Cameroon-Serbia Was The World Cup’s Weirdest And Wildest Game
11:59 AM EST on November 28, 2022
If your willingness to wake up at 5:00 a.m. EDT for the early game at this World Cup has been determined by how juicy the matchup appears, you probably slept through Monday morning's Cameroon-Serbia game. If so, you missed out on the tournament's best team goal, the best finish (non-Richarlison division), and a goal-fest that made absolutely no sense and was all the better for it.
A clue that the game would wind up a weird one came before the match even started, in the form of a bizarre team selection controversy. Missing from Cameroon's starting lineup was goalkeeper André Onana, one of the country's best players. Not only was Onana not included in the starting XI, he wasn't on the bench either, and it soon came out that he was no longer even in Qatar. Reports emerged that Onana had been kicked off the national team for "disciplinary reasons."
Odd, right? Well, it gets even stranger: Apparently, Onana got the boot after he had a disagreement with manager Rigobert Song over Onana's playing style. Specifically, Song wanted his keeper to kick the ball long more often instead of taking risks dawdling on the ball and passing it short. Onana, who is famously one of the most adventurous and pass-proficient goalkeepers playing in Europe, disagreed and preferred to keep playing his natural game. In response, Song sent Onana home.
What the fuck, right? This makes no sense! Onana is the starting goalkeeper for Italian giants Inter! His backup, Devis Epassy, has spent most of his career playing for mid-table Greek clubs, and currently plays for a mid-table Saudi Arabian club! What gives?
It's hard to know who to side with here. On one hand, it doesn't make much sense for Song to ask Onana, a very good player who is also one of Cameroon's best, to play in a way he's not accustomed to when nothing Onana did actually hurt the team. On the other, it's hard to understand why Onana would feel so strongly about the lengths of his passes that he'd make some big stand that would see him sent home from the World Cup. The only thing that's clear is that Song had to have been totally losing his mind watching Onana carry the ball halfway up the pitch during what was a typically adventurous performance in Cameroon's first game against Switzerland:
But the madness over Onana's ousting was only the beginning, and the Cameroon-Serbia match itself had much in store. To be fair to the final scoreline, the match did feel like it had about six goals in it. It's just that you would've imagined the game would've finished 5–1 in favor of Serbia, and not a 3–3 draw. Such was Serbia's dominance for the vast majority of the game, and such was the zaniness of the affair, where two separate flurries of goals made the difference.
Serbia wasted no time imposing their will on the game. The Serbs came into the tournament knowing they had one of the stronger attacking lines in the field, and that was evident from the outset. In the 11th minute Aleksandar Mitrovic saw a curling shot hit the post. Five minutes later, he missed a sitter after some slapstick Cameroonian defending. That was the pattern for most of the first half: the Serbian attack creating chances at will, with the terrible Cameroonian defense posing very little resistance.
It was a shock, then, when Cameroon took the lead with a set-piece goal in the 29th minute. The goal was decidedly against the run of play, but nevertheless, the Indomitable Lions had their advantage and looked to preserve it into halftime. But then, in the first minute of first-half stoppage time, Cameroon's shitty defending left Strahinja Pavlovic almost completely unchallenged on a set piece cross, which he headed into the net. Just two minutes later, Serbia nabbed a second goal through Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, and the scoreboard finally reflected the direction of the play. Milinkovic-Savic was the best player on the pitch all day, but still, this is absolutely nightmarish defending (and awful keeper positioning, too) that leaves him all alone at the crown of the penalty box:
Serbia continued applying pressure after the break, and when Mitrovic capped a very pretty move—the aforementioned team goal of the tournament—in the 53rd minute, it felt like victory was assured and the floodgates were open. Again, this move is very pretty, but also the defending here is atrocious:
If as a spectator it felt like Mitrovic's goal had ended the match as a competitive contest and started a sub-game where Serbia would try to pad their goal difference, it must have also felt like that for the Serbs. That's the only explanation for how Serbia completely disconnected from the game, which somehow let the thoroughly outplayed Cameroonians right back into the match.
On two separate occasions, separated by only three minutes, Serbia allowed a Cameroonian player to launch the ball forward onto the deep runs of substitute striker Vincent Aboubakar. Both times, Nikola Milenkovic was late stepping forward in time along with his defensive teammates for an offside trap, which kept Aboubakar onside and sent him bombing free towards goal. The first time, Aboubakar sat one defender on his ass with a feint and then flipped a rainbow chip over keeper Vanja Milinkovic-Savic that just made it into the goal. The second time, Aboubakar sent a cross to Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, who pounded in the equalizer. You really need to see that Aboubakar goal, it was a real beauty:
I love this photo too:
Serbia's fearsome attack and Cameroon's comedically bad defending conspired to create a few more chances for a possible Serbian winner, but it never came. All Serbia has to show for its admirable showing against Brazil and about 80 minutes of commanding soccer against Cameroon is a pretty team goal and a single lousy point. It may not make much sense, but it sure was entertaining to watch.