Géremi's golden touch promises success for Chelsea

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The Independent Football

Amongst the influx of foreigners to Chelsea last summer, there was one player alone whose passport bears the stamps of four continents, practically making him a footballing Phileas Fogg in his own right.

Géremi has not quite travelled the world in 80 days - it has taken him more like eight years - but, refreshingly, he is not a world-weary footballer chasing the next big pay cheque.

Indeed his forays have seen him earn his money in some of the world's less financially rewarding countries. Starting out in his homeland of Cameroon, the midfielder then moved on to Paraguay. He did not stay long to sample the few delights of Asuncion, with Cerro Porteño, however, and his next stop was Asian football in Turkey.

It was when he was playing there with Gençlerbirligi that he drew the attention of John Toshack and when the Welshman took the manager's job at Real Madrid in 1999, Géremi was one of the first players he signed.

He lasted three seasons in Spain before Real's annual policy of signing un galactico - always a midfielder or striker - seriously impacted on his view of a first-team shirt. Middlesbrough came calling last season, and Géremi played for them on loan. He never seriously considered staying in the North-east, but when Chelsea revealed their interest last year, he did not hesitate long before putting pen to paper.

But, of course, Géremi, now 25, is back on his travels once more. The man for whom Roman Abramovich paid £7m last July is in Tunisia playing for his country in the African Nations Cup.

He, for one, is glad, and Chelsea fans should be pleased too, even if the tournament had also deprived them of their full-back Celestine Babayaro (until his expulsion from the camp yesterday). The last two Nations Cups have been won by Cameroon, with Géremi prominent in their side, and on both occasions he then returned to his club, in this case Real Madrid, to help them to victory in the Champions' League.

Coincidence or a reflection on the style of football Géremi is best suited to? And anyway, what would Chelsea want more - the Premiership or the European Cup? His answer is that he simply wants to play.

He said: "I will miss a lot of games for Chelsea if we get to the [African Nations] final, but they knew that. Everybody wants to play for his country and it's a big thing for your career.

"It is very difficult but sometimes you have to take a decision and that is life. You can't do everything at the same time. You have to make a choice. Chelsea knew what they were getting with me, and the main thing is to try and understand the situation and find a solution."

There is every chance Cameroon will reach the final. After unluckily only drawing with Algeria in their opening game, they finally hit their stride against Zimbabwe in Sfax on Thursday evening. After a shaky start when they went a goal behind, Géremi, playing out on the right as usual, helped his side to a comfortable win in a game every bit as entertaining as the 5-3 scoreline suggests.

Recent history is on the African champions' side. They got to the final in Nigeria in 2000, beating the co-hosts on penalties, and repeated the feat against Senegal in Mali two years ago. Therefore if the "Indomitable Lions", as they are nicknamed, do get to the final in Tunis on 14 February, Géremi will have been away from his club for a good month.

Being absent that long means Claudio Ranieri will have given someone else - probably Mario Melchiot - an extended chance out on the right-hand side. Géremi, who has played over 50 times for his country, claims this does not worry him unduly. "I don't think about it," he said. "First you make the decision to go with your country. Then when you come back you go for your place again and work. Everything that will be yours can be yours. I believe in destiny. Then just try to work hard and take your opportunity.

"Everything has been going well for me," he added, "and the most important thing is not getting injured. I am happy, especially for the team, because many people did not think Chelsea would be at this level right now."

As for Cameroon, Géremi has been with them over the last four years ensuring they have first of all earned the right to be called the best team in Africa and then maintained that position. In between those successive Nations Cup triumphs came the gold medal in the Sydney Olympics in September 2000 - beating Spain in the final, again on penalties - and they also impressed in the Confederations Cup last June in France.

That maligned tournament gained even greater notoriety as it was during Cameroon's semi-final against Colombia that Géremi's team-mate Marc-Vivien Foé collapsed and died.

The tragedy naturally overshadowed their achievement in reaching the final and to this day the Cameroon team remembers the former Manchester City player, although Géremi hints that they are also trying to move on from that sultry and ghastly evening in Lyon.

"It is a big sadness that he is not with us," he reflected. "We were good friends and he was one of the leaders of the team, like a big brother. The one who gave good advice and ideas. We miss him.

"We will remember and play and think about him. But new players come in now, and it is a new team but we do not say we will forget him. It is impossible to forget what happened in Lyon - it was a huge drama."

One of those new players trying to guide the team to an unprecedented third consecutive Nations Cup is Eric Djemba-Djemba. The Manchester United midfielder has to assume Foé's mantle, and Geremi believes there is plenty in store from the man who has made little impact at Old Trafford this season, bar his confrontation with Sol Campbell in the Community Shield last August.

"We haven't seen the best yet of Eric yet," he said, "because he hasn't played a lot. At Manchester they didn't sign him for this year but for the future. I know he is going to do well. He is not worried about not playing, he knew the situation. He is young, and knows that if he keeps working hard his time will come. Take the opportunity and don't let it go."

Cameroon's last group game is against Egypt next week and anything but defeat will see them through to the quarter-finals. However, Geremi realises that nothing other than getting to the final will do for the team or the supporters.

As he said, "to Cameroon the Nations Cup means a lot. We are champions and, secondly, for our people it is big. We want to win again and it is very important.

"There is a lot of pressure on us because we won the last two and it has now become a habit for us and for the Cameroon people." That uncanny habit Geremi has of winning titles is exactly what a certain Mr Abramovich bought him for: the Russian must hope it proves infectious at Chelsea.