By Beng Emmanuel
In February 2017, Cameroon football team won the Africa Cup of Nations for the fifth time in their history.
But since winning the continent’s most converted trophy for the first time in 15 years, many tragedies have befallen the team.
Only four months after their triumph, the just crowned African champions failed to impress at the 2017 FIFA Confederation Cup in Russia. They collected just one point in three games losing to group B rivals Chile and Germany.
They followed up that debacle with their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup finals after being held to 1-1 stalemate by the Super Eagles of Nigeria in Yaoundé on September 4, 2017.
But their troubles did not end there. In 2019, the Indomitable Lions failed to retain the AFCON trophy in Egypt. They were stunned by a late comeback from familiar rivals Nigeria 3-2 in the round of 16.
In the space of three years, Cameroon-a country that put football so central to its national identity-suffered from an unbearable load of humiliation
But these failures had a big impact. Between 2017 and 2021, three trainers have managed the national team. Cameroon’s title winning gaffer Hugo Bross was sacked. So was his successor Clarence Seedorf who was replaced by Antonio Conceicao.
The Portuguese trainer recently extended his contract at the helm of the national team for two more years.
So, can the Indomitable Lions avoid similar disappointment to sail through as they begin qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar?
And can Antonio Conceicao use the qualifiers to win the hearts of Cameroonians as the country expects to claim the AFCON next year on home soil?
The race to Qatar
Cameroon is historically regarded as one of the most successful nations on the continent. They have featured at the World Cup seven times-most of any other nation. Surely, their failing to qualify in 2018, stunned fans across the world.
Drawn in group D, the five time African champions begin their quest for an eighth participation at the world stage against the Flames of Malawi on September 3 at the Olembe Sport Complex in Yaoundé. Ivory Coast and Mozambique complete the group.
And while fans won’t be privileged to roar their team to victory in the first game of the newly constructed 60,000 capacity stadium due to the global health pandemic, they are upbeat their team will ease to victory for a decent start.
“We want to see our team play the World Cup again”-a supporter of the team and resident of Olembe told Ginainforms.
“We must do everything to qualify and we are aware it starts from our performance in the first game. We know the boys [Indomitable Lions] won’t disappoint. We would have wished to cheer them to victory”-
To begin their campaign, the head coach Antonio Conceicao selected a squad packed with talents and who possess the steel to win crucial games.
No injury worries have been reported apart from the absence of Andre Onana and his goalkeeping cousin Fabrice Ondoa. There is enough talent and consequently no excuse will quell the rage of supporters if a win isn’t achieved. This is a group of players who can realize a nation’s dream.
“All the players that were summoned to represent the country are physically fit. It is a positive thing, so I think that we have the facilities, we have the determination and we want to show what we are capable of doing for the country”- 2017 AFCON winner Fai Collins said on state media CRTV.
Three days after their clash with Malawi, Cameroon will take on Ivory Coast in Abidjan. The team hopes to grab maximum points during the first two qualifying matches.
“We are very focused and determined because we know what awaits us. We have two very important games. And I think the most important thing for us is to start well and grab three points at home. We hope to give everything to start the campaign well.” Fai said.
Cameroon will head into the World Cup qualifiers with bitter memories of 2018 when they failed to qualify. Some players in the squad who were part of the qualifiers that year when things took a turn for the worst, are part of the squad.
Can Conceicao deliver?
The FIFA World Cup is the pinnacle of football competitions; every player in the world dreams to play. It is also a space where every football manager hopes to reap benefits. Coach Antonio Conceicao is no exception.
In 2019, the 59-year-old became the first Portuguese national to coach Cameroon after Artur Jorge who led the national team from 2004-2006. In 2019, he signed a two year deal taking charge of ten games with five wins and a defeat.
Before his contract was renewed, many wondered if he would be handed an extension that will see him lead the African powerhouse to the World Cup qualifiers and next year’s Africa Cup of Nations on home soil. That was effectively done.
Since then, Coach Antonio Conceicao has repeatedly insisted his main focus will be the qualification for the World Cup before tilting his attention to the Africa Cup of Nations.
After successfully seeing Cameroon through the 2021 AFCON qualifiers where they finished top of their group (although already qualified) Conceicao is hoping to ameliorate his squad and bring long term consistency and progress that has been missing in the team.
Beginning the World Cup qualifiers with a win against Malawi and Ivory Coast will be a perfect beginning to his new era as he hopes to convince fans and sport stakeholders in the country that he is the right man for the top job.
The weight of responsibility on his shoulder is enormous. Even some of his predecessors haven’t faced such challenges. Qualifying for the World Cup and winning the 2021 AFCON- like he hopes will silence critics forever, and replace the boos and sorrows with cries of joy.