Mercifully, Cameroon’s World Cup campaign has come to an end.
Their summer started slowly and coagulated in the middle before winding down against Brazil.
In short, it never got off the ground.
There are two key questions on everyone’s lips.
The first—“Where did it all go wrong?”—has been tossed around for a while, and while many believe the answer involves a simple jab at a money-hungry, uninspired, self-seeking collective, the truth includes many facets.
Secondly, but not necessarily more productively, is, “Where do Cameroon go from here?”
What were the problems, and how do we solve them?
Well, as ever, there are micro-problems and there are macro-problems. Contending with the former would probably have helped Cameroon avoid defeat against Mexico, while dealing with the latter will ensure that future World Cup outings aren’t remembered for misplaced elbows and head-butt-happy left-backs.
Cameroon’s main strength heading into this competition, certainly in my eyes at least, was their impressive roster of defensive players.
The Indomitable Lions have more competent centre-backs, composed full-backs and resilient destructive midfielders than any squad really needs. Indeed, manager Volker Finke cut the likes of Jean-Armel Kana-Biyik and Gaetan Bong before the tournament, and he didn’t even consider Sebastien Bassong or Frank Bagnack.
It came as a great surprise, therefore, when Finke chose to name Cedric Djeugoue as his starting right-back in the opener against Mexico.
Here is a player who had played only two matches for the full national side before the World Cup, and indeed, was even playing in the Chadian league as recently as 2012. Despite his inexperience, Djeugoue was named as starting right-back ahead of the likes of Allan Nyom and Stephen Mbia.
It was a perverse decision.
Djeugoue’s uncertainty was evident from the off as Mexico flooded the flanks. His indecision in the face of the dual onslaught from Miguel Layun and Andres Guardado forced Benjamin Moukandjo, the winger ahead of him, to stay back and essentially perform Djeugoue’s duties for him.
For large parts of the match, Cameroon were playing a back six. They thus lost their attacking outlets (a problem exacerbated by having a midfield devoid of creativity) and were unable to alleviate the Mexican pressure.
Djeugoue was replaced at half-time, having failed to make any tackles or win any aerial battles. Finke had clearly seen the error of his ways, but by then it was too late, the pattern of the match had been established and Mexico soon broke the deadlock.
When Nyom and Henri Bedimo (the two full-backs who many expected to start for Cameroon) finally returned to the starting line-up for the dead rubber against Brazil, they demonstrated, in glimpses, what they were capable of.
Bedimo had a 100 percent tackle success rate, succeeded with three of his four attempted take-ons and completed 22 of 24 attempted passes.
Nyom, on the right flank, was less influential but still made three successful clearances, a crucial interception and completed 24 of 27 attempted passes.
It’s hard to argue El Tri wouldn’t have won had Finke not experimented with his defence against Mexico, but, by the same token, it’s difficult to rationalise how his decision to play a back four that had never before been on the pitch together was wise.
Cameroon were still alive, though, and the mood in the camp would surely have been transformed had Moukandjo’s late header beaten Memo Ochoa. The injury suffered by Samuel Eto’o in this game also robbed the Lions of their talismanic player, even if his influence was rightly questioned.
It is, in the words of Vincent Vega, all about the little differences.
The macro-problem of the team’s spirit and its collective mood is much harder to legislate for. How can one purge a culture when that culture emanates from the squad’s principle performers?
In other teams, in other nations, one might simply cull the trouble-makers, but Cameroon do not necessarily have the reservoirs of talent to exclude Alex Song, for example, and hope to replace all that he offers (even if it has been obscured in recent times).
Replacing the aura of 33-year-old Eto’o—both the good and bad—will be harder still.
There are, of course, green shoots, and the vast majority of Africa’s nations will still look enviously upon the Central Africans’ massed ranks of talent.
The two most prominent names are Joel Matip and Vincent Aboubakar, a defender of great poise and a striker with explosive qualities. Neither man featured in the opener, but they were the stand-out performers in the final game. It was, perhaps, a pertinent demonstration of the side’s impending evolution.
Other key figures, Nicolas N’Koulou, Nyom, Song, Moukandjo and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, are all 26 or under, while exciting youngsters such as Fabrice Olinga, Jean Marie Dongou and the aforementioned Bagnack have been explored, to varying degrees, by Finke.
Should the manager retain his position—and that is far from certain after the summer’s dismal display—the focus will be on the impending African Cup of Nations qualifying series.
The Indomitable Lions will face the Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo and one of Sierra Leone or the Seychelles in their group. Their first two matches are away in Kinshasa and at home against the Elephants.
Whether it’s Finke at the helm or someone else, Cameroon need to hit the ground running after such bitter disappointment; the ugly scenes of this summer must be consigned to history.
After the 2010 World Cup, when the Indomitable Lions were the first side to be eliminated, the national side fell into a downward spiral. They failed to qualify for both the 2012 and the 2013 AFCON competitions (being beaten by Cape Verde in the second instance) and very nearly failed to qualify for this summer’s tournament as well.
Cameroon know the solitude of the international wilderness better than most. If this summer, and the demolition against Croatia, was the nadir, then the renovation and evolution cannot start soon enough.
Stats via FourFourTwo StatsZone.