Last time Alex Song wore a Cameroon shirt, against Croatia at the World Cup, he was sent off five minutes before half-time for dragging his elbow down Mario Mandzukic’s back. That was the centre-piece of a general implosion from Cameroon that also included rows over bonuses, widespread rumours of dressing-room unrest, allegations of match-fixing and Benoît Assou-Ekotto seemingly trying to head-butt Benjamin Moukandjo after a row in injury time.
It’s hard to imagine how Cameroon’s World Cup could have gone worse: they disgraced themselves in almost every conceivable way. Precedent suggested the coach would be sacked, there’d be whispers from players about a European not really understanding the dressing room and everything would go on much as before. This time, though, Volker Finke has remained in charge and those who have gone have been the players he felt had let him down, most notably Samuel Eto’o, Assou-Ekoto and Song.
Eto’o retired after being stripped of the captaincy (it’s hard to be sure exactly how often the 33-year-old has quit international football now, but it’s somewhere between three and six). Song was suspended and then omitted. Assou-Ekotto simply hasn’t been picked. Without them, Cameroon have thrived.
The transformation since the shame of Manaus has been remarkable. While he was the coach of Freiburg, a tenure that lasted 16 years, Finke was one of the pioneers of the pressing style in Germany, leading his side to a famous 5-1 win over Bayern Munich in 1994. He has always favoured a game based on a high defensive line, on harrying the opposition in possession and on the combination of organisation with a high tempo.
It’s a style of play that has little space for prima donnas, that demands absolute commitment from the entire squad and that is probably easier to enact with younger, more biddable players. It’s also a style that, given the make-do-and-mend approach of most international football, as managers struggle to deal with an ever-changing squad and a lack of time to impose a philosophy, is rarely seen with national sides.
Germany and Spain have been able to do it recently because so many of their players play together at club level – and even they have never pressed with quite the gusto of Bayern or Barça. Chile, probably, are the most ardent pressers at international level, largely because they are a nation in thrall to the style instituted by Marcelo Bielsa and their squad has remained relatively constant over the past few years. There are very few other examples, though, which is what makes Cameroon’s progress so remarkable.
They went unbeaten through qualifying for the forthcoming Africa Cup of Nations, conceding a single goal in their six games. More than that, they won 2-0 away to DR Congo and hammered Ivory Coast 4-1 in Yaounde with performances in which the potency of the strike pairing of Lyon’s Clinton N’Jie and Porto’s Vincent Aboubakar, 21 and 22 years old respectively, ensured Eto’o wasn’t missed. Cameroon have been drawn in a difficult group in Equatorial Guinea, with the Ivorians again, Mali and Guinea, but can now have reasonable expectations of making it through, perhaps even above Ivory Coast, something that would have seemed unthinkable six months ago.
Which makes the events of the past few days, as Song was called to speak to the Cameroonian authorities, baffling. It’s been widely assumed that the action was taken because Stéphane Mbia is struggling with a hamstring injury, but Song would not be a direct replacement: Mbia has played at right-back and centre-back during qualifying.
It may be that Song’s form for West Ham this season prompted Finke to contemplate forgiveness and it may be that the potential loss of Mbia, who succeeded Eto’o as captain, has brought a feeling that the squad could do with a little more experience, but it was never a straightforward decision of one or the other. As it turns out, talks between Song and the Cameroonian management led to Song announcing his international retirement.
Retirement in Cameroonian football never seems to be forever, so it may be that Song, who is only 27, will return at some point. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, well as Song has been playing, Cameroon, at least under Finke, are better off without him. He does not fit naturally into the hard-pressing style, is perhaps a little slower in releasing possession than Finke would like and, perhaps most important of all, his ego may have been disruptive, particularly if he always had half an eye on the Premier League and West Ham’s pursuit of European football.
As the former Cameroon goalkeeper Joseph-Antoine Bell pointed out, Zambia’s success in the Cup of Nations in 2012 came as a wake-up call to the traditional powers, proving that organisation, discipline and team spirit would trump star names. Nigeria’s success two years ago followed the same principles; it was very much Stephen Keshi’s team. It was significant too that the side Nigeria beat in the final was Burkina Faso, another well-drilled unit.
Cameroon, with a little more flair and the audacious pressing-game, have now adopted the theory: if the big names don’t fit, they don’t play, and so Song will spend the next month in east London.