Eurosportnews Guest of the Week Rigobert Song believes that Cameroonian football has a long way to go to realise its full potential. Although the Indomitable Lions are favourites to triumph in the African Nations Cup, starting Saturday, the country’s success hides a chronic lack of resources and development at club level.
Cameroon appear every inch the modern, sophisticated side with a large contingent of stars at top European clubs such as Geremi of Chelsea, Manchester United’s Eric Djemba-Djemba and the much sought-after Samuel Eto’o, presently of Mallorca.
Yet Song reveals that huge problems still exist in the domestic game that force a mass exodus of players searching their fortune overseas.
“I played for the Tonnere de Yaounde, which is one of the biggest clubs in Cameroon. I trained every afternoon and earned about &euro2 a day. That’s something in Africa. If you play a match you get a bonus of about &euro30,” he explains.
“But there are players who have families whose mum and dad don’t work, they’re ten or eleven of them…and it comes down to the player to, for as long as he can, bring home the &euro30.”
These financial privations lead to an inevitable departure of young talent to the European goldmine that can stunt the development of both the player and the domestic league, and lead to players such as Basile Boli and Claude Makelele abandoning their country of birth to represent the French national team.
Song believes players that leave Cameroon as teenagers are too young, and would be better off staying in Africa boosting the domestic league and gaining valuable experience.
“A young player straight from Africa, he’s first and foremost just that: young,” he reasons.
“When you arrive here it’s almost impossible to get the chance to express yourself straight away. Usually, you’re put with other young players so that you can gain some experience. And that’s where I think, instead of getting that experience here, why not come when you’ve matured? Then so many more doors will open for you.”
Despite the problems still dogging the game at home, the Indomitable Lions have the most complete squad in Africa and have already developed a taste for victory.
After Cameroon victories in 2000 and 2002, the strongest field in Nations Cup (ANC) history is massed against them to prevent an unprecedented hat-trick, but skipper Song remains defiant:
“We also realise that today the opposition know us. Senegal have shown that they’re competitive. But the Indomitable Lions love a challenge; it’s up to us to show we’re still the kings of the jungle,” he said.
Two years ago the Lions took the spoils from a scrappy tournament in Mali after beating Senegal on penalties to decide a goalless final.
“We’ve already won twice and we want to continue in the same vein. We still want to win, to experience something extraordinary, and that’s why I don’t want to give up yet after having won two [ANCs].”
If memories of 2002 are anything to go by, the tournament is certainly still something special for the Cameroonian people.
“Arriving back in Cameroon with the cup, seeing everybody waiting for us at the airport at four in the morning. All sorts of people; kids, grandmothers, grandfathers. Everybody’s out there at four or five in the morning. For us, that’s something we’ll never forget, a moment truly engraved on our memories.”
The 2004 edition is the highest profile Nations Cup yet, and Song acknowledges the benefits of this belated recognition on African football.
“Basically people have realised that it’s a valuable competition and one that should be taken more seriously,” he suggests.
“That attracts more and more people. When you look at African players today they can be found in all the big European leagues. It’s often these guys that give a bit of spice to the league. That means they’re quality players.
“Even at the World Cup there are African countries that demonstrate that they can be counted alongside the biggest teams in the world. Senegal showed just that during the World Cup, we showed it at the Confederations Cup.”
Another show of dominance in Tunisia will cement this Cameroon vintage’s position as unquestionably the best side ever to come out of Africa.