Despite drama, Eto'o boosts Cameroon stock

Posted by Firdose Moonda

One of Cameroon president Paul Biya's duties seems to be coaxing national footballers out of retirement. Thirteen years ago, he asked Roger Milla to put his boots back on and represent Cameroon at the 1990 World Cup. The striker agreed.

Had he not, the Indomitable Lions may not have found the two extra-time goals against Colombia that sent them into the quarter-finals. Fans will hope for a similar, if not better result now that Biya has persuaded Samuel Eto'o to turn out for Cameroon again.

Eto'o's most recent retirement reportedly came just moments after the team secured their spot in the final round of qualifying with a group-stage victory against Libya, but it was never confirmed. Because he did not officially announce anything, Eto'o was named in the squad to play Tunisia in one of five two-legged ties to determine Africa's World Cup representatives in Brazil. The first leg is on Sunday in Cameroon.

But there was confusion over Eto'o's status, especially given his reputation for being in and out of the team because of his run-ins with authorities.

From leading a protest strike against them to claiming they wanted to kill him, Eto'o seems not to trust the suits. But without him, Cameroon’s chances of appearing in Brazil were considered slim. Now that he is back, his team can be confirmed favourites in a tie where uncertainty has been its theme.

Tunisia were out of contention for 2014 when they were stunned by Cape Verde at home. Coach Nabil Maaloul quit immediately after the defeat and apologised to supporters for players who he called “totally hopeless.” The resignation in the Rades’ air hung low and thick.

It was only because FIFA discovered Cape Verde, the island nation of 500,000, had not read the rule book correctly and fielded an ineligible player. They are not the only ones to do so as countries with far larger populations have proved. But Cape Verde forfeited its berth, and Tunisia received a backdoor entry into the last 10.

They were so overjoyed their only concern on the day of the draw for the five two-legged ties, was avoiding Egypt.

For Tunisia, now coached by Ruud Krol, it may be the stroke of luck they need to change what has been a mediocre presence on the world stage. They’ve appeared in four World Cups in the last 35 years -- when eight have been played -- and have never progressed past the first round.

Since they won the African Nations Cup in 2004, they have been the equivalent of a mid-table club: always there but not always there to compete fiercely.

It’s exactly that type of team one can be preyed on and Cameroon have done that. Since being beaten by Tunisia 4-0 in their first meeting in 1967 -- an ANC group stage match -- Cameroon have won eight of their remaining 13 meetings, including wins at the All Africa Games and the 2000 and 2008 ANCs. Tunisia claimed one other win and there have been three draws.

Cameroon’s superior record illustrates in some way, their solid showings on the global stage in the last three decades. They have appeared in six of the eight World Cups since 1982. Their best showing was in Italy and they have not made that far, or even any further than the initial stage, in any other tournament.

Similarly, Cameroon did not exert their authority on the qualifying pool either. Their form was patchy early on. After beating DR Congo at home, they lost to Libya and defeated an out-of-sorts Togo but received a boost when they were awarded a win in the return leg of the fixture against Togo, who also was found to have used an ineligible player. Cameroon's progression still came down to the final weekend.

So did Tunisia’s, even though they didn’t know it at the time. From thinking they would spend the next few years trying to get to the global event, they find themselves at the doorstep. All they have to do is knock.

They had to move quickly to sign Krol, who is only on a two-month deal to allow him to still manage domestic league side SC Sfaxien as he tried to usher Tunisia to glory. He has been hard at work already. Tunisia have been in intense training and warmed up with a 4-0 win over a first division side, Hammam Sousse.

Cameroon, too, away from the distraction of Eto'o's comings and goings, held a training camp in Paris. They are aware they are expected to win this tie, especially given the way Tunisia snuck through. Coach Volke Finke said the Carthage Eagles can be “vulnerable in certain circumstances when things don’t go their way,” but remain a team that will be tough to beat.

He has given a guarantee Cameroon will not underestimate anyone, especially as it cost them last time. They were beaten by Cape Verde in qualifiers for ANC 2013. The islanders can now only envy Tunisia knowing they could have been competing in it instead.

Cameroon will know Biya will not expect anything less than victory, whether the opposition is Cape Verde or Tunisia.

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