Cameroon’s big gamble for the World Cup was to put its campaign in the hands of one of its greatest players.
Rigobert Song, a highly respected former captain, was appointed coach in February, despite a lack of managerial experience outside of Cameroon’s youth. He faces the challenge of taking the Indomitable Lions past the group stage of a World Cup for the first time since Roger Milla and Co. reached the quarter-finals in 1990 and put African football on the map.
Song succeeded in his first mission when Cameroon won a two-legged play-off against Algeria in March to qualify for the tournament in Qatar, although only after a last-ditch goal from Karl Toko Ekambi four minutes into stoppage time at the end of extra time of the second game.
Subsequent losses to Uzbekistan and South Korea in the World Cup warm-ups have provided a reality check and questioned whether federation president Samuel Eto’o, a former team-mate of Song, was too hasty to replace Toni Conceição. The Portuguese coach led Cameroon to third place in this year’s African Cup of Nations and laid a foundation to build on in Qatar.
A NEW SONG No one doubts Song’s tremendous contribution to Cameroonian football. He played in four World Cups, eight African Cups, won two African titles and made a national record of 137 appearances for his country. But he has yet to win everyone over in his new role.
Song’s coaching resume isn’t nearly as comprehensive as his playing achievements. A Cameroon “A” team he led at the 2018 African Nations Championship finished last in its group and was ashamed of losses to the Republic of the Congo and Angola.
The 46-year-old former Liverpool defender coached the under-23 team before his promotion, but doubts about his ability have been raised to follow Cameroon to the World Cup, where it will play against Switzerland, Serbia and Brazil in Group G.
MBEUMO BOOST Cameroon’s attacking threat has been heightened by the decision of former France Under-21 international Bryan Mbeumo to remain loyal to his father’s home country.
The 23-year-old Brentford forward offers Premier League experience up front alongside Vincent Aboubakar and Toko Ekambi, who were a formidable combination and the two top scorers in this year’s Africa Cup of Nations with 13 goals between them. There is also Bayern Munich forward Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting.
Tenacious midfielder Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa may be Cameroon’s most important player, but Song has so far failed to bolster a defense that has a habit of leaking early goals. He has failed to convince Liverpool defender Joel Matip to return to international service.
GHOSTS OF 1990 The Milla team that defeated Argentina and Colombia and took England to the crown at the 1990 World Cup in Italy broke the barriers to African football by reaching the quarter-finals and almost the semi-finals, and is the standard against which every Cameroonian team has been judged ever since. Everyone has been a disappointment.
The Central African country may be longing for a repeat of that magical streak from 32 years ago, but the cold reality is that Cameroon has only won one World Cup match since 1990, against Saudi Arabia in 2002.
Cameroon lost all three matches and had the worst record of all 32 teams at the last World Cup it played in 2014.
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