When one mentions Cameroon in the context of the World Cup, one name almost automatically comes to mind: Roger Milla. He of the spectacular goals in Italia ’90, the broad grin and the flashy hip-swiveling corner flag dance routine that he would take from Brazilian Careca. However, bundled with the joyous celebrations of the then thirty-eight year old Milla are a number of more sinister moments – the sort of sinister moments that have you peering through your open fingers whilst covering your face or even resort to inexplicable and unrestrained belly laughs – only to feel slightly awkward and even guilty afterwards.
If Cameroonian football could be encapsulated by a comedian it would be David Brent in The Office or Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm: utterly cringeworthy, but pure comedy gold. The sort of cruel comedy where the protagonist can be seen grinning sheepishly after subjecting you to a particularly vicious sliding tackle that in slow motion looks completely and utterly ridiculous.
Cameroon are indeed the masters of the bizarre, the accidental kings of black comedy. In fact, watching them on a football pitch reminds me of former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin: clearly terrifying but at the same time hilarious in their buffoonery, and always watchable – with the very latest episode involving yet another ridiculous red card, headbutts and fisticuffs in the middle of the Amazonian jungle.
The West Africans would make their first appearance on football’s world stage in 1982, and having been drawn in a tough-looking group with Italy, Peru and Poland would emerge unbeaten – though with a goal difference slightly inferior to the Italians meaning that they would finish only in third place. Of course, we all know what happened afterwards.
A scandal-ridden Italy side would go on to win the trophy, but they would not have even made it past the group stage were it not for a series of misfortunes hitting the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon. First, the Africans would have a perfectly good goal chalked off for offside against Peru – a result that would have knocked Italy out – but their final game in Vigo against the Italians would see Francesco Graziani give the Azzurri the lead on the hour mark with Cameroon ‘keeper Thomas N’kono taking an unfortunate tumble. Cameroon would equalize a minute later, but despite what was at stake the final thirty minutes would be played out with little incident.
If N’kono’s stumble had been suspicious enough, two Italian journalists would later claim that the Cameroon team would be placed under what was effectively house arrest by their own security services, with as many as six players admitting to under-performing in return for a cash payment.
The two journalists, Oliviero Beha and Roberto Chiodi, would tell the story in the book Mundialgate – a curious tale that would involve not only the Cameroon players but their French coach Jean Vincent, professional chef Orlando Moscatelli and one Michele Zaza, an infamous Camorra rackeeter whose lawyer just happened to be the president of the FIGC, Federico Sordillo. A genuine case of the The Cook, the Thief, the Lawyer, the Coach and his Players.
After missing out on the 1986 finals in Mexico, Cameroon would be back with a bang in Italy in 1990 – where we would see the best and worst of them all bundled together in one exciting and at times explosive package. Their famous opening game against reigning champions Argentina would be the stuff of World Cup legend, a fairytale story created in the 67th minute by François Omam-Biyik’s downward header – and Argentinian ‘keeper Nery Pumpido’s horrific fumble.
However, Cameroon being Cameroon, a simple glorious victory would not be enough. Six minutes before Omam-Biyik’s goal his brother André had received receive a somewhat harsh straight red card for a foul on Claudio Caniggia, and a minute from the end in what could only be described as one of the tournament’s most infamous comedy fouls the unfortunate Caniggia would be quite literally swept to the ground by the burly Benjamin Massing. The Cameroon center-back would lose one of his boots in making the challenge, and in scenes of pure farce would flick his yellow-socked boot at Jorge Burruchaga before being ordered off the field. Poor Caniggia would be flat out on the ground, but all you could do was laugh. Even Cameroon’s kit would be hilarious – a shiny green with the oversized lion badge that looked like a massive yellow smudge.
Having shocked the reigning champions, Cameroon would pull off another shock in beating Romania 2-1 with two goals from the thirty-eight year old Milla – a result that would make them the first African team to progress beyond the group stage – but their final game against the Soviet Union – the home country of coach Valeri Nepomniachi – would have more than a whiff of suspicion about it.
The game would effectively be a dead rubber with the Soviets already eliminated after losing their first two games to Romania and Argentina, but the unbeaten Cameroon side would collapse to what can only be described as a bizarre 4-0 defeat. Nothing would be said about this curious result, but we will never know if it was just a case of Cameroon simply taking their foot off the pedal or something more insidious. Either way, the result wouldn’t affect the rest of the group.
The Indomitable Lions‘ second round encounter with Colombia would be just as entertaining, as a match that had seen both sides labor to a goalless draw after ninety minutes exploded into life in extra time. The irrepressible Milla would score twice in the space of three minutes, with the second goal becoming another classic comedy moment as he robbed the gormless Colombian sweeper-keeper René Higuita. Here we would see two renditions of Milla’s famous corner flag dance, but perhaps the funniest moment for me would be the reaction of the Cameroon players when Bernardo Redín scored what would ultimately be a consolation goal for the South Americans. As the Colombians desperately tried to take the ball back to the center circle for a quick restart, a bizarre scuffle would ensue inside the goalmouth between goalscorer Redín, teammate Carlos Estrada and André Kana-Biyik.
