Cameroon fired up to reassert dominance

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There is just rubble to indicate what was once a superpower. Not far from the concrete sprawl of Tunis you can step through what little remains to mark the last time Africa challenged Europe. Carthage's fate was to be utterly destroyed by the Romans, its fields ritually sown with salt so that nothing would grow there again.

There is just rubble to indicate what was once a superpower. Not far from the concrete sprawl of Tunis you can step through what little remains to mark the last time Africa challenged Europe. Carthage's fate was to be utterly destroyed by the Romans, its fields ritually sown with salt so that nothing would grow there again.

For a man like Ali Aroup, the thought that one day Africa might overcome Europe on a football field is a burning one. He had been to see Nigeria's African Nations Cup games in the whitewashed, faintly Moorish stadium in Monastir and now he showed me his match ticket for Cameroon's desultory draw with Egypt which hardly suggested world champions in the making.

"You know what really pisses me off whenever a World Cup begins," he said. "All the European teams say: 'We have come to win the tournament.' When an African team is asked, they always say: 'We hope to get through to the next round.' What sort of ambition is that? I tell you, mister, before I die I want to see an African team win the World Cup."

It is 30 years since Zaire, now trading insolvently as the Democratic Republic of Congo, became the first African nation to take part in a World Cup finals; 22 since Algeria became the first African team to beat a European nation in the finals; and 14 since Cameroon showed at Italia 90 that they had not just come to take part.

Here in Tunisia, Cameroon have come to win their third successive African Nations Cup in a competition which has yet to come properly alive, although three of the quarter-finals, Algeria v Morocco, Senegal v Tunisia and Cameroon v Nigeria, are tantalising fixtures. Of their rivals, South Africa are out, Senegal have lost their manager, Bruno Metsu, and with him the freedom they showed at the World Cup in Japan and Korea, while Nigeria are a divided, disintegrating mess.

Cameroon have the players to succeed: Samuel Eto'o, who describes himself as a better footballer than David Beckham, Géremi and Eric DjembaDjemba, with everything underpinned by Rigobert Song, but they have something more important: continuity. Winfried Schäfer is the only coach in Tunisia who was managing the same team in the last African Nations Cup two years ago. That Cameroon have been easily the most impressive African side during this period is not wholly a coincidence.

Save for his haircut, which resembles Jilly Cooper staring out of the back cover of Riders, Schäfer looks little different to the troupe of large, elderly track-suited Germans who spend cheap winters by the Mediterranean in Sousse and Monastir. Long ago, before the Kaiser's war, Cameroon was, briefly, a German colony and although their language is French, there is a Germanic discipline about the side. Their last two African Nations Cups were won by penalty shoot-outs.

Lucien Mettomo, happier at Kaiserslautern than he was at Manchester City, said as he walked into the sunshine after the draw with Egypt: "Look, the pressure is right on us because we are expected to win the tournament. Once you've won it twice before, it's logical people expect you to do it again. But we have a huge advantage in having a back-room staff that's been in place for two years. We have a continuity and we know what's expected of us. Of course, having the World Cup staged in Africa in six years' time is a spur, whether it's staged in Morocco, Tunisia or South Africa and, yes, I really believe, deep down, a team like Cameroon can win it."

Géremi, his smile never leaving him, was almost apologetic. "We weren't good today," the Chelsea midfielder said as he left the dressing-room. "But we are through and we know we can win this. We are confident of beating anyone, we have plenty of ambition and a lot of experience.

"I don't know what happened today. We started badly and I thought we would improve in the second half. Once we are through to the quarter-finals you will see the true Cameroon but I don't think that having won the tournament before will give us any real advantage.

"I don't mind playing Nigeria," Géremi added, "but Tunisia [whom they are not scheduled to meet until the final] are very strong. We have our motivation. For us, if we won for a third time it would be really special and it would mean so much for our careers. To say that you have made history: now that is something."

Egypt, who, like Cameroon, have won the Nations Cup four times, might have made their own history but left amid scenes of mild farce. Their qualification depended on the result in Sousse between Algeria and Zimbabwe, who had already been eliminated. The transistors pressed to Egyptian ears reveal that in the battered Stade Olympique, Algeria are astonishingly two down and a stalemate here in Monastir would see Egypt through on goal difference. They begin playing keep-ball, making no attempt to attack and nobody seems to have told them that Algeria have scored a late goal and now Egypt desperately require a breakthrough. It was like watching Manchester City's relegation from the Premiership in 1996, when Alan Ball's team wasted time by the corner flag, not realising they needed another goal to save themselves.

Afterwards there is mayhem; camera crews barge through stewards vainly demanding to see accreditation, into the tiny press room. The Egypt coach, Mohsen Salah, steps outside to announce his resignation.

When Sven Goran Eriksson quits, he would hope not to deliver his resignation statement while being serenaded by a supporter dressed as a Morris dancer, but Ali Sebaay, clad in full Egyptian national costume, clutches his mandolin and strums away. A taxi driver from New York, he had paid $5,000 (£2,700) for his ticket to Tunisia and a room in the team hotel.

"I always dress like this to watch football," he said, his face cracked open with a vast grin. "I went to the Giants Stadium in New York to watch Juventus play last summer but after 11 September, people are very suspicious of Arabs; they tried to take this away," he said, tapping his mandolin. "They told me it could be a bomb." He would now be supporting Tunisia. "We need an Arab nation to win this, it's not a good time for us right now."

