By Jay Mwamba
Chances are that either Mick McCarthy or a member of his coaching staff will spend an early part of the New Year on an African safari scouting lions. The “Indomitable Lions” of Cameroon, that is.
From Jan. 19, the Olympic champions will be in Mali, on the fringes of the Sahara, defending the African Nations Cup they won in Nigeria two years ago.
Albeit notorious underachievers in Nations Cup tournaments that fall in World Cup years, the biennial event will give new Lions coach Winfried Sch’fer a golden opportunity to hone his talented side ahead of the big show in the Far East.
It’s also the perfect chance for McCarthy and his staff to dissect the team which the Republic opens its 2002 World Cup quest against in Niigata on June 1.
From all indications going into the 16-team Nations Cup, Cameroon, the darlings of Italia ’90, when they beat ’86 champs Argentina in their opener and went on the reach the semifinals, where they were beaten by England, are a side on the rise once again after two indifferent World Cups.
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Results in the last two years bear this out. They defeated the enormously gifted, but unpredictable Nigerians 5-4 on penalties in Lagos to win the African title; edged Brazil — despite playing with nine men — 2-1 in the Olympic semifinals, and then outshot Spain 5-3 (penalties) to clinch the gold medal.
En route from Sydney, the Africans earned more plaudits by battling World champs France to a 1-1 draw in a Paris friendly. And to cap it all, they returned home to qualify for their fifth World Cup at a canter.
The core of their Under-23 Olympic squad is likely to form the backbone of the Lions contingent to both Mali and Japan.
Unlike the Roger Milla-inspired side that debuted in the 1982 World Cup and later gave England a fright before succumbing 3-2 in the quarterfinals at Italia ’90, this Cameroonian team is young and very deep.
They come mostly from a clutch of top European clubs in the Spanish, Italian, and English Premiership leagues, where most of them are respected performers.
The pick of the lot includes former African Footballer of the Year Patrick Mboma of Parma, a French-bred battering ram of a striker whose gaping overhead kick earned Cameroon the tie against France.
Flying winger Samuel Eto’o Fils, a finalist for the 2001 African Footballer of the Year who turns 21 next March, is one of the best young talents in the world. Capped by the Lions at age 16, he was on the bench at France ’98 but won his place in the side with his trickery and speed on the flanks after that.
Snapped up by Real Madrid at 15, Eto’o, now with Real Mallorca, was a Nations Cup winner and Olympic gold medallist before his 20th birthday.
In midfield, a familiar face in Niigata for many of McCarthy’s Irish stars should be the Arsenal man Lauren Etame Mayer, an Arsene Wenger favorite who is a dependable presence on the right side.
Usually found operating behind Lauren is Real Madrid’s overlapping fullback Geremi Njitap Fotso, who captained the Lions in Sydney.
At the heart of the Cameroonian defense, which has long been their forte, is the rugged Rigobert Song, Jason McAteer’s ex-Liverpool compatriot, who is now plying his skills with FC Cologne in the Bundesliga.
How experienced is Song? He doesn’t turn 25 until July 1, but this will be the powerful defender’s third World Cup appearance. Sometimes rash in the tackle, Song also holds the dubious distinction of being the only player to be sent off in two separate finals.
He was 17 when he was dismissed on his debut at USA ’94 and followed this up with another red card in France four years later.
After their defeat in the Olympic final, Spain talked admiringly of Cameroon’s tremendous athleticism and power.
But the Lions are also a technically sound team that, although lacking the explosiveness of Nigeria’s Super Eagles, are more consistent in their effort and stronger defensively.
They are likely to have two distinct advantages over their Group E foes in their physical prowess and their ability to adapt quicker to the searing humidity of the Japanese summer.
And with an impressive pedigree from past finals, highlighted by draws with Italy (1-1) and Poland (0-0), a stunning win over Diego Maradona’s Argentina (1-0), and the Gheorghi Hagi-led Romania (2-1), the Cameroonians will not be awed by the occasion.
What could work against them, though, are their frequent coaching changes. Over the same 24 months that the Lions were on the rise, they went through four managers.
Frenchman Pierre LeChantre, hired to replace Claude Leroy after France ’98, guided them to the African Nations Cup in 2000 and plotted their early success in the Japan/Korea ’02 qualifiers only to be replaced by Olympic medal winning coach Jean-Paul Akono.
The portly Cameroonian, however, quickly fell out of favor when the Lions struggled against Zambia in the qualifiers and was shunted aside for another Frenchmen, Robert Corfu, once qualification had been sealed.
Corfu’s tenure lasted for the duration of the Confederations’ Cup in Korea last summer, upon which he was shown the door in preference of Sch’fer, an associate of German boss Rudi Voeller.
The German has next month’s Nations Cup to stamp his tactical mark on the Lions and hope that they keep on roaring there and in Asia, come June.
Cameroon previously appeared in the 1982, 1990, 1994, and 1998 finals.
(Each week, Jay Mwamba will preview a World Cup finalist.)