YAOUNDE, May 3 – Cameroon represent the best hope of Africa making a meaningful impact on the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. Paired with Germany, Republic of Ireland and Saudi Arabia in Group E, the African Nations Cup holders are widely considered genuine contenders to come first or second and advance to the knockout phase.
« It will be an interesting, exciting fight between three equal teams while Saudi Arabia are the outsiders. Everybody knows the qualities of Germany and Ireland put Holland out, » Cameroon coach Winfried Schafer noted.
Schafer assumed control of the Indomitable Lions late last year and took little time to achieve a remarkable feat – two months ago Cameroon became the first country in 37 years to successfully defend the Nations Cup.
Success amid the bleak West African landscape of Mali was achieved without conceding a goal against the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Togo, Egypt, Mali and Senegal.
But Cameroon did not find scoring easy either with none against the Senegalese in a final settled by a penalty shootout, and only one each against the Congolese, Ivorians and Egyptians.
« There was huge pressure at the Nations Cup because everybody expected us to win the cup again. My squad proved that it can live with such pressure, » Schafer enthused.
Appearing in their fourth consecutive World Cup, Cameroon are desperate to at least emulate the Roger Milla-inspired squad of 1990 which bowed out to England in the quarter-finals after extra time in Italy.
Milla, lured out of semi-retirement to score four goals and lead the Lions to victories over holders Argentina, Romania and Colombia, is upbeat about the class of 2002.
« This is a talented team with a lot of focus, capable of performing very well at the World Cup. The close relationship between the coaching staff and the players can lead Cameroon to glory, » Milla said.
The man whose corner flag, hip wriggling celebrations became part of football folklore did not define glory, but anything less than a position among the last eight would probably be construed as failure.
That leaves a team composed largely of players who failed to impress when making a first-round exit from the 1998 finals in France with a tall order as they would not only have to get a top-two finish, but win a knockout match.
The same stars like goalkeeper Alioum Boukar, defender Rigobert Song, midfielder Marc-Vivien Foe and striker Patrick Mboma were also expected to make a significant impact on the Confederations Cup in Japan last year.
But after comprehensive losses to the hosts and a below-par Brazil, all the Lions had to celebrate was a win over Canada, a team that failed to qualify for the World Cup.
Cameroonians believe the crucial difference come June will be 52-year-old Schafer, who did not take long to stamp his authority on former ‘wild boys’ like Song.
After a succession of French coaches, the sports ministry did a u-turn, and while some bemoan less creativity, Schafer has massive support in the bilingual Central African state where football is a religion.
Unlike many African teams who cannot match European rivals physically, Cameroon possess players of enormous physique, with the sleeveless vests worn in Mali emphasising bulging biceps.
Organisers FIFA banned these ‘shirts’ from the World Cup, but have approved a specially designed shirt, yet to be unveiled.
« You can always expect something different from Cameroon, » FIFA spokesman Keith Cooper noted.
But it is winning football rather than sartorial statements Africa expects if the oft-repeated prophesy of the continent claiming the biggest prize in football is to be realised.
Africa cannot entertain realistic hopes of emerging triumphant in the Far East, but were Cameroon not to reach the second round, serious questions would be posed as to whether the continent deserved five slots at the finals.