This was a general feeling in Tunisia. If the host country could not win it, then let it be Morocco. In a game where supporters are told to despise their neighbours as a matter of course; when England's success is Scotland's disaster, when the Dutch want anything other than a German victory, this is peculiarly refreshing. It is, however, an Arab trait not an African one: after the 1-1 draw between Senegal and Mali in the concrete bowl of Tunis' El Menzah Stadium, the stewards formed two lines not to separate the teams or the fans but to stop rival journalists throwing punches at each other.

If there is to be an Arab victory, Tunisia are the likeliest to provide it. Their one-man, one-party government of Zine Ben Ali, who gazes from every wall like a younger Robert Maxwell, has spent heavily, both on recruiting Roger Lemerre, who led France to their Euro 2000 victory, and on the glittering stadium at Rades, whose silver roof stares out from where the suburbs of Tunis end abruptly in desert scrub.

The official line is that the African Nations Cup is a platform for landing the World Cup in 2010, although allying yourself with Libya, as Ben Ali has done, is political poison even if Colonel Gaddafi has resigned his membership of the Axis of Evil. It is not that Fifa objects to dictators but after the last World Cup in Japan and Korea, Sepp Blatter no longer wishes to deal with two governments.

Tunisia might have topped the weakest group but they have the discovery of the tournament, Francileudo dos Santos, who is as Tunisian as Tony Cascarino was Irish. Born in Brazil and playing for Sochaux in Le Championnat, he was given a Tunisian passport on the strength of two years at L'Etoile Sahel in Sousse and the fact that he might provide some goals. Thus far, the record stands at three in as many matches.

There are scouts and coaches in Tunisia, but there are not vast riches to discover. The training camps in Cameroon ensured that Djemba-Djemba was known to Nantes before his 16th birthday. When Dramane Traoré headed Mali ahead against Senegal on Monday, he was the only member of Henri Stambouli's squad who played his football in Africa and that was in Ismailia, in Egypt, several thousand miles from the Malian capital, Bamoko.

Nick Neururer is an Austrian scout and veteran of many African tournaments. He has driven the length of Tunisia, admitting that the games involving Benin, Congo and Zimbabwe are more likely to provide him with material than today's quarter-final between Senegal and Tunisia. Neururer reckoned Zimbabwe was an interesting source of material, as was Benin. He thought that Switzerland, Austria and Poland might be the best markets for these players; the standard of domestic football was not too arduous, they were on the main European scouting routes and the players he found would not be paid too much money, lessening the dangers of selfdestruction. If they were over 23, they were probably too old. Many would end up in Eastern Europe. "There, they have a huge, huge demand for cheap footballers," Neururer said.

There was a feeling in Tunisia, expressed by Michel Platini before the tournament, that there was less natural joy and expressiveness about the African Nations Cup, that the players are being Europeanised, over-coached and in the process have become blander, more robotic.

It is a charge that Stambouli, who was the assistant manager to the now disgraced Marseilles side which won the European Cup in 1993, believes to be partly true but driven by a necessity to please big clubs that do not really trust Africa. Bolton, for example, sent a physiotherapist to Monastir to make sure Jay-Jay Okocha was properly looked after, which to many in the African Nations Cup appeared condescending.

"Black African players are more inventive, more technical, more powerful, while the north Africans have more collective qualities," Stambouli said. "But you have to have high, high discipline with our players. You have to take the players to one side and tell them individually that they are being watched."

The Bolton manager, Sam Allardyce, claimed it was "outrageous" that he should be deprived of his captain, Okocha, before a League Cup semi-final and he is not alone. Internazionale put up every barrier they could to ensure that their striker, Obafemi Martins, did not travel to Tunisia. South Africa, disastrously, omitted Quinton Fortune, Shaun Bartlett, Mark Fish and Benni McCarthy because, backed by their clubs, they would not attend pre-tournament training camps.

"There is not just resistance from the English managers, it is the same everywhere," said Stambouli, discussing the struggle to take Frédéric Kanouté to the tournament. "In France it is the same and in Spain definitely. We have Mohamed Lamine Sissoko, who plays for Valencia. They were leading their championship and we had enormous problems trying to take him. But Fifa now have hard rules you can use to get the player you want and we have doctors, proper trainers, inventive coaching. We rested Frédéric Kanouté against Senegal, because we want to keep him sharp, whereas 10 years ago he would have played every game and been run into the ground. The European clubs should have nothing to fear."

Stambouli was speaking English but the language of this African Nations Cup is French. Of the two English-speaking powers, South Africa are already eliminated and Nigeria expect to be by Sunday night. Under an almost purple night sky in Sousse, South Africa failed to reach the quarter-finals for the first time, having not absorbed the lesson that continuity counts for so very much. April Phumo, who was appointed the day before the tournament began, was their 10th manager in 11 years. Two years ago, South Africa fired the man who now runs Real Madrid before a ball was kicked in the World Cup, now they had a man whose chief experience was running football in Lesotho.

Cricket, football and rugby: three championships represented three South African failures and the language of defeat was bitter. "Too many good coaches from Carlos Queiroz down have come into this job and been treated appallingly," The Johannesburg Star said. "Watching a professionally run side like Cameroon puts the shameful Bafana set-up into focus."

The South African squad flew home via Madrid and perhaps during the stopover, Queiroz might have been tempted to leave his desk at the Bernabeu and enquire of his former employers where it all went wrong.