The Lions of Cameroon weren’t even tagged as underdogs heading into the tournament: they weren’t given a hope in hell. But the squad that was considered the weakest ever Indomitable Lions side to go to an Africa Cup of Nations overcame all the odds under the tutelage of a coach who didn’t even make the original five-man shortlist for the job.
It was the final that nobody would have predicted and the champions nobody saw coming. Cameroon claimed a 2-1 win over Egypt on Sunday night to claim their fifth Africa Cup of Nations after a tournament which has been defined by them defying expectation.
On paper, Egypt and Cameroon could not be more different. In goal, Egypt’s 44-year old Essam El-Hadary started playing football before Cameroon’s 21-year-old Fabrice Ondoa was even born. Egypt had won seven titles, their most recent victory coming in 2010. Cameroon have won four, their last victory coming in
2002. The Indomitable Lions had leaked goals in the group stages while the Pharaohs had not conceded until the semis. Egypt had not lost a final of the competition since 1962. Cameroon lost to Egypt the last time the two met in such a clash.
In the end, the stats meant little and it was Cameroon’s persistent annoyance that saw Egypt run out of steam in a fraught second half.
While Leicester City became a once-in-lifetime fairy tale in the English Premier League, the Africa Cup of Nations seems to deliver remarkable stories year after year. This is the tournament where magic happens and nothing has been more magical than Cameroon’s journey to the final.
Nobody would have given the Indomitable Lions a chance of making it through their group at the start of the tournament. Yet they did and they beat favourites Senegal and Ghana on their way there.
Despite a solid record heading into the tournament (they’d lost just once in 2016), Cameroon weren’t even considered underdogs, they were no-hopers. The squad they had cobbled together for the continental showpiece was beset with high-profile withdrawals and they had a coach who had never been in charge of a national side before.
Coach Hugo Broos, who took over in the middle of the qualifying campaign for this tournament, had a fairly impressive CV from his time coaching in Belgium, but at the time of applying for the job, he had been out of work for a year. But Broos wasn’t handpicked for the gig – in fact, he wasn’t even on the original shortlist. Instead, he saw the job advertised online and somehow managed to convince the folks at the top that he was the right man for the job.
The tactician guided the team to the top of their Afcon qualifying group which also featured Mauritania, South Africa and Gambia, but the real work would only start much later on. Cameroon, like many other African teams, have a bit of a reputation of being ego-driven and obsessed with cash rather than focused on the task at hand when called up for national duty. The 2014 World Cup was a nightmare and while many from that group of egotistical maniacs are no longer part of the set-up, old habits die hard.
Broos, though, was unperturbed and one man’s squad crisis is another’s pièce de résistance. Players praised his influence on fostering a team culture that was previously absent.
“I think he has brought a bit more discipline because before, I won’t say there was no discipline, but it is something he has really focused on. In football, if you have discipline everything else follows,” Edgar Salli told AFP.
“The coach has given us something extra, given the youngsters confidence to show what we can do,” Fai Collins added. “He talks about showing determination, about sticking together as a group because there were problems before but I think he has tried to overcome them.”
Indeed, even Broos himself had nothing but praise for the unity the side showed.
“Maybe you will be surprised but in 29 years as a coach I have never had a group like this. They are 23 friends. I have never seen this,” said the coach.
“They are just 23 friends who like to play football and do everything to win the game so for me it’s very easy.”
He even went so far as to back the side in a rumbling bonus dispute, calling the money that was being offered by the federation “not respectful” considering just how many odds his side had beaten.
On Sunday, Cameroon faced up to those odds once again and having gone a goal down early on, crafty substations (some forced, some chosen) by Broos paid off.
As has been the theme throughout this tournament, Cameroon started off in frenetic fashion. Within the first few seconds, the defence was caught off-guard. Egypt pressed hard early on and got their reward in the 23rd minute. Mohamed Elneny weaved his way through the non-existent defence, threading through the gap at the back and finding the top corner which Fabrice Ondoa failed to save. The young keeper was left visibly frustrated, and rightly so.
The blip at the back was rare considering it has been exactly the opposite – a concrete and organised structure at the back – that carried them so far in the tournament.
But Cameroon have also showed some panache at times and had dominated possession – and attack – against Egypt throughout the first half. While the Egyptians have been difficult to break down, if you keep on chipping away, there will eventually be a way through. And there was.
In the 59th minute, ex-captain Nicolas Nkoulou headed past both Ahmed Hegazy and El-Hadary with the keeper showing his age perhaps for the first time in this tournament as he dove far too late to even get a fingertip on it.
And Cameroon kept on pressing. With less than a minute go to, Vincent Aboubakar scored what might very well be the goal of the tournament. A wonderful pass downfield found Aboubakar near the box where the striker managed to chest the ball down and pop it forward with enough control to crunch it into the corner.
As the final whistle blew, the players’ reaction and celebrations with their coach spoke volumes. Cameroon will host the next edition of the tournament and if Broos can continue his crafty work with this young team, not yet corrupted by egos, they might yet revive an era of Cameroonian football magic.