The worst Cameroon team in living memory. Or at least that’s what they were three and a half weeks ago, but the span of a tournament can be an awfully long time in football.
Eight players had withdrawn from the squad while the determination of their coach, Hugo Broos, to impose discipline had led to other established names being dropped. But his inexperienced squad showed remarkable tenacity to come from behind and beat Egypt to win Cameroon their fifth Cup of Nations title and their first for 15 years.
It was the bigger names who returned to win it, both goals scored by substitutes. Mohamed Elneny had put Egypt ahead in the first half but Nicolas Nkoulou levelled before a winner with two minutes to go from Vincent Aboubakar – a brilliant flick and volley, a winner for the ages.
“When I came to Cameroon I found a group of players who were old and not motivated,” Broos said. “So I took some new players, put some young players in and we started working. I did a good job and now we have a team. This is not a group of football players: it’s a group of friends and that’s why players on the bench keep their motivation.”
After the semi-final success, the great Cameroon striker of the ’80s and ’90s Roger Milla had spoken of the regret those who had chosen to focus on their club career would feel if Cameroon did go on to win the title. So, Joel, future generations will ask, what was the atmosphere like for that final in Libreville? “I don’t know: I was in Hull, losing 2-0.”
The atmosphere was fervent, Gabon’s large Cameroonian expat community turning out in force, joined by busloads who had travelled south overnight from Douala and Yaounde. L’Amitié was full for the first time in the tournament and it was very noisy. By the end, it was delirious.
The expectation had been for a cagey game – Egypt had kept four clean sheets in getting to the final and Cameroon three with both prepared to play with extreme caution at times – but it was never like that. Egypt’s goal, scored after 22 minutes, was a delight, Mohamed Elneny clipping in a shot at the near post after Mohamed Salah had exchanged passes with Amr Warda on the right. There are those, conditioned to regard any shot that goes in at the near post, who will blame Fabrice Ondoa, but this was simply an excellent finish.
If there were questions to be asked about goalkeeping, most of them were being raised at the other end. Essam El-Hadary broke the record for the longest unbeaten run in the Cup of Nations, and he made a stunning save from Hervé Koffi in the semi-final shoot-out, but at 44 he is far from the commanding presence of a decade ago. That he has conceded only once in this tournament says more about the excellence of the Egyptian centre-backs, Ahmed Hegazy and Ali Gabr, than it does about his enduring quality. Age has very much withered him.
Sure enough, it was a cross that brought the Cameroon equaliser just before the hour. The captain, Benjamin Moukandjo, swept a cross to the back post where Nkoulou, his predecessor, headed in.
Egypt, perhaps weary, reverted to type. They sat deep, they scrapped and spoiled and they sustained a predictably abnormal number of injuries. At that El-Hadary remains a master: it’s remarkable that somebody with such a low pain threshold should have had such a long career.
But they could not stop time forever. Aboubakar took a long ball from Sébastien Siani on his chest just outside the box, flicked it over Ali Gabr with his heel and struck a bouncing volley into the corner.
The worst team in Cameroonian history? Other countries should be so lucky. The Lions are Indomitable again.
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