Cameroon is (or was) Africa’s football powerhouse. They reached the 1990 World Cup quarterfinals in Italy, becoming the first on the continent to do so. But three decades later, something is cracking within this strong tradition of football success.
Last week, Cameroon was bundled out of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), having meekly qualified to the round of 16 at the tournament going on in Cote d’Ivoire.
Now tongues are wagging in Cameroon with some soccer enthusiasts linking the unpleasant performance of the five-time African champions to the country’s very political scale.
In Cameroon, there have been the same politicians in most levels for the last three decades. The country's President Paul Biya has been around since 1982 and much of the regime from then has run affairs for the country for that long.
The Indomitable Lions has had a majority of its members selected from young, inexperienced and Afcon first-timers. Yet the football itself is run by people who were players before transiting to leadership.
Cameroon opened the tournament with a 1-1 draw against Guinea, then lost 1-3 to title holders Senegal before dramatically securing a knockout stage berth after a 3-2 victory over lowest rank Gambia. However, they were eliminated by Nigeria at round of 16.
Rigobert Song, Cameroon's former national team captain, transited into coaching. But he went directly to the top without having experience in coaching elsewhere.
Now questions have emerged of his personal relationships with experienced players he left out ostensibly because they criticised him.
In Cameroon, the tradition has been that presidential appointments to government structures in the country follow loyalty. And critics often stay in the cold. To succeed in Cameroonian politics, you keep your mouth shut or speak in praise of the government.
The country’s corruption perception is often among the worst on the continent. According to a Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, Cameroon ranked 144 out of 180 polled countries across the world in 2023, with public officials routinely accused of impunity and bribe-taking.
Song was criticised by pundits here of lacking play style identity and strategy.
Song himself admitted to this when he said that the team lacked a midfielder who can find a pass to unlock defences. However, fans are yet to understand why Pierre Kunde Malong and Eric Maxime Choupo-Moting were dropped.
The coach decided to build his team around his wingers, notably Georges Kevin Nkoudou whose role was to provoke one-on-one situations and whip in crosses for the strikers to attack. Unfortunately, the team lacked the same attacking threat from the right making its games lopsided, according to Francis Ajumane; a football writer in Cameroon.
“Most of our attacks are built from the left. That is why I still don't understand why Song did not take Jerome Ngom along to the Afcon. I feel he would have provided the much-needed balance on the right,” Ajumane said.
Ngom unselfishly served Vincent Aboubakar a cutback which the forward headed into the net to give Cameroon the lone goal and victory over Brazil at the World Cup in Qatar.
Song included two homebased players in his 27-man squad for the Afcon; Leonel Ateba, who used to play for Dynamo Douala but has since transferred to USM Alger of Algeria, and Nathan Douala who plays for Victoria United club.
But fans were quick to notice that the presidents of the two clubs have close ties with president of the Cameroon Football Federation (Fecafoot), Samuel Eto’o Fils.
The list was released a few days after Emmanuel Mahop, a top goal scorer of the last season (then with Canon club) won the Cameroonian men's top gong, to become the current best footballer of the year, dubbed Most Valuable Player of the country's 2023 MTN Elite One football championship. Yet, the current Cotonsport striker was not included in the national squad.
Song also left out right back Fai Collins who was very instrumental in Cameroon’s qualification for the tournament on grounds he was unattached at this time. He took four goalkeepers to Cote d’Ivoire despite the fact that one of them, Davies Epassy, had not played for over two months.
Cameroon like most African countries, corruption and cronyism are rife when it comes to national team call-ups and merits are not taken into account.
Eto’o who became president of Fecafoot in December 2021 has been under investigation in the country for “abuse of authority and corruption” following allegations of match-fixing. This is after a Spanish court slapped the former Barcelona striker a 22-month suspended prison sentence and fine of £1.4 million ($1.7 million) after pleading guilty to a charge of tax fraud linked to his image rights when he played in Spain.
Back home, analysts say call-ups to the national team are tele-guided by Eto’o who played alongside Song during their heydays for the national team.
“Cronyism is possible and has been the stock-in-trade of Eto'o and Song”, says Cameroonian sports analyst, Franklin Sone Bayen.
Eto’o and Song have come a long way and are old in exerting undue influence in the national team.
Back in the mid-2000s, there was a code known as “1984” referring to a group of old manipulators of the Cameroon national team who pulled the strings, influenced coaches and even ministers and decided who were selected and who played.
The code referred to jersey numbers of Idriss Carlos Kameni (1), Samuel Eto'o (9) Geremi Njitap (8) and Rigobert Song (4). The curious twist though is that Song – and to a lesser extent Njitap and Kameni; that is 184, later became victims of 9 (Eto’o). Upon the arrival of coach Paul Le Guen in 2009, Eto'o toppled Song as captain and Song was on his way to being thrown out of the national team, to be replaced by Sebastian Bassong, now a BBC football pundit.
Song barely managed to make it to both Afcon and World Cup 2010.
“That was part of the reason for the Alex Song-Achille Emana-led rebellion in the Lions camp that partly wasted Cameroon's obvious great potentials in both 2010 tournaments and those after like 2014 in Brazil,” Bayen recalls, referring to other players including Rigobert’s nephew Alexander Song who played for Arsenal.
Bayen who has covered several international football tournaments including the World Cup, recalls that at 1990 World Cup, Manga Onguene, one of three assistants of Russian coach Valeri Nepomniachtchi, was accused of monetising selection of players or soliciting favours from players, including the birthday party players threw for him during the global football event.
There have been stories about other coaches and football federation officials collecting money from players. French investigative journalist Romain Molina revealed last year that Cameroon and Ghana extorted players to include them in the Fifa World Cup squads and have them starting certain matches at the tournament in Qatar. Both federations however denied the allegations.
Cameroon had been awarded hosting rights for Afcon 2019 but were later stripped due to failure to meet compliance, including massive delay in completion of infrastructure which were shrouded in controversies and corruption scandals.
Till date, the Olembe Complex that hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the Afcon 2021 edition is still uncomplete and whistle blowers say billions of dollars of taxpayers' money has been swallowed in corruption and squandered contracts.
Meanwhile, Eto'o formally denies any allegations of favouritism or corruption. His lawyers defend him, terming corruption allegations as ‘rumours’.