AFCON 2017: Truly Indomitable: Cameroon Win Against the Odds
What a year it has been for the footballing underdog; Leicester City winning the English Premier League and now Cameroon winning the latest edition of Africa’s premier national team competition, Cup of Nations.
“Football! Bloody Hell!”; that was how Sir Alex Ferguson, former Manchester United Manager, perfectly summed up that moment when your team wins against seemingly overwhelming odds.
To the casual observer, Cameroon should be up there or thereabouts every time. However, this time was different. The team was decimated even before a ball was kicked; eight first choice picks and almost certain starters, as well as five other squad players, opted not to take part in the competition.
It is not mere coincidence that all the absentees happen to play for major clubs in Europe’s main leagues. Some made excuses for these folks saying the competition takes place in the middle of the European football season, making it hard to get away; explain then, that all the stars from all the other major and fancied (and unfancied) nations opted to turn up: from Senegal, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau in fact, everyone else did. No, Cameroon were a special case: the absentees probably felt they stood no chance of progressing as their recent form had been patchy, even with those players playing.
As it was, Hugo Broos, Cameroon’s Belgian coach, used the absences to fire up his squad. Importantly, he also sided with them against their Football Association, in a dispute – yes, yet another one – about money, just as the competition got under way.
The players and the coach said it was not about money but respect. Their performances on the pitch certainly showed they were proud to wear the shirt.
And, yet, this was a team not expected to get out of the group stage, from a group containing Burkina Faso – one of the best teams not to get through to the final – hosts Gabon and Guinea-Bissau.
The final was one of the best in recent memory; it has become a cliché for finals of every major football competition to end up cagey, dour affairs, often settled by penalties. Not this one; both teams displayed their attacking intent from the kick-off. Cameroon had more of the ball in the early stages but were wayward in the final delivery; Egypt, were slow, almost plodding but seemed to carry more of a threat on the break.
It was therefore no great surprise when Egypt took the lead, with a superb strike by Arsenal’s Mohammed Elneny in the 22nd minute. Slack marking on the edge of Cameroon’s penalty box encouraged him to rocket a shot past Ondoa in the Cameroon goal who seemed to expect the player to cut-back for one of his more centrally-placed teammates.
The goal certainly made Cameroon redouble their efforts. From that moment on, they completely dominated the match as they pressed to at least get back on level terms. Nevertheless, they were not able to get parity by the time the half-time whistle went.
The second half saw the introduction of Vincent Aboubakar. This man has been something of an enigma to watchers of this tournament. He was used as a substitute in most games and would then come on and look the best player in the team, prompting the inevitable question “why don’t they start with him?”. So it was to prove in this game; the organisers gave Man of The Match to Cameroon’s captain, Moukandjo, but most observers would have given it to Aboubakar.
Eventually, Cameroon’s dominance had to tell. When Egypt failed to properly clear a set-piece, the ball was floated back into the penalty box and Nicolas N’Koulou rose to power it past veteran ‘keeper El Hadary: game on!
The match appeared to be heading for an entertaining yet seemingly inevitable extra-time and penalties.
However, a long pass forward was superbly controlled on his chest by Aboubakar, who flicked it over the head of the nearest defender and hit his shot into the ground, before El Hadary could move; this was in the 88th minute and yet, you sensed with all the luck that had got Egypt to the final including sneaking through on penalties after being outplayed by Burkina faso; somehow, they weren’t going to be able to do it this time and so it was, the whistle went and the 7-times winners were vanquished by the now-five times winners and, coincidentally, the hosts of the next edition in two years’ time.
Sportingly, the Egyptian fans stayed right to the end of the medal ceremony. It had been that kind of a final and a fitting end to a tournament that had seen many good games; games that defied the terrible pitches on which most of them were played.
Cameroon’s victory will be celebrated far beyond that country’s borders. It will be lauded by all who love African football and who are sick of the apparent disrespect shown the continent’s greatest competition by those who ply their trade outside the continent. I have yet to hear of an Africa-based player opting out of the tournament.
Fittingly, two of Cameroon’s greatest players, Roger Milla and Samuel Eto’ O, were in the stadium to witness this triumph.
Cameroon won’t have to worry about qualifying for the next tournament as hosts. I wonder if there will be any more ‘stay-aways’?