Football: Cameroon seeking unity

Which face will the Indomitable Lions present? The gifted side of 1990 or the rabble of 1994? By Andrew Longmore
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The Independent Online
IF IT is arguments about bonus payments and ticket fraud, if it is a team arriving mysteriously short of the correct visas and with a group of players barely acquainted with their new coach, then it must be the World Cup and it must be Cameroon.

The question the other inmates of Group B - Austria, Italy and Chile - will want to know, is which Cameroon: the joyously gifted side which surprised the world in 1990 or the demoralised rabble which lost 6-1 to Russia four years later? The psychiatrist's chair rather than the football field seems at times to be the Indomitable Lions' natural habitat. The Austrians will don regulation issue white coats tonight in Toulouse.

In a continent of extremes, Cameroon cannot be measured in halves. Their squad includes the youngest player in the tournament, Samuel Eto'o, aged 17 years and three months, and the 32-year-old Francois Omam-Biyik, surprisingly recalled for his third World Cup eight years after the inevitable tabloid headline prompted by his headed goal against Argentina. "On Yer Biyik," duly followed the advice, journeying to Lens and Mexico before returning to Italy with Sampdoria last season. The return of the Frenchman, Claude Le Roy, to his old job as the Cameroon coach, in March, opened the door to the sole survivor of the old guard. "To play in this World Cup is the culmination of my 15 years as a professional," he says. "I've had two World Cups with Cameroon, both very different. This time, I hope we can find some middle ground."

A forlorn hope, perhaps. The progress of this campaign as much as the others depends on whether finance or football is the focus of attention. "We had problems in 1990, but it helped to forge a strong team spirit," says Joseph-Antoine Bell, the goalkeeper-cum-shop steward who was dropped on the eve of Italia 90. "We fought for our rights then and won. In 1994, it didn't happen. I was fed up with fighting for the team.

"This is a good team with talented players, but off the field it's not going to be any different. It's the same problem with bonus payments we had eight years ago, those who have the money don't want to give it to the players. The Federation and the Ministry really don't work together to lay down clear rules. They are not interested in the players, and as long as they have that attitude there will be problems." (Plus ca change...)

With strong leadership, Bell says, the off-field strife can be conducted into a positive on-field force. "But Francois is a great player, not a leader. What worries me is that the young players will have no guidance. Everything depends on the first match."

The arrival of Le Roy, albeit belated, has begun to transform the spirit in the divided Cameroon camp. After a spell in charge in the late 1980s, the Frenchman has experienced the delicate balance of political forces at work in the nation's passion. A squad dominated by foreign-based players was rapidly shaken out of its complacency. "I have been particularly surprised by the quality of local players," he says diplomatically. "I asked the 16 coaches of the First Division clubs to send me some players for a training camp and I had calls from 200 others all wanting to be considered. I still have no idea how they got my phone number."

Four home-based players - Serge Kwetche, Pierre Njanka, Josef Elanga and Joseph Ndo - have been included in a squad of exiles retrieved from Brazil, Turkey, Spain, Greece, France, Italy, Japan and Germany. Despite the foreign influence, the brand of football remains resolutely singular. "There is no such thing as African football," Le Roy says. "Cameroon is Cameroon and is totally different from any other team. We don't know how to be cautious," adds Bell. "It is not in our nature. We can control a game through physical domination but not tactically. Our players are born to attack and no one has taught them how to defend. The difference now is that we cannot surprise anybody. Austria will not be ashamed to defend and win 1-0."

Not that the genius for surprise has totally deserted the World Cup's crazy gang. Marc-Vivien Foe, sadly sidelined for the World Cup by a broken leg, has been receiving advice from Cameroon faith-healers. "They say they can heal me in three days by burying my leg in the ground and putting fire around it or massaging my leg with gorilla bones while invoking the spirits of my ancestors." Team spirit will be the key against Austria.

"That is my Cup Final," Omam-Biyik says. "If we can create the image of a team and forget our problems, that would be beautiful."