“As a kid, I had a poster of Samuel Eto'o on my bedroom wall," recalls Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting, his normally placid and friendly face momentarily blazing with passion. “He was one of my biggest idols when I was younger," the 22-year-old continued with a proud smile.
Nowadays, the striker plays alongside the revered world-class star for Cameroon, and is hoping to play his part in helping the 1990 FIFA World Cup™ quarter-finalists recapture former glories. Speaking exclusively to FIFA.com, the man who plays his club football for German Bundesliga outfit Mainz gave an honest appraisal of the current situation in Cameroon: “We're in the process of rejuvenating our national team, but we're still one of the top teams in Africa."
Following a deeply disappointing campaign at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, where Cameron packed for home after failing to pick up a single point from their group, the mood among the footballing family in the proud African nation plumbed new depths. Some 14 months later, the situation remains precarious for Choupo-Moting and company. In qualifying for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations 2012, to be hosted jointly by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, the team coached by Spanish boss Javier Clemente lie second in Group E behind Senegal, who can no longer be dislodged from top spot.
And even if Cameroon win their final match away to Congo DR on 7 October, there is no guarantee that the four-time continental champions will qualify for the finals as one of the best runners-up. “It's pretty tight. As you can imagine, it’ll feel a bit like the end of the world in our country if we don't make it. We'll give it everything we’ve got, and we'll have to hope it's enough," the striker summarised.
A tally of just eight points from five matches to date is disappointing to say the least, the goal-getter agreed, although he himself chipped in a brace in the recent 5-0 home victory over Mauritius. “It's not gone well so far, and we've been very unlucky too. We're in the process of growing together as a team and we urgently need a morale-boosting success. In that case, I'm convinced our strength will return, and the feelgood factor will return to the country.”
It’ll feel a bit like the end of the world in our country if we don't make it. We'll give it everything we’ve got.
Choupo-Moting, who grew up in Hamburg, is ideally placed to assist Cameroon's rebuilding project. The former Germany junior international combines tactical discipline with great technical ability, two good feet, and a classic striker's nose for goal.
A proven cool head under pressure, the man who grew up bilingual in German and French exhibits real delight when he speaks of the passionate and emotional world of West African football. “I basically always knew I wanted to play for Cameroon," he explained, “it's a wonderful feeling every time I fly there and immerse myself in the local joie del vivre."
The player, who spent his youth and early professional days with St Pauli and Hamburg, has patently picked up the best of two cultural worlds. Called up out of the blue for the 2010 FIFA World Cup by former national coach Paul Le Guen, Choupo-Moting's international career has picked up pace ever since. He now has ten caps to his name, and has become aware of his own potential to grow into a figure of some authority on the pitch.
“I think I should be raising my voice more often out on the field. It's a role I want to grow into in the future," he remarked. The player intends to apply that maxim not only to Cameroon but also to Mainz, where he has two goals to his name in six Bundesliga appearances since signing in July 2011. “The environment at my new club is very relaxed and it’s a great place to develop as a player. And for Cameroon, I can probably pick up a few things from Eto’o,” he said with a grin.
In the short to medium term, Choupo-Moting's goal at club level is to help prevent Mainz slipping into the relegation mire, and for the national team, to help the process of regrouping and refocusing. “Football in Africa is more confident in itself, and more teams have become genuine contenders. That's obviously shown up by the fact we’re having problems in qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations."
Greater self-belief shone through in his next statement, which will doubtless be music to Cameroonian ears: “I believe the African nations are now in a position to achieve great things at a World Cup – and I'm including us!"
The enthusiasm and joy typical of the Indomitable Lions clearly courses through the striker’s veins, although Choupo-Moting is just as much a child of Hamburg, the chilly northern city where hard-working understatement is the norm. The two sides of his character are both evident in his concluding remark: “My dream is to play at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but we have a long way to go and a lot of work ahead of us before then."