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For Cameroon, Slipper May Not Fit Anymore

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 1998; Page C8


Cameroon's Indomitable Lions will be remembered forever as the darlings of the 1990 World Cup, a fun bunch that raised the credibility of African soccer with an attractive, attacking style in an otherwise drab tournament.

They will be remembered for shocking defending champion Argentina, for upsetting Colombia in the round of 16 and for testing England in the quarterfinals before losing in overtime.

But eight years later, as it prepares to make its third consecutive World Cup appearance, Cameroon's fairy-tale image has been tarnished by bureaucracy and incompetence.

The players, some of the most gifted in Africa — many of whom are coveted by wealthy European clubs — are not to blame. Instead, a rickety infrastructure, a meddling national soccer federation, lack of financial support and constant coaching chaos has hurt the team at the most critical time.

A prime example: Jean Manga Onguene, Cameroon's coach during its flop at the African Nations Cup in Burkina Faso in February, unexpectedly has returned as an assistant to new coach Claude Le Roy of France. (Le Roy is no stranger to Cameroon, having been the team's coach from 1985 to 1988.)

Cameroon's passionate fans weren't happy with Onguene after an African Nations Cup loss to Guinea. Angry crowds assembled in the capital city of Yaounde and threatened to burn down his restaurant.

Last year Henri Depireux of Belgium resigned as coach because "there no longer exists any collaboration between me and my employers," he stated in his letter of resignation. "Cameroonians don't adhere to my methods."

Another distraction has been the unknown role of 1990 hero Roger Milla, the ageless forward who celebrated his goals with a dance at the corner flag. (At an estimated age of 42, he scored a goal in the 1994 World Cup in which Cameroon lost three straight first-round games — including a 6-1 humiliation to Russia — and went home.)

Milla has been very outspoken about this year's team but denies he will be involved in coaching it. Milla's regular jobs include scouting for one of his former clubs, Montpellier of France, and handling soccer promotions and coaching for a petroleum company.

Milla remains optimistic about this year's World Cup.

"For Cameroonians the World Cup has become a barometer for the standard of football in the country," he told London-based African Soccer magazine. "After the fiasco of USA '94, I expect Cameroon to take France '98 extremely seriously. . . . The present squad has a lot of potential."

By the time Cameroon opens World Cup play against Austria, its deep pool of talent may save the national program from itself.

Cameroon has several internationally seasoned players, including forward Alphonse Tchami, who plays in the German League. He formerly played in Denmark and for Argentina power Boca Juniors. Goalkeeper Jacques Songo'o has made his mark in the prestigious Spanish League with Deportivo La Coruna.

But the revelation for Cameroon is 20-year-old forward Joseph-Desire Job, who grew up in a suburb of Lyon, France. His parents are from Cameroon, so Job had the choice of playing for either country. France offered him a spot on its under-20 team; Cameroon dangled the World Cup.

But he said he considered more than just that.

"I consider myself nine-tenths Cameroonian and one-tenth French," he said. "I don't believe you can ever be respected and appreciated as a black man in a French team. You'll always be the foreigner."

His first appearance for Cameroon came in November against England at fabled Wembley Stadium. It was an uneventful debut in a 2-0 loss.

Job's club is Olympique Lyonnais in France. The day after signing his first professional contract last summer, he scored three goals. At the time of his national team decision, he had scored 13 goals in 14 games.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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