Cameroon Fought Hard For A Short Trip To Qatar
12:32 PM EST on November 16, 2022
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Cameroon's path to the 2022 World Cup could hardly have been more dramatic. First, the Indomitable Lions were drawn in a qualifying group with Ivory Coast, a team removed from its glory days at the start of last decade but one still dangerous for any opponent. Cameroon was able to top that group by two points thanks to a final matchday victory over the Ivorians in Douala. The side's reward was to then play against Algeria in a two-match playoff for a spot at the World Cup. No easy feat given Algeria's depth of talent, and it turned out to be the second-most exciting fixture of African qualifying's third round. (It's hard to beat Senegal-Egypt for drama, but silver here was still riveting.)
Algeria won the first match away from home, setting the Fennec Foxes up to hold serve at home and advance to the World Cup. Cameroon, however, did not go quietly, with Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting equalizing the matchup at 1–1 on aggregate with a 22nd minute goal. That's how it stayed until extra time, when Ahmed Touba took the lead back for Algeria in the 118th minute. It looked bleak for Cameroon then, but one more away goal would give the side the outright victory.
That's exactly what happened in the 124th minute:
Cameroon's reward for its late heroics in qualifying is to be slotted into 2018's Group E redux, with the Cameroonians taking Costa Rica's spot alongside repeat opponents Brazil, Switzerland, and Serbia. On paper, this is a brutal draw for Cameroon's dream of a second-place finish. Brazil is Brazil, and Cameroon simply might not have enough talent to finish ahead of both the Europeans. A last-place exit here would not be a surprise for anyone, but that doesn't mean that Cameroon will make it easy for the Swiss and Serbs.
That's because Cameroon plays hard and in control. The players love to have the ball at their feet, and work towards that goal by pressing like crazy all over the field. This strategy might be risky against more talented sides, though even if Cameroon prefers a low block in Qatar, its players won't feel out of place whenever they do get the ball and turn forward.
That's when Cameroon's best asset, its attack, should come into play. While the midfield is mostly bad, with one exception, and the defense isn't much better, the attack boasts three players who have plied their trades in Europe. Choupo-Moting has crafted one hell of a career, trading on his ability to score key goals and ending up at Paris Saint-Germain and, currently, Bayern Munich. Captain Vincent Aboubakar is now 30 and has traded his European career for a cushy gig in Saudi Arabia, but the stout striker can still bang in goals. And Karl Toko Ekambi, scorer of the crucial qualifying playoff goal, plays a key role at Lyon in France. These are three players who won't wow anyone with their talent, but they play well together and should cause problems for unprepared defenses.
Will that be enough to carry Cameroon past the group stage for only the second time at the World Cup? Probably not. There are too many weak spots behind the attacking trio, and the reality of not being able to press teams into submission will dull their edge. Still, of all of the teams widely predicted to finish last in groups across the tournament, Cameroon is one of the best candidates to steal a point or two here and there. Anything better than its last tournament—when Cameroon went home with zero points, one goal scored, and nine conceded in 2014—will be the bare minimum, and this team has enough oomph to make that happen.
Who Is Their Main Guy?
Remember the one exception to Cameroon's midfield frailty? That would be André-Frank Zambo Anguissa, Napoli's do-it-all center midfielder. Anguissa is a key part of the current Serie A leaders' flying start to the campaign, and he has a claim for being the club's best non-attacking player. Standing six feet tall and weighing 172 pounds, Anguissa is a bully on and off the ball, using his size and technical ability to both dribble opponents—his 1.57 completed dribbles per 90 minutes rank him in the top 10 percent of top 5 league midfielders—and dispossess them, racking up 2.26 tackles, 1.44 interceptions, and 1.33 aerials won per 90.
All of those stats paint the picture of a player who can slot into any midfield and immediately make it better. Anguissa isn't the most creative midfielder, but he gets forward often enough to be a target for short passing moves and give-and-gos. This, in turn, opens up the offense for Napoli, drawing defenders away from its goalscorers. Doing this for Cameroon will have a similar effect. With Anguissa charging forward possibly even more for the national team, the trio mentioned above will find more room to work.
When he does get into the opponent's box, Anguissa is not a passenger in chance creation. Though his goal tallies aren't otherworldly—he has just two goals in Serie A play this season, and one in the Champions League—he does connect with his attackers well, notching six assists across both competitions. In Napoli's 4–1 demolition of Liverpool back in September, Anguissa connected with Piotr Zielinski for his side's second, a beautiful give-and-go that left Liverpool's defense looking like it forgot how to play soccer:
If he can connect on a few of those moves for Cameroon, then the task gets much tougher for opponents trying to keep track of a midfielder with no real weaknesses.
Who Is Their Main Scoring Guy?
As mentioned above, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting has had a wild career. He started in his native Germany, playing for Hamburg, Nuremberg, Mainz, and Schalke from 2007 to 2017. He didn't particularly impress at any of those stops before moving over to Stoke City in 2017. He was similarly not great there: five goals in 30 games, and a relegation to boot.
Logically, his next stop was at Paris Saint-Germain. There, he filled his backup role with surprising aplomb. Choupo-Moting's most notable moment with the Parisians came in the Champions League, where in 2020 he saved PSG's ass by scoring a 93rd-minute winner that sent his team past Atalanta and into the semifinals:
Choupo-Moting next pivoted from PSG to Bayern Munich in the summer of 2020, where he still plays today. There, he has been even better as a backup than he was at PSG, and this year he's arguably worked his way into the team's ideal starting lineup. In 10 Bundesliga matches, only six of them starts, the Cameroonian has six goals and two assists. His late-career bloom has been simply remarkable.
