By Beng Emmanuel
When the Indomitable Lions won the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon, Antonio Conceicao had no clue he would ever become the head coach of Africa’s second most successful nations in football – Cameroon one day.
In March 2017, a few weeks after Cameroon’s triumph in the final against record champions Egypt, Antonio Conceicao had agreed a deal with Nea Salamis Famagusta FC, second in the Cypriot First Division. And while celebrations were still ongoing in Cameroon three months later, he had moved to F.C. Penafiel but left after a short spell on September 25, by mutual consent.
His life since then was never the same. In July 2018, Conceição re-joined Cluj as their manager but was sacked in February 2019, after a run of three games without a win. His third spell at the Romanian outfit almost coincided with Cameroon’s debacle in the 2018 FIFA Confederation Cup in Russia.
And after seven months after a recurrent dismissal, Antonio Conceicao accepted one of his biggest challenges of his coaching career with the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon-his first experience; a national team from Africa.
The appointment of the Portuguese tactician on September 21, 2019 as lead trainer of the Central African nation came after the most inevitable parting of Cameroon’s football history. Former AC Milan and Real Madrid star Clarence Seedorf had been sacked after a dismal outing at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations in which they failed to retain the trophy, crashing out in the round of 16 to eternal rivals Nigeria.
Many agreed a shakeup was crucial at this point after their setback in Egypt. Cameroon were once again in the search of a new coach to lead them to the 2022 FIFA World Cup after missing out in 2018 and the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations on home soil with high expectations. And as the media were wondering who will be next to manage the national team, an unpopular figure Antonio Conceicao came up to succeed Seedorf.
The Conceicao era
The decision to appoint Antonio Conceicao as the new head coach of the Cameroon national team was strange at the time because of his limited and unsuccessful experience.
He was completely an unknown figure to the Indomitable Lions’ fans. He never spoke English or French fluently at the time. Many felt he had nothing to offer. There were big doubts about his abilities and they believed he was destined for failure.
He became only the second Portuguese national at the helm of Cameroon’s team after his compatriot Artur Jorge who failed to lead Cameroon to the 2006 FIFA World Cup. But he overcame hardships to change the narrative.
Some fans were optimistic and their confidence in the new coaching staff increased after they had a glimpse of his philosophy. Conceicao didn’t enjoy the best of starts. He managed to get into gear after a dour goalless stalemate against Tunisia in a friendly encounter and was condemned to a similar draw against Cape Verde in their opening game of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.
But then came a huge transformation. Conceicao recorded his first win against Rwanda thanks to Moumi Ngamaleu’s solitary goal. This ignited the team as they embarked on an unbeaten streak of matches. One of the highlights of their impressive run was a narrow 1-0 win against Nigeria in a friendly, but defeat reared its ugly head again in the hands of Ivory Coast in Abidjan.
From an unknown manager, Conceicao forged a new team. Every player is essential in his starting lineup. He has opened the doors of the national team for players and has given youngsters who are willing to represent their country a chance. Now, they have their sights on pursuing the impossible during January’s Africa’s Cup of Nations.
With Conceicao’s contract renewed for another two years, his main priority is to clinch the Africa Cup of Nations on home soil and qualify Cameroon to the 2022 World Cup finals. Will he come good on his promise?
Celebrations may have been modest when he arrived Cameroon after a tough period full of challenges but Conceicao now targets a place in the sports record book. And although the AFCON dream is still far away, it will be talked.