The Cameroon carnival would continue deep into their quarter-final meeting with England in Naples, but would end once again on account of their indiscipline. David Platt would put England in front only to see the scores leveled from the penalty spot by Emmanuel Kundé after Paul Gascoigne’s clumsy foul on the ubiquitous Milla, and when Eugène Ekéké lifted the ball over Peter Shilton in the sixty-fifth minute everything seemed possible for Nepomniachi’s side. However, yet another clumsy challenge – this time from ‘keeper n’Kono – would see England equalize seven minutes from time from the penalty spot, and in extra time an almost identical incident would result in Lineker’s pride of blue English lions chase away the big smudgy yellow Cameroonian one.
They had provided comedy, scandal and some wonderfully refreshing football in equal measure, but in making the last eight Cameroon had well and truly made their mark.
Sadly, four years later we would see more of the comedy and scandal, but little of the wonderful football that had defined their 1990 campaign. A forty-two year old Milla would be quite literally wheeled out of retirement by a desperate Cameroon FA, and their opening 2-2 draw against Sweden would be the high point of a disappointing campaign.
The encouraging opening draw would be followed by a 3-0 thumping at the hands of Brazil with defender Rigobert Song becoming the third Cameroon player in their short World Cup history to be shown the red card, and things would go from bad to worse in their final match against a Russian side that had already been eliminated. Much like in 1990, the Cameroon team would simply not show up, collapsing to a catastrophic 6-1 defeat in a game that would see Russian striker Oleg Salenko set a new individual tournament record with five goals.
Amidst the comedy at one end there would be a continuation of the Roger Milla fairytale at the other. Almost immediately after coming on at the start of the second half with the name “Miller” scrawled in what looked like black marker pen on the back of his shirt, the forty-two year old would become the oldest-ever goalscorer in the history of the tournament.
It’s an age-old cliché, but you just couldn’t make it up.
There would be some joke talk of a forty-six year old Milla making another World Cup appearance four years later in France, but a Cameroon side with far more household names would make an early exit from the tournament in typical style – and an all too familiar blur of red.
An encouraging opening match against Austria would see Claude le Roy’s side hold the lead for just twelve minutes before Toni Polster’s late dramatic equalizer for the Austrians, and in their next game against Italy a red card for center-back Raymond Kalla would precipitate an inevitable collapse as they fell to a 3-0 defeat. Coming into their final game with Chile with the faintest sniff of a place in the knockout phase, they would be a goal behind when Rigobert Song – sent off four years earlier – would continue the Cameroon trend of receiving cards matching the color of their shorts following a boneheaded hack at Iván Zamorano.
Despite being down to ten men, Patrick M’Boma would level the scores, but in their desperation to chase that crucial winning goal a final moment of brainlessness by substitute Lauren Etame Mayer would see the Africans in the not wholly unfamiliar position of finishing with just nine men. Lauren had been on the pitch for just six minutes before choosing to slide in on Marcelo Salas.
Lauren’s dismissal would mean that Cameroon would finish the tournament with just two goals – and three red cards.
Perhaps the biggest story concerning Cameroon in the build up to the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea would not have anything to so with their football, but their kits. During their victory in the African Cup of Nations earlier in the year, the side now managed by German Winfried Schäfer would wear sleeveless Puma green shirts, which would look more like the vests worn by basketball players than football shirts. FIFA would not be as accommodating as the African association, and Cameroon would be ordered to wear proper shirts. In what could be seen as a compromise – though one could see it as yet another example of Cameroonian silliness – they would continue to wear their vests, but on top of black undershirts which would complete a somewhat bizarre look.
On the pitch things would pretty much follow much the usual pattern, but Schäfer’s side would at least manage to keep their cool for two of the three games. A well-earned 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland would kick things off, and the African champions would join their coach’s German countrymen at the top of the group table with a 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia.
Coming into their final pair of matches Germany and Cameroon would be in first and second place with the Germans ahead on goal difference, but with the Irish facing the already eliminated Saudis the Africans knew they would almost certainly have to beat the Nationalmannschaft to reach the knockout phase.
Things would certainly be looking up for Cameroon when two yellow cards in the space of three minutes would see the Germans reduced to ten men five minutes before half time, but they would be unable to take advantage. Perhaps the idea of being a man up was just too much of a shock. Just five minutes into the second half Marco Bode would give the depleted Germans the lead, and now having to score twice – Ireland were already in front against the Saudis – the wheels would once again slowly start to come off the Cameroon wagon.
With thirteen minutes remaining, substitute Patrick Suffo would end a fifteen minute cameo with his own brace of yellow cards, the final installment of a record-breaking display by Spanish referee Antonio López Nieto. Cameroon would naturally up the ante in their own inimitable style, but with the Germans also catching fire in a heated encounter there would be no fewer than fourteen yellow cards, two of which would be second yellows.