All of this is what Choupo-Moting brings to Cameroon. He's not the best with the ball at his feet, but his movement is intelligent, and he keeps his cool in front of goal. The Cameroonians won't get too many chances to score at the World Cup, but Choupo-Moting should be able to capitalize when they do.
Where's The Beef?
Which teams or players does Cameroon not like? Do Cameroon's players like each other? We investigate their potential enemies.
Samuel Eto'o is the most decorated Cameroonian soccer player of all time, winning four Champions League titles, four league titles across Spain and Italy, and an Olympic gold medal with the national team in 2000. He is also the current president of the Cameroonian soccer federation, and this is where the beef is cooking for Cameroon.
Eto'o is an outspoken president, prone to grandiose statements that put undue pressure on the players. Just last week, he said in a statement that Cameroon will win the entire World Cup in an all-African final against Morocco. Along the way, Cameroon will defeat Belgium and fellow African semifinalists Senegal before taking on the Atlas Lions in the biggest match.
Eto'o's, um, optimism is less concerning than what he's had to say about his country's own players, though. Particularly, there have been reports that he's been known to rip into Anguissa for a perceived lack of interest in the national team compared to his club career. Before the squad was selected for the World Cup, there was buzz that Eto'o would push the team to leave the Napoli star off the roster entirely. Anguissa will in fact be in Qatar, but the player had harsh words for Eto'o after the president criticized Cameroon's performance after a tight 1-0 win over Burundi in AFCON qualifying back in June, saying that it was unhelpful for Eto'o to heap so much unnecessary pressure on the side.
Eto'o's ire is not limited to Anguissa. He also slammed Cameroon manager Rigobert Song after that Burundi match, and his continued grudge against Liverpool center back Joël Matip has kept the stellar defender out of the squad. Whether Eto'o's words and actions will be a distraction or a rallying cry for the team remains to be seen, but he's gambling a lot by inserting himself into the story, and it could backfire spectacularly.
Most Likely To Go David Ospina Or James Rodríguez Mode
Who is Cameroon's best candidate for a breakout performance that earns them a career-changing transfer? Might this potential post-tournament transfer go well, like when Colombia's James Rodríguez went to Real Madrid after starring in the 2014 World Cup? Or could it go poorly, like when Colombia's David Ospina went to Arsenal after starring in the 2014 World Cup?
While at Ajax, André Onana was pegged as the next great goalkeeper in European soccer. He started his youth career at Barcelona, after coming up through the Samuel Eto'o Academy. In search of a clearer path to the field, Onana made the move to the Netherlands in 2015 and quickly solidified himself as the No. 1 of the future for the Dutch giants. He mostly lived up to that once he was promoted to the senior team, but a February 2021 suspension for using a banned substance left his career in the balance. The ban was originally for a year, but was later reduced to nine months. Either way, it signaled the end of his career at Ajax; he left the club in the summer of 2022 for Inter Milan in Serie A.
Onana is still young; 26 is baby age for goalkeepers, who regularly play into their late 30s. But he's now at the stage where he'll need to start converting his potential into real performances. His move to Inter has been fine—not at all bad, but not what you would've imagined from the expectations of a few years ago. If he were to have a stellar World Cup, a move to a bigger side, whether in Spain or in England, could be on the cards. The question then is whether he still has the ability to lock down a goal for a top team, against top competition. The answer to that will decide whether he's still on track to be a star, or if he's just another promising youngster whose career turned out just fine, if unspectacular.
David Ospina Mode Probability Score: 30.1
James Rodriguez Mode Probability Score: 37.9
Fun Geographical Fact
Cameroon is often called "Africa in miniature," thanks to its broad diversity of terrain and climate. It contains most of the continent's biospheres, from desert to rain forests to the savanna.
Good Flag Or Bad Flag?
Any country that uses the pan-African colors of red, green, and yellow is at a distinct advantage when it comes to the all-important "cool flag quotient." Cameroon is no exception, and the star in the middle, which represents "unity," is a nice touch to differentiate it from other flags on the continent. This, to me, is a better version of Senegal's already excellent flag.
Good Anthem Or Bad Anthem?
That overture at the start immediately puts this in the top tier of World Cup anthems. It's jaunty throughout, too, which keeps it from growing stale. This is a great anthem.
Notable Moment In World Cup History
What the Indomitable Lions did in Italy in the summer of 1990 summer is among the World Cup's very best stories. Drawn into a group with Argentina, Romania, and the Soviet Union (in its last tournament ever), Cameroon was predicted to finish fourth and bow out early.
Instead, the side beat Argentina in a shocking opening match, taking the lead in the 67th minute and hanging on for a 1–0 victory. It followed that up with two goals from Roger Milla against Romania to punch a ticket in the knockout round with a game remaining. A 4–0 loss to the Soviet Union in the final match didn't matter much, and Cameroon became the second African team in history—after Morocco in 1986—to advance past the group stage.
There, the side faced a good Colombia side for a quarterfinal spot in a game that ended 0–0 after 90 minutes. In extra time, Milla was at it again—you can argue that Eto'o is the best Cameroonian player of all time based on talent, but it's hard to top the legacy of Milla at the 1990 World Cup—scoring twice in two minutes to give Cameroon what would eventually be a 2–1 victory and a spot in history as the first African nation to win a knockout round game.
The dream would end in the quarters against England, but Cameroon didn't go out whimpering there, either. Though Cameroon lost 3–2, it pushed the English to extra time, and even held the lead in regular time after Eugène Ekéké's 65th-minute goal. Unfortunately, two Gary Lineker penalties, one in the 83rd and one in extra time, sunk the Lions for good, but to this day, it is one of the most impressive showings by an African team at the World Cup, and the only time that Cameroon has made it out of the group stage.
How Can They Win The World Cup?
Cameroon simply has to listen to and obey Eto'o's prediction and it will win the World Cup. No sweat.