Why Cameroon are on the bottom rung for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations

With Samuel Eto'o serving an eight-month suspension, the Cameroonians must take on Guinea-Bissau for the right to play-off against one of the 2012 qualifiers

Cameroon really shouldn't have any problems overcoming Guinea-Bissau, ranked 166 in the world by Fifa, in the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers on Wednesday, but the issue is what on earth they are doing playing at this stage in the first place. And with the next tournament being held in South Africa next year as it switches to odd-numbered years to avoid the World Cup, qualifying has rarely been so precarious.

South Africa have qualified as hosts. The four lowest-ranked entrants – Lesotho, São Tomé and Principe, Swaziland and the Seychelles – played off, or they would have done had Swaziland not pulled out for financial reasons (oddly their king found the money to make it to Libreville to hobnob with Pelé, Sepp Blatter and assorted dictators at the Cup of Nations final this month). The Seychelles got a bye as a result and São Tomé and Principe beat Lesotho 1-0 over two legs.

They joined 26 other teams who had failed to qualify for this year's Cup of Nations (including Cameroon, Nigeria and Egypt) and they play each other in two-leg play-offs, the first on Wednesday, then the second in June (apart from Egypt v Central African Republic, both legs of which are in June). The winners of those 14 ties then meet the 16 sides who made it to this year's Cup of Nations in 15 two-leg play-offs, the winners of those games going through to South Africa.

That means that even if Cameroon beat Guinea-Bissau and Nigeria beat Rwanda, they could end up facing Zambia, Ivory Coast or Ghana for a place in the finals.

The chaotic rush to squeeze the qualifiers into a year should be great box office, and will almost certainly mean some major sides miss out, but Cameroon have no such excuses for their failure to qualify for Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Watching Zambia win must have been particularly painful: in 2008 they beat them 5-1 in Kumasi, and two years ago they beat them 3-2 in Lubango. This time Cameroon failed to qualify and a team they until recently felt comfortable of beating won the tournament.

That has prompted serious soul-searching in Cameroon and it has been suggested that the football federation (Fecafoot) will pay the players their match bonuses on arrival in Bissau to try to head off a repeat of the discontent that led to senior players effectively going on strike before a friendly against Algeria last year. The captain, Samuel Eto'o, was given a 15-match ban, reduced to eight months on appeal, for leading that action, a decision that may seem harsh but came as the culmination of several months of ill-feeling.

Jules Nyonga is one of the most respected coaches in Cameroon, having worked with the national team as either assistant or manager between 1984 and 1996, as well as qualifying them for the 2006 Cup of Nations in Egypt, before becoming assistant to Artur Jorge for the tournament itself. With his yard full of pot-plants and living room lined with objets d'art, a mild voice and studiously bespectacled face, he seems a mild soul, but there is no doubting the anger in his voice as he talks about Cameroon's decline since retaining the cup in 2002.

"There is a stark difference between the time when [Rigobert] Song was captain and now," he said. "He knew how to rally the team. He wasn't condescending. He considered himself part of the team, which Eto'o does not. He is a crushing personality, because of his wealth and international standing."

One specific example stands out. "He came down from his room for breakfast," Nyonga said, "and found some young players who had just been drafted into the national team and said to them: 'Petits, did you sleep well?' He was very condescending and that reveals his state of mind. And that's irritating to other members of the national team, who may not be as rich as Eto'o – Alexandre Song and Achille Emana especially found it irritating; they found it unacceptable and could not tolerate it because they deserve some amount of respect.

"They felt Eto'o should not be able to give them lessons in conduct. And then there were matches when Eto'o would give his team-mates a bonus from his own pocket. He looks down on his team-mates. There were problems with the way Eto'o spoke, referring to 'my people' and 'my team'. Many thought it was extremely arrogant."

Others, such as Théophile Abega, who captained Cameroon at the 1982 World Cup and is now mayor of the fourth arrondissement of Yaoundé, are more sympathetic to Eto'o, but still see a major problem in the gulf that lies between him and his team-mates both in terms of quality and international standing. "The problem is that Eto'o has to scale down his talent to match everybody else," he said. "There is a tactical problem with the disparity of talent between Eto'o and the rest because every other player rushes to give the ball to Eto'o whether he's in a good position or not."

That, certainly, was evident in Angola in 2010, when Eto'o again and again got the ball too deep and was left with 60 yards and three or four defenders between him and the opposing goal. What was also obvious then was the tension that existed between Eto'o and the coach, Paul Le Guen.

Abega, though, wonders if there's a more sinister reason behind the punishment, hinting darkly from beneath his broad-brimmed white hat at "forces from the north" looking to bring people on to the streets in protest and so destabilise the government of Paul Biya, who was sworn in for a sixth term as president last November.

Regionalism, it turns out, is an obsession of his. "We have a federation which is not playing its role these days," he said. "They are playing politics, not football. There are some delegates who are trying just to bring players from the north because they control the federation. You have to pick the best players, wherever they come from. If they are all from the south, they are all from the south. You can't just pick people to keep each area happy."

What the federation has done, though, is – at last – to have appointed a national technical director in Jean Manga-Onguéné, who was African footballer of the year in 1980. His plan is a nationwide scouting network with training camps and an integrated youth system, but that will take time. For now, Cameroon have to see how they manage without Eto'o, see off Guinea-Bissau and hope the draw is kind to them. Then, maybe, they can continue their rebuilding work in South Africa.


Jonathan Wilson

The GuardianTramp

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