With both teams now equal again in terms of numbers, Miroslav Klose would score a second to quell any lingering hope Cameroon might have had of making the second phase. One might have expected them to melt down completely and finish the tournament in a flurry of red, but instead they would just wind down slowly.
Having missed out on the finals in 2006, Cameroon would return in 2010 for what would be their most disappointing campaign on record. Somewhat miraculously they would manage to last three entire matches without a red card, but their lack of aggression would clearly have an adverse effect on their results as they fell to three straight defeats to Japan, Denmark and the Netherlands. All three games would be lost by the odd goal, and in truth they were just a little bit unlucky to go home with nothing.
While continental rivals Ghana would get within a whisker of making the semi-finals, the Indomitable Lions would take the journey back home licking their wounds.
The 2014 tournament in Brazil would see a return to the old chaotic Cameroon, which would result in plenty of nonsense both on and off the pitch. Their arrival in Brazil would be shadowed by ongoing disputes over pay and problems with travel and hotels, and their performance on the pitch would not be much better.
Only a dreadful display of myopia from the officials would save them from a thrashing at the hands of Mexico in their opening game of the tournament, but things would well and truly hit the buffers in their second game against Croatia. Needing a win to keep their very slim hopes of progressing alive, they would meet their end in the middle of the Amazon jungle in Manaus. The setting would indeed be appropriate for a game that would see the men in the garish green shirts descend into complete madness.
Having fallen a goal behind in the eleventh minute, Cameroon would quickly find themselves on the back foot, and the inability to get even get a decent shot on the Croatian goal would just add to the frustration. Five minutes before half-time, Alexandre Song, the cousin of twice red-carded Rigobert, would make it a family double with a red of his own. With the ball nowhere in sight, Song would flail out at Croatian striker Mario Mandžukić in a completely random assault – right in front of the referee. It is hard to know what might have been going through Song’s head at the time, but there would be no doubt that the referee would reach for his back pocket.
Song’s dismissal would effectively end any hopes Cameroon might have had to work their way back into the contest, and the second half would see the Croats run riot with three more goals. It could have even been more were it not for some woeful finishing at the death as the Africans were torn apart and run ragged.
After Mandžukić had banged in Croatia’s fourth, there would be a complete meltdown in the Cameroon ranks. Clearly upset at teammate Benjamin Mounkandjo for his part in the defensive shambles, left-back Benoît Assou-Ekotto would utter a few words before turning on Mounkandjo with a well-aimed head-butt – a sight made even more slapstick by Assou-Ekotto’s ridiculous hairdo. Pierre Webo would break things up on the pitch, but as the teams walked off after the final whistle Assou-Ekotto would pick up where he had left off, with the nonsense continuing into the tunnel.
Once again, Cameroon’s tournament had started under a cloud and descended into a farce. The man left to pick up the pieces would be their German coach Volker Finke, but like so many Cameroon coaches before him he knew he could do nothing as things would take their inevitable course.
The chaotic and always unpredictable story of Cameroon at the World Cup has always reminded me of the one-time Ugandan dictator Idi Amin – who would lead his country into chaos in the 1970s whilst leaving behind a trail of murder and destruction. In a now famous interview with French journalist Barbet Schroeder, Amin would come across as a happy-go-lucky sort of guy, the sort of buffoon that you would always find yourself laughing at, but more chillingly could also end up laughing with. In between the moments of harmless random nonsense such as the promise to assist “impoverished” Britain with a planeload of skinny cows and rotting fruit and vegetables, he would speak of political opponents while waxing lyrical about crocodiles – all accompanied by raucous, loud and often endearing laughter. It wouldn’t take a genius to put two and two together.
It’s much the same with Cameroonian football. There’s the familiar happy-go-lucky approach, an attitude that has produced the twinkle toes of Roger Milla and Samuel Eto’o but also the almost hilarious madcap and almost laissez-faire brutality of Massing and famille Song. Whether it’s a spectacular volley from the edge of the box or a crude, mistimed and almost slapstick lunge at an opponent when the ball has long since gone, it is all done with the same, almost lighthearted cheery enthusiasm. If you think about it, you can even hear the loud, deep laughter as the next opponent gets clattered in a flurry of green, red and yellow. Boots flying, arms waving and the inevitable carte rouge.
The fracas in the Arena da Amazônia in Manaus would be the latest – and by no means the last – chapter in the comically bizarre story of Cameroon football, and the unsavory scenes involving Assou-Ekotto and Mounkandjo and would bring shame to all of us who love the game for what it is. But at the same time, there’s something darkly compelling about the madness that Cameroon carry around with them in the same way as the rest of us carry loose change.
As much as we might admonish them for their ridiculous behavior, there’s a part of us that remains fascinated by Cameroon’s shenanigans every time the World Cup comes around. I for one will be looking out for them in 2018.