Africa Cup of Nations: Cameroon overcame odds as coach Hugo Broos gets the lions roaring again

And so, the Lions are indomitable again. Cameroon have won the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations.

When Belgian coach Hugo Broos arrived in Cameroon, he got a hostile reception from the local press. “What will happen if you lose three games, coach?” asked one of the journalists at his first press conference. The Belgian, agitated, replied: “What will happen if I win my first three matches?”

Cameroon's Benjamin Moukandjo celebrates with the trophy. Reuters

Cameroon's Benjamin Moukandjo celebrates with the trophy. Reuters

At 64, Broos had never managed a national team before. He had enjoyed success in Belgian club football, winning three league titles in stints with Club Brugge and Anderlecht, but in the last decade Broos had worked in the periphery of football coaching, taking up jobs in Greece, Turkey, Abu Dhabi and Algeria. He hadn’t even been on the shortlist of the Cameroonian FA, Fecafoot, for the vacancy of Cameroon coach.

After his appointment, the Belgian sat to work immediately. He omitted goalkeeper Carlos Kameni and then captain Stephane M’bia from his team and opted to pick younger players. Broos cleaned up the squad and Cameroon qualified with relative ease for the African Cup of Nations. They were drawn in Group A with debutants Guinea-Bissau, 2013 finalists Burkina Faso and the hosts Gabon.

The hosts were going through a crisis. From the opening match, opponents of president Ali Bongo called on the Gabonese not to attend games to protest Gabon’s recent political crisis. The boycott’s chief proponent was opposition leader Jean Ping, who claimed to have won the 2016 presidential election despite the Gabonese highest court validating the re-election of Ali Bongo whose family has ruled the country for half a century. Ping rejected the results and said that he won’t retreat. There was neither an outright boycott nor real enthusiasm in Gabon for a tournament organised at a reported cost of almost $800 million. In October, funding for health and education services were cut.

On the field, José Camacho’s team was disjointed. Gabon were a limited outfit, relying on their star player Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Africa’s deadliest striker, to win games. Following a tense, goalless draw with Cameroon in their final group match, Gabon were eliminated.

Burkina Faso, who were lit up by their prolific striker Aristide Bancé, topped the group. Their success, together with the impressive performance from DR Congo, reflected a more level playing field at the tournament compared to the previous editions. In Gabon, African football showed a broad base of talent, and perhaps a higher quality.

However, there was no team of the calibre of the Nigeria of Kanu, Jay-Jay Okocha, Taribo West and Sunday Oliseh. Algeria, the pre-tournament favorites, together with defending champions Ivory Coast, had perhaps the most impressive squad, but they remained chronic underachievers after their shock first round exit. For much of their time in Gabon, Algeria were out of ideas. That footballing paucity revealed that Algeria had no game conception. The mere sum of the Fennecs’s golden generation wasn’t enough to overpower their opponents. Indeed, a golden generation can’t win in the absence of ideas.

Senegal, led by a hungry Sadio Mane and Lazio Roma prodigy Keita Balde, then emerged as the main contenders, but Aliou Cisse and his charges met their Waterloo in the quarter-finals against Cameroon. Fabrice Ondoa, the young goalkeeper brought in by Broos, saved Mane’s penalty for Cameroon to progress.

Here was a team that relied on collective unity, on water carriers, and on hard work. Before the tournament, eight players, including Liverpool’s Joel Matip, had even withdrawn from the squad, This was not the great Cameroon of Samuel Eto’o, Geremi, Rigobert Song and the late Marc-Vivian Foe. Yet Benjamin Moukandjo, who struck with an outstanding free-kick in the draw with Burkina Faso, offered Cameroon a bit of flair in the centre. The right-winger Christian Bassogog proved to be lively and in Ondoa, Cameroon had one of the players of the tournament.

If solid, defensive organisation and caution had carried Cameroon to the last four, they attacked Ghana with verve from the onset in their semi-final. In the second half, Slavia Prague defender Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui scored from a tight angle after terrible defending by both John Boye and goalkeeper Brimah Razak. As Ghana poured forward in search of an equaliser, Bassogog sealed the win in injury time with a neat dink.

In the final, Cameroon met Egypt. This then was the worst generation of Cameroonian players in living memory – or so local media, pundits and fans thought – playing in the final against the seven-time winners.

The Egyptian juggernaut, with all its experience and effectiveness, had rolled on relentlessly. They had gone 23 games unbeaten on the continent’s biggest stage. The Portugal of Africa had conceded just a single goal in the entire tournament. Egypt had been absent from the three previous finals and with the vast majority of their players plying their trade domestically, the team did well to reach the final. The Pharaohs had been very clinical: when they did venture forward against Uganda, Morocco, and Burkina Faso, they scored. Yet their performances were never convincing, with an overly defensive approach, as preached by their Spanish coach Hector Cuper.

On Sunday, a young and inexperienced Cameroon showed much resilience and tenacity to overcome a much-fancied Egypt with a late striker from substitute Vincent Aboubakar. His goal was one for the ages, a brilliant flick in between two Egyptian defenders and a volley. Aboubakar sprinted away in a delirious celebration as the Egyptians were stunned. Broos has the lions roaring again.

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Updated Date: Feb 07, 2017 11:42:46 IST

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