Red Star Belgrade midfielder Dragan Stojkovic has suffered just two defeats since taking charge of Serbia in March last year, making his team difficult to defend against.
Switzerland finished World Cup qualification with a flourish, beating Bulgaria 4-0 at home back in November to underline their place at the top of Group C as they booked an automatic spot in Qatar.
Going unbeaten during qualifying, with only two goals conceded, Murat Yakin’s team are certainly ones to watch when the tournament proper gets underway — with a side built strongly from the back but that is also capable of unlocking the opposition.
Former Liverpool and Bayern Munich man Xherdan Shaqiri — now with Chicago Fire in MLS — remains the talisman and the 30-year-old will be expected to lead the line and provide a creative spark.
Clearly, Rigobert Song has his work cut out for him and has a lot to do to bring the glory-days back to Cameroon:
1) Give Cameroon a cohesive football identity
2) Solve issues of the captaincy
3) Settle the Cameroonian backline
4) Harness the youthful talents breaking through
5) Humility to Cameroon’s footballing psyche
Africa and the World Cup
Africa’s five World Cup qualifiers learned their group opponents in a glitzy draw in Doha, Qatar, with each of the quintet having some reason for optimism after the four pots were drawn into the eight pools.
Whenever any World Cup rolls around, the pressing questions for Africa’s contingent are how many can realistically hope to reach the knockouts, and whether any sides can be expected to equal or surpass the three teams — Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana — that have reached the quarterfinals.
The occasional brilliance, technical display and aggressive physical expression of African football talent at the World Cup has earned admiration, enthralled spectators and drawn many African children to football. However, as the 2018 FIFA World Cup showed, Africa still lags in the development of the game.
The question on many fans’ minds is: will an African team ever win the tournament? Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia, gave it a shot in 2018 in Russia but none made it to the second round. A combination of injuries to key players, indiscipline, poor game management, tactical naivety and lack of disciplined organization led to their poor showing but Lothar’s advise can change everything.
Moving forward, Africa has a long way to go. Indeed, African players need to be reminded that they stand on the shoulders of those who resiliently battled to continually expand the opportunities of future generations of African players. A few battles have been won, but the war still rages.
African players have proven that their skill and natural ability are on par with the best; they need a cohesive and stable footballing system to realize their potential. Addressing that elusive tactical naivety and discipline deficit at the highest levels of national sports governance and team management are issues begging for solutions for the continent to break the hitherto ceiling at the quarter final stage of the FIFA Football World Cup.
Looking to 2022, many memorable and defining moments in each tournament indicate there is hope for a breakthrough. The fact that the FIFA World Cup was successfully hosted by the African continent gives extra motivation for aspiring African teams.
Indeed, the 2010 tournament demonstrated Africa’s progress on and off the field, passion for the sport and commitment to play a bigger role on the world stage. However, Africa must put structures and operational mechanisms in place to scale new heights. The fans deserve it. Talking about the fans Qatar’s option of match venues being close to each other ptomises the best FIFA World Cup experience ever for the fans.
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