Football: Indomitable Lions on the raw side

Norman Fox watches the Africans struggle to revive the glories of old
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The Independent Online
According to the International Football Federation, Cameroon are ranked only 44th in the World (England are seventh). Five other African countries are above them including Morocco, South Africa and Tunisia who have also qualified for next summer's World Cup. So straight away let's knock down the idea that the "Indomitable Lions" of the past remain the pride of Africa and a serious prize for England.

Having appeared in the final competitions of three previous World Cups, Cameroon are still by some way Africa's most experienced footballing country, which is a long way from saying that they at present represent that continent's best challenge to Europe or South America. Their players are dispersed all over the world, making consistent teamwork difficult and leaving a lot to individuality, which was never lacking last night but may not be enough in France. So far this year they have used more than 50 players, which puts into perspective Glenn Hoddle's little local difficulties with injured and unavailable players.

Cameroon's players all live under the threat of comparison with their 1990 World Cup side that beat the holders Argentina, kicked Diego Maradona into virtual submission and finally lost to two Gary Lineker penalties in the quarter-finals. But then they had Roger Milla who was celebrating his 38th birthday, probably for the third or fourth time, while last night they had no one to compare and a squad with 13 players under 22, not least Salomon Olembe who was only 16 years and 342 days which made him the youngest player ever to appear in an international at Wembley when he came on as a substitute.

Despite Cameroon's largely negative performance, what everyone will discover in France is that African sides have learned to make life difficult for even the world's sharpest and in-form strikers. Cameroon have been doing that for years and snapped and snarled at Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman as soon as they got within 40 yards of goal.

Living dangerously has always been a part of Cameroon's attitude, as has shooting on sight. The ploy drew derisive jeers from the home crowd but for a long time it kept England thinking that they could ill- afford to release too many men forward.

Not for the first time England had to be patient and diligent against a team who one moment looked vulnerable, the next full of threat especially Joseph- Desire Job, the centre-forward who plays for Lyon but is being watched by Barcelona and Internazionale. But for a miskick after he had eluded the unfortunate Gareth Southgate, as well as Andy Hinchcliffe, he would surely have embarrassed England. However, vulnerability in the centre of defence cost Cameroon the two goals from Paul Scholes and Fowler.

With that cushion, England were no longer in danger. Not that their passage was made much easier. That emphasised the value of Paul Gascoigne against teams who next year could become troublesome obstacles. His ability to hold off cloying tackles and release the ball so perfectly should be prized. And on a night when England could well have been embarrassed by the similar ingenuity of the opposition, none was able to match his repertoire. That in itself may greatly encourage England although the amount of possession Cameroon enjoyed will warn them against thinking too big, too soon.