Cameroon has a history of participating in intriguing first round groups. In 1982 and 1994, they twice found themselves matched up with a strong semifinalist, and the eventual champions (in '82 they almost beat out Italy for second place in the group, but lost on a goal differential.)
In 1990, they opened the tournament by shocking title-holders and eventual runners-up Argentina before embarking on their historic quarterfinal run.
In '98, they finished last in their tough group.
In '02, Cameroon tied loaded Ireland and beat Saudi Arabia before being eliminated following a memorably contentious clash with Oliver Kahn's Germany.
What does all this mean for the 2010 Indomitable Lions? To put it succinctly: diddly.
Though this year's first round group may offer the poetically inclined among us some interesting parallels to Cameroon's 2002 Group E draw with Germany, Ireland, and Saudi Arabia, 2010 is a new year with a new team, new opponents, and new venues.
It would be more romantic than logical to draw any analogies between 2002 and 2010, and this year's squad must be evaluated based on their own strengths, weaknesses, and current form.
Drawn with outside World Cup favorites the Netherlands, the young, but formidable UEFA group winners Denmark, and the always game Japan, Cameroon's versatility will be tested as much as their unsettled back four.
Each opponent presents its own unique set of challenges. It would be reasonable, though by no means safe, to pick the "Oranje" to take nine points from their group, but beyond that, a strong argument can be made for Cameroon, Denmark, or Japan advancing in second place.
In the following slideshow, I will break down the Lions' first round fixtures in order, and I will finish by offering a prediction of how Cameroon will fare not only in the group stage, but in the tournament overall.
When the Indomitable Lions face off against the Blue Samurai, more will be at stake than the title of "best team nickname" in the world. Cameroon needs to take three points from their opening match in order to give themselves a fighting chance at knockout stage play.
Group E does not have a traditional "minnow," but if there is one team that most analysts would be surprised to see in the second round, it's Japan. In a less competitive first round group, the Blue Samurai might be a solid second place side, having finished a comfortable second in their Asian-Pacific qualifying group.
Cameroon's ELO ranking places them only one spot ahead of Japan in 40th place, though their FIFA ranking would have them 26 spots ahead of Japan, in 19th. The reality is probably somewhere in between.
Either way, Japan are among that dangerous second tier of competent, talented national sides with lower expectations, but dangerous potential. Furthermore, their record against West African teams over the last three years under manager and former national teamer Takeshi Okada has been nothing short of stellar.
Japan has wins over Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Togo, and Ghana. Granted, most of the matches were played in Japan, but the Samurai are as likely as any non-African team to adapt to the environmental challenges of South Africa.
Tactically speaking, the Lions' versatility should work to their advantage against Japan, who will attempt to make the midfield unlivable for all-comers, and capitalize on the counter-attacking opportunities they can create through talisman Shunsuke Nakamura.
The fab four midfield group of Jean Makoun, Alex Song, Landry N'Guemo (Nakamura's Old Firm rival), and Achille Emana may have their hands full, but they should be able to outgun and out-hustle the talent-laden Japanese midfield. And with central defense being Japan's weakest link, the question is more likely to be how many chances Eto'o will have, rather than whether he will have any chances at all.
2-1 Cameroon on a critical late winner from Achille Emana.
Denmark provide the Lions with their most important and intriguing challenge. Assuming the Dutch perform up to their pre-tournament hype, this match is more than likely to decide second place in the group.
Olsen's Eleven are a conservative team led by their solid central defensive duo of Liverpool's David Agger and rumored Premiership transfer target Simon Kjaer. They will look to capitalize on the counter-attack, feeding the ball to experienced wingers Dennis Rommedahl and Jan Dahl Tomasson.
Don't overlook their electric young offense, however. For fans of Premiership football, the likely clash between up-and-coming (if frustratingly inconsistent) Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner and Tottenham defenders Benoît Assou-Ekotto and Sebastien Bassong should enliven the summer's offseason doldrums.
Expect Bendtner to have his hands full trying to elude his physical and unflappable fellow gunner, defensive midfielder Alex Song (Song and Bendtner are the two taller Arsenal players in the above photo).
Eto'o, Emana, and company will face their toughest challenge of the first round in trying to exploit the Danes' disciplined defensive unit, but barring serious errors, they should have a decisive advantage in the other two-thirds of the field.
In the end, whichever side is better able to adjust to their surroundings and get off to a more energetic start should be able to secure a first half lead that would go a long way toward dictating the narrative of the match.
Considering the potential impact of the near-mile high elevation on the lowland Danes and the pride Cameroon will feel in playing on African soil, I give the Lions the advantage, despite the fact that Denmark have far more momentum coming in.
2-0 Cameroon if they score first (which I believe they will do). 1-1 if Denmark score first.
Write off the Lions in this fixture at your own peril.
Cameroon, of all the underdogs in this group, have the best combination of physical and disciplined midfield talent and speedy, experienced full backs to slow down the Dutch and counter-attack with pace against their suspect defense.
A select few of Europe's elite clubs have the resources to field an offensive unit comparable to what the Dutch national team will bring to South Africa. However, it remains to be seen how they will perform against a fit and talented African side in their final group clash in Cape Town.
The Dutch traveling contingent is as passionately dedicated as it is conspicuously orange, but expect Cameroon to have the backing of neutral football fans in the 69,000-seat Cape Town Stadium.
Cameroon's upset bid will hinge on their ability to counter-attack through Achille Emana, who will try and feed the ball to the streaking Samuel Eto'o. At 29, Eto'o, will still be one of the fastest players on the pitch.
The Netherlands should win this match, and probably won't be seriously challenged unless Cameroon keeps the score low deep into the second half. However, if Eto'o is to seal his legacy among the pantheon of Cameroon's all-time greats, this match may be his opportunity to author a signature performance to compare with François Omam-Biyik or Roger Milla in 1990, Theophile Abega in 1984, or Thomas Nkono in 1982 or 1990.
2-0 Netherlands, though the upset potential of the just-described "Samuel Eto'o Legacy" variable may prove a potent x-factor.
Cameroon have a lot of questions to answer as they prepare for South Africa, but if they can pull themselves together, they are easily Africa's most complete and formidable entrants. They have an outside shot of putting together a semifinal run to top the achievements of the great 1990 Cameroon squad.
I think they will take care of business against the inscrutable Japanese, and even if they only manage a draw against Denmark, they will outscore Olsen's Eleven over the course of three matches and qualify for the knockout stage on goal differential.
Cameroon's fortunes in the knockout stages will depend upon the momentum they are able to build up over the course of the first round. If they are stomped by the Netherlands, it will not bode well for their latter-round aspirations. If they lose, but play a close match, they may well have the confidence and team cohesion to pose a serious challenge to aging title-holders Italy and in a potential quarterfinal against the survivor of the all-Iberian second round showdown.
Realistically, considering the draw, a second round finish would not only be respectable, but would restore a measure of pride from Yaoundé to Douala that has been lacking since their rough departure from the 2002 World Cup, and the traumatic loss of Marc-Vivien Foé on the pitch at the 2003 Confederations Cup.
Allez les Lions!