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Lions Could Be Roaring Again

WORLD CUP

Group E: Cameroon, strong on the field but weak in the administrative department, appears to have best shot of any African nation.

May 29, 2002|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — In the Cameroon capital of Yaounde, at the national stadium, the broken remains of a statue of a soccer hero lie on the ground like so much rubble.

Can it be that Roger Milla has been forgotten so soon?

It was at the 1990 World Cup in Italy that Milla brought smiles to the faces of soccer fans worldwide with his hip-wiggling dance with a corner flag each time he scored a goal for Cameroon.

The Italy '90 tournament was a watershed year for the Indomitable Lions and for African soccer in general. Cameroon, riding Milla's goals and the goalkeeping of Thomas N'Kono, went all the way to the quarterfinals and came within a lion's hairbreadth of beating England and reaching the semifinals.

Now, Cameroon is at the forefront once again. A gold medal won at the Sydney 2000 Olympic games and a second consecutive African Nations Cup, won in Mali in February, have made the Indomitable Lions the standard-bearer for Africa's World Cup challenge.

Sure, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia also will represent the continent at Korea/Japan '02, but the overwhelming belief is that it will be Cameroon that goes the greatest distance.

Desire is one reason why--and not Cameroon's marvelously named forward, Joseph Desire Job.

In an interview with African Soccer magazine earlier this year, striker Samuel Eto'o Fils, who at 17 was the youngest player at the France '98 World Cup, explained what drives the Indomitable Lions.

"I think that our strength comes from wanting to show what we can do," he said. "There is the hunger from each of us to fulfill our real potential as a footballing nation.

"Also, when we find ourselves together, it's just like one large gathering of friends. The players have grown up together in some of the slums of Yaounde and Douala, and today they are claiming the rights they never had when they were younger."

Another driving force is Coach Winfried Schaefer, a blond, blue-eyed German who took over from Jean-Paul Akono, the coach of Cameroon's gold-medal team at Sydney.

Akono resigned after an unexpected defeat in World Cup qualifying, a result that had angry fans stoning his home in Yaounde.

Schaefer was brought in with one goal in mind.

"I have no doubt about the individual ability of my players," he told African Soccer, "but I found out they lack self-belief, tactical discipline and organization--virtues that make German football tick."

Schaefer got instant support from an unlikely source: Milla.

"I don't know what it is about German people but they know how to organize things," Milla said. "I believe he is the right man for the job."

Oddly enough, Germany will be one of Cameroon's first-round opponents, along with Ireland and Saudi Arabia. Even before the Germans suffered a string of injuries that cost them four potential starters, and even before the Irish self-destructed when captain Roy Keane was kicked off the team, Cameroon's chances of winning the group were pretty good.

Now, they are even better. The team has quality at almost every position, and especially up front, where the fleet Eto'o Fils is paired with physically imposing, goal-scorer extraordinaire Patrick Mboma.

If anything can throw Cameroon off track, however, it is a lack of similar quality at the federation level. The sport's movers and shakers are nowhere near as organized as Schaefer's team.

Last week, Cameroon played Denmark in Copenhagen in a warmup game and the players then returned to Paris to catch their charter flight to Japan. But there was a two-day delay, which officials first blamed on mechanical problems with the aircraft but later admitted were because of an unseemly squabble over $42,000 in World Cup bonus money that had not been paid to each player.

That finally was resolved and the plane took off. It took a roundabout route, with long stopovers in Ethiopia and India, and then got only as far as Bangkok, Thailand, before there was another long delay.

This time is was because the pilot had forgotten to get permission to fly through Cambodian, Vietnamese and Philippine airspace. The plane was on the ground for seven hours while the players fumed. When it comes to African teams, little is ever easy.

Meanwhile, Milla's statue lies in the dust in Yaounde.

"It's disgusting," said Eto'o Fils, "and shows again how negligent we are in Africa to our past heroes, people who sacrificed so much for their country."

But if this Cameroon team can match the feats of Milla's team, perhaps it will be enough so that new statues can be raised in honor of both generations of players.

The African and Olympic champions would deserve no less.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

African Hit List

Highlights of African nations' World Cup participation:

1982: Algeria 2, West Germany 1--The eventual runners-up lose their opener on Lakhdar Belloumi's 69th-minute goal.

1986: Morocco 3, Portugal 1--Victory makes Morocco the first African team to win a first-round group.

1990: Cameroon 1, Argentina 0--The Indomitable Lions open the tournament by stunning the cup holders, then go on to become the first African team to gain the semifinals.

1998: Nigeria 3, Spain 2--Nigeria wins its opener in an upset and goes on to win its group for the second Cup in a row.

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