Cameroon’s big gamble for the World Cup was putting its campaign in the hands of one of its greatest players.
Rigobert Song, a highly respected former captain, was appointed coach in February despite a lack of managerial experience outside of Cameroon’s youth structures. He faces the challenge of trying to take the Indomitable Lions past the group stage of a World Cup for the first time since Roger Milla and Co. made their way to the quarterfinals in 1990 and put African soccer on the map.
Song succeeded in his first mission when Cameroon won a two-legged playoff against Algeria in March to qualify for the tournament in Qatar, although only after a last-ditch goal by Karl Toko Ekambi four minutes into injury time at the end of extra time of the second game.
Subsequent losses to Uzbekistan and South Korea in World Cup warmups have provided a reality check and raised questions about whether federation president Samuel Eto’o, a former teammate of Song, was too hasty in replacing Toni Conceição. The Portuguese coach led Cameroon to a third-place finish at this year’s African Cup of Nations and laid a foundation to build on in Qatar.
A NEW SONG
No one doubts Song’s huge contribution to Cameroonian soccer. He played at four World Cups, eight African Cups, won two African titles and made a national record 137 appearances for his country. But he has yet to win everyone over in his new role.
Song’s coaching resume is nowhere near as extensive as his playing achievements. A Cameroon “A” team he was in charge of at the African Nations Championship in 2018 finished last in its group and was embarrassed by losses to Republic of Congo and Angola.
The 46-year-old former Liverpool defender coached the under-23 team before his promotion but the doubts about his ability are set to follow Cameroon to the World Cup, where it plays Switzerland, Serbia and Brazil in Group G.
Cameroon’s attacking threat has been boosted by former France under-21 international Bryan Mbeumo’s decision to switch allegiance to his father’s home country.
The 23-year-old Brentford forward offers Premier League experience up front alongside Vincent Aboubakar and Toko Ekambi, who were a formidable strike combination and the top two scorers at this year’s African Cup with 13 goals between them. There’s also Bayern Munich forward Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting.
Holding midfielder André-Frank Zambo Anguissa is arguably Cameroon’s most important player but Song has so far failed to bolster a defense that has a habit of leaking early goals. He hasn’t managed to convince Liverpool defender Joel Matip to return to international duty.
GHOSTS OF 1990
The Milla team that beat Argentina and Colombia and took England to the wire at the 1990 World Cup in Italy broke barriers for African soccer by reaching the quarterfinals and nearly the semifinals, and is the standard against which every Cameroon team since has been judged. Every one has been a disappointment.
The Central African country may yearn for a repeat of that magical run of 32 years ago but the cold reality is that Cameroon has won only one game at the World Cup since 1990, against Saudi Arabia in 2002.
Cameroon lost all three of its games and had the worst record of all 32 teams at the last World Cup it played at in 2014.
Associated Press writer Isifu Wirfengla in Yaounde, Cameroon, contributed to this report.
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