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From continental champions to African Nations Cup non-qualifiers in 10 years

Watching Zambia win the African Nations Cup earlier this year brought Cameroon's own failings into painfully sharp relief. Two years ago they beat Zambia 3-2 in the group phase in Angola and two years before that they beat them 5-1 in Ghana at the same stage. But as Zambia celebrated continental triumph in Libreville in February, Cameroon were at home, having failed to even qualify. In a decade they had gone from retaining the African crown to missing the finals altogether.

"In 2008, it was 5-1, but Zambia played well and gave four goals away," recalls Joseph-Antoine Bell, Cameroon's former goalkeeper who played in three World Cups and is now an eloquent television pundit. "I said: 'Don't just look at the score, look at what happened'. If you played that game two or three times, it wouldn't be 5-1. If we don't watch how games go, we don’t see beyond the score. It's the way politicians see football. They just talk about the score and don't look at what happens."
Bell, like many others, blames a culture of complacency, an assumption that, because Cameroon had been one of the pre-eminent sides in Africa since the early 1980s they would continue to be so indefinitely.


“We did not do what was needed to consolidate those achievements," agrees former Cameroon striker Jean Manga-Onguene, African Footballer of the Year in 1980. “We used to have academies across Cameroon where budding young talent could develop. In 1991, 93 and 95 we went round the country prospecting for talent, and at every stage we took the youth teams to join the sides preparing for continental competition. A lot of the players who won the 1995 African Under-21 title in Nigeria went on to the senior team.
"When you’re doing well, you tend to stop investing, thinking things will always be the same. Now you have an under-17 team where no one is coming from the under-15s - and that means something is fundamentally wrong."

In August 2010, after a disastrous World Cup in which Cameroon were the first side to be eliminated, Manga- Onguene was appointed the first technical director of the Cameroonian football federation. He has set about establishing a nationwide programme of scouting and coaching, saying: "Too many players have been getting into the national team without having the appropriate training. With proper training, coaches can determine players' weaknesses and try to improve them before they join the first team.”
But there is another problem and it stems from the country's past success.

Because Cameroon were World Cup regulars it was natural for European clubs to focus their scouting there. As more and more players left and rose to a level of true professionalism - not to mention riches beyond the wildest dreams of those left back home - so the sense of a collective was lost. Money became an increasingly important issue - and the sad truth is that where there is money there is often also corruption. "There was too much ego, each player trying to justify their role in the team and make money," says Jean-Paul Akono, a former international defender who is now Manga-Onguene's deputy. Both men were part of the true golden era of Cameroonian football, having been involved with the great Canon Yaounde side that won the African
Champions Cup in 1978 and 1980. "The players are not to blame alone for our problems,” says Akono. "Ego was not restricted to players but also to team officials, the federation. They have to take part of the blame for thinking the achievements of previous years were a natural phenomenon that would never go away. It took a long time to realise the importance of having a technical manager at the head of the team.”

Passionate men

Manga-Onguene and Akono are clearly passionate men and nobody could doubt their commitment to Cameroonian football. But one of their former team-mates doubts they will succeed. “Our coaches have no professional European experience," says Theophile Abega, who played for Canon Yaounde and Cameroon before joining Toulouse in France. “Even Manga and Akono haven't played in Europe. Manga was a fantastic player but he didn't play professionally. He doesn’t know what it is to be a professional. Being professional is in your mentality, in your habits."

Abega is now the mayor of the fourth arrondissement of Yaounde, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that he sees a political explanation for Cameroon's woes. "We have a federation playing politics, not football,” he says. "Some delegates are trying just to bring players from the north because they control the federation. You have to pick the best players, wherever they come from, not just to keep each area happy.”

Which leads, inevitably, to Samuel Eto'o, whose role in the national side is Cameroonian football’s biggest debate. "There is a tactical problem with the disparity of talent between Eto'o and the rest because every other player rushes to give the ball to him whether he's in a good position or not,” says Abega.

But for others the issue is not merely the size of his talent but also of his ego. Seasoned internationals Alex Song and Achille Emana were both reportedly furious at the way Eto'o was said to have patronised team-mates, poisoning the atmosphere around the team. Those complaints are academic now, with Eto'o banned for eight months after leading protests against the non-payment of bonuses that caused a friendly against Algeria to be cancelled last November.

Others say the suspension was to curb his influence over the side, while Abega even argues it was an attempt by "forces from the north” to bring fans on to the streets in protest to destabilise the government of Paul Biya, who won a sixth term as president last October.

The real problem, however, is less about Eto'o's talent and personality than the dearth of top-class players that has followed in the 31-year-old's footsteps. That, more than anything, is the issue that Manga-Onguene and Cameroonian football must address.

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