Emile Mbouh’s soccer career took him all over the world, from France and Portugal to Qatar and Malaysia. His proudest moments came when he captained his native Cameroon’s national team in the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, the latter played in the United States.
This week, the “beautiful game” leads the diminutive former midfielder to Rock Hill, as he seeks to guide his Bethesda, Md., Lions U14 boys’ team to a United States Youth Soccer Championship. Bethesda is one of 60 teams that will flood Rock Hill’s Manchester Meadows soccer complex this week in search of a prestigious age group national championship.
Mbouh’s players will be playing in the biggest soccer events of their young careers, but they can lean on their coach’s considerable playing experience. Mbouh, who runs the Emile Mbouh Soccer Academy in Maryland, racked up over 100 international appearances for his native Cameroon, including appearances at the U.S. World Cup. That event is credited with igniting the current passion for soccer in America today. Tuesday afternoon, Mbouh talked with Herald sports writer Bret McCormick.
Representing Cameroon in the 1994 World Cup, was that your first visit to the United States?
No. I came before to visit my family, my cousins, and friends.
What was your impression of the soccer environment in the country at that time?
We were very pleased to see that people loved soccer. Usually it was more about football, basketball and baseball, and we were very pleased that people were following soccer like that in the U.S.
You had a successful career playing soccer in Europe and Asia. For you, what were the highlights?
I’d say in France, in Asia, and Cameroon National Team.
How did you end up now in America coaching soccer?
In the 1994 World Cup, I liked the country. To me I came here because soccer was new (and) people were really starting (to understand) what soccer was about and the development was good. I went back when I ended my (playing) career, and I thought ‘why not come here so I can do what I want to do?’ – coach.
So when did you come back here to live?
I came back in 2001.
When you were growing up in Cameroon and France, what was your soccer like? Was it organized like this?
No, it was not organized like this. We were just going with friends and siblings to play in the streets, everyday, playing in the streets. Sometimes we didn’t have soccer balls, but we were just having fun.
Do you see that spontaneity in the kids you coach? Or is it more organized and formal here?
No, it’s much organized here. There’s a downfall to organized soccer sometimes because the teams do not play pickup games on their own. They just wait when they go to practice. And sometimes a win for the team is more important too.
You played at the highest level of international soccer. What do you think U.S. Soccer needs to do to translate all of these talented kids at this tournament into a traditionally successful National Team program?
Just copy what the best are doing. The U.S., I think, can achieve a lot. Sometimes I’m feeling that here, coaches emphasize more the physical aspects than the technical aspects. The challenge you have in the U.S., and I’ve taken my team all over the country, is that it could be a very good soccer country.
Let’s talk a little bit about your team, Bethesda Lions. You have quite a few different nationalities represented on your team. How did that come about? Is there a reason?
It just happened, because I was coaching some of them when they were 10 years old. We had different families that came (onto) the team and it just happened to be like that.
You played in two World Cups with Cameroon. What kind of advice did you give to your players as they compete in the biggest tournament of their young careers?
The only thing I tell them is to go have fun and play their game. We just go and play.
The Cameroon teams you played on were well known for the joy with which they played. How important is it for the kids playing this week to remember that soccer is fun, and not to take things too seriously?
Of course, because sometimes we tend to forget they are kids. We put them under… I don’t want them to be under pressure. I just want them to go on the field and just play the game. That’s how you learn and become good.
How pumped was your group after today’s opening banquet?
They were so excited and pumped up because this is the highest level of youth soccer. If you don’t come here then that means you never played at the highest level. . . . Just be happy where you are and be glad you’re a champion and just go out and have fun and play.
Are you concerned with the heat, the humidity?
No, I’m not concerned. To me, I don’t like to take those things out to the children. I keep telling them, ‘You go in the snow? Just play. You go in the rain? You play?’ The other team too will have the same problem. So just play.
You captained Cameroon in the 1994 World Cup in the United States, an event that sparked a new level of interest in soccer in this country. Compare what it was like to come to the States then, with now, coaching at a great youth tournament like this…
People are more and more passionate about soccer, because you have all these channels showing soccer 24/7 . . . Right now, you can also see that people are more into it, and teams are trying to be better than before. Comparing when I came and now, you can see the kids are much better. But you know, you never say that’s enough. You have to keep going and keep going, and everybody has to bring a spark in it and make it grow.
By Bret McCormick