The 1-1 draw the Indomitable Lions played out with Slovakia this afternoon was overshadowed by a very public spat between arguably the two greatest players in the history of the Cameroon national team.
While only rehashing a long-standing domestic debate, the timing of the controversy highlights the instability and lack of leadership that many feel have already doomed Africa's most successful footballing nation to another premature tournament exit.
War of Words
Earlier in the week, Cameroon legend Roger Milla—no stranger to controversy—questioned the dedication of Internazionale and former Barcelona striker Samuel Eto'o in an interview with Agence France-Presse, saying, "He has done much for Barça and Milan, but nothing for Cameroon."
Though former national-teamers, among them goalkeeper Joseph-Antoine Bell and striker Patrick Mboma, publicly criticized the tenor of Milla's comments, the high-strung Eto'o wasted little time in offering his own controversial reply.
Still on leave from the national team following last week's Champions League final, the victorious striker fired back in an interview with French TV station Canal Plus on Friday.
“What has Milla done? He hasn’t won the World Cup," Eto'o said, going on to refer to Cameroon's famous run at the 1990 World Cup in Italy. "Yes, they played in the quarterfinal, but that was one of the best teams with some of the best players at every position. It’s not because he was a hero at 40 that he can talk."
Despite his age and supposed maturity, the petulant 29-year-old added, "Is it worth the trouble that I go to the World Cup? I still have a few days to think, but I’m trying to see if my participation is necessary, because I don’t need that in my career.”
Whatever Milla may have said, such a statement cannot be justified, especially coming from the supposed leader of the team.
Questioning Eto'o's Leadership
It would be a shock if Eto'o were seriously considering not making the trip to South Africa. His comments about traveling to the World Cup should be interpreted more as an ill-judged expression of his frustration with Milla.
Nonetheless, that the team's captain would choose to throw such a public hissy fit on the eve of the World Cup only lends credibility to the general questioning of Eto'o's leadership credentials.
Eto'o, as the Lions' captain and most successful European professional for almost a decade, has borne the brunt of some heavy criticism for an underperforming squad.
Despite striking Olympic Gold in 2000 and winning back-to-back African Nations' Cups in 2000 and 2002, Cameroon have not been successful at the World Cup since 1990 and have failed to achieve international success of any kind since the retirement of Eto'o's former striking partner, the globetrotting Patrick Mboma.
Always individually impressive, Eto'o has become the all-time goal-scoring leader not only for his country, but in the history of the African Cup of Nations. However, only once in their last four attempts have the Indomitable Lions advanced past the quarterfinal of the biennial African tournament, and in 2006 they failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 16 years.
Milla's lack of tact in criticizing Eto'o may have belied a legitimate point about the superstar's suitability to lead the Lions: Eto'o may indeed lack the ability to carry the team by himself and additionally may not possess the evenness of temper to lead his football-mad nation out of the proverbial wilderness.
Going Forward: Time to Turn the Page?
Cameroon are not where they want to be heading into a tournament where they are considered Africa's strongest contenders. However, they are far from being in free-fall and they still rank among the most talented and dangerous sleepers of the summer. If they can emerge from their funk and come together as a squad, the Indomitable Lions should be feared by all comers.
There are question marks at certain positions, to be sure, but despite Eto'o's implicit suggestion to the contrary, Cameroon have arguably never fielded a more talented team in any of their five previous World Cup finals appearances.
Therefore, it may be time for the next generation of Lions to step up and lead.
Cameroon cannot afford the shakeup that would accompany formally stripping Eto'o of the team's captaincy. However, the team features several younger stars who may quietly assume a more active leadership role.
Birthday boy Jean Makoun, Real Betis' Achille Emana, Marseille's Stephane Mbia, and Arsenal's Alex Song are all experienced national team players who figure to fill essential roles in Cameroon's quest to advance to the knockout stage. By exemplifying a unified, team-first mentality, these players may form a countervailing force to balance out Eto'o's fiery personality.
Eto'o may be one of the most dangerous strikers in the tournament, but only as a team can the Indomitable Lions hope to advance beyond their dangerous first round group.