Eighteen months ago, Christian Bassogog was a teenager 6,000 miles from home playing third-division soccer on a last-place team before crowds of 2,500 on Cape Fear in North Carolina.
On Sunday, the Cameroonian winger was basking in the global glow of winning the African championship and being named the top player in the tournament.
From Wilmington Hammerhead to Indomitable Lion, Bassogog followed an unlikely trail to soccer fame and positioned himself for a greater leap in the months to come.
Bolstered by the unknown right wing, rebuilding Cameroon completed an implausible dash to the Africa Cup of Nations trophy by defeating Egypt, 2-1, in Libreville, Gabon — its first title in 15 years and fifth since the competition began in 1957.
Bassogog, 21, started all six matches for the Indomitable Lions and created havoc with speed, athletic ability and improved touch. In the semifinal, he scored a late breakaway goal in a 2-0 surprise against Ghana.
Bassogog’s journey began outside of Douala, Cameroon’s largest city, where he featured for Rainbow FC, a second-tier side. In November 2014, he was among about 40 players invited to a scouting combine arranged by the Rainbow organization for Wilmington Hammerheads General Manager Jason Arnold and U.S. agent Leo Cullen. Both are former University of Maryland players, separated by six years. Arnold is from Fairfax, Va., and starred at Robinson High School.
Bassogog and Brian Anunga caught Arnold’s eye. He proceeded to sign them for the Hammerheads, a 20-year-old club struggling to survive in the United Soccer League’s smallest market. (pop: 115,000)
“It was our first proof of concept: Hey, we can develop players and send them off to bigger clubs,” Arnold said.
Bassogog appeared in 14 league matches with five starts and, serving as more of a facilitator than scorer, did not record a goal. Late in the season, the Hammerheads followed through on their ambition to mold players and sell them, arranging through a Spanish player agency for Bassogog to go on trial with Danish club Aalborg. (Anunga did not pan out and joined the fourth-flight Carolina Dynamo last year.)
MLS might’ve become an option but, Arnold said, Bassogog’s ambition was always Europe.
Fluent in Danish after spending teenage years in Viborg’s youth academy, Arnold accompanied Bassogog to the workouts. After 10 days, Aalborg tendered an offer. The transfer fee — small by global standards — was not disclosed. As part of the deal, the Hammerheads, and more specifically, their owner, Capelli Sport, retained a sell-on clause, meaning it would collect a percentage of any future transfer. (Rainbow FC also has a stake.)
At first, that financial connection did not offer much promise. In his first season, Bassogog made nine league appearances (one start) totaling 244 minutes.
His fortunes began to turn last year by starting 20 of 21 matches and scoring four goals.
Cameroon summoned him to the national team for the first time last November for a World Cup qualifier against Zambia. He then made the Africa Cup of Nations squad.
“If you asked me this question five months ago, ‘You know Bassogog?’ I’d say, ‘Who?’ ” Cameroon Coach Hugo Broos told reporters in Gabon. “I didn’t know him.
“We were looking for players. I had some friends, old players for me in Denmark, so I phoned them. I said, ‘I see there’s this guy, Bassogog, what kind of player is he?’ I went to see him and I saw his level, his qualities. I said, ‘Okay, the next game he has to be with us.’ “
No one in international soccer is saying “Who?” anymore.
“I’m incredibly proud of him, where he came from in Cameroon to the USL and sticking with the process,” said Arnold, who texted with Bassogog during the African tournament.
Capelli Sport, represented by Arnold, is seeking suitors in Germany and serving as a facilitator for a possible move this summer. Ultimately, Aalborg would have the final say on any formal offers. One possible scenario would have a Bundesliga club purchase him from Aalborg and loan him to a lower-division team.
A portion of the transfer windfall would go to Capelli Sport, not the Hammerheads, who don’t exist in their previous form anymore. Facing financial headwinds in Wilmington, the group shut down the USL operation last fall and launched a fourth-division amateur team in the port city. It had also been exploring USL opportunities in a large market, such as Baltimore.
Based in New York, Capelli Sport partners with one German club, second-tier Wuerzburger Kickers, and owns a stake in another, third-division Duisburg. Last year, the Hammerheads sold former University of Maryland midfielder Mael Corboz to Duisburg.
Bassogog is scheduled to rejoin Aalborg soon for the resumption of league play Feb. 19. He’ll return as a champion.