The Indomitable Lions show their strength
Cameroon is dominating African football at the moment. Last February they won the African Nations' Cup and now in Sydney they have taken the Olympic title for the first time. They captivated the fans in Australia with their attractive play and their ability to turn a game when all seemed lost.
Carlos Kameni must have thought he was part of a bad film - and 500,000 of his compatriots watching TV back home must have been starting to agree - as the final of the Olympic football tournament got under way in Sydney on 30 September. Scarcely had the match begun and the ball was already in Kameni's goal; to be precise it was 78 seconds after the whistle that Spain's Xavi beat the African goalkeeper.
And it got even worse as the 16 year-old Kameni - the youngest player in the competition - found himself facing a penalty only three minutes later. But the young keeper, who is under contract with the French first division side Le Havre and at the moment spends more time on the bench or even watching matches from the stand, managed to stop Angulo's spot kick. But shortly before half time, Spain did succeed in getting their second goal and Cameroon's hopes of winning the country's first-ever Olympic gold medal looked to be disappearing fast.
But the Indomitable Lions, as the Cameroon players are called, came out for the second half looking determined to catch up. Within a spectacular five-minute period in this dramatic and exciting match they got the two goals they needed. The 98,000 fans in the stadium were on the edge of their seats, and fate seemed to be turning in favour of the Africans when two Spanish players were sent off. However the depleted European side managed to keep the score level at 2-2 until the final whistle and even through extra time. But then came the penalty-shooting session, and Cameroon got the edge here by 5 to 3, earning themselves their second prestigious title within the year.
In the Hotel Sheraton on the Park, FIFA's quarters during the Olympic Football Tournaments in Sydney, Senes Erzik of Turkey was entitled to sit back and relax for a while with a satisfied smile. He is a member of the FIFA Executive Committee and Chairman of the FIFA Referees' Committee, and the performances of the referees and their assistants in Sydney had just received very good marks all round. Of course Erzik was not the only one concerned about how well the 44 officials did their job; coaches, players, team managers and the media all had a close eye on them throughout the tournament, and their evaluations were also positive. Which does not come as a surprise to Erzik.
The team of referees and assistants (both men and women) demonstrated to observers that they had prepared very seriously for their tasks, and that things are on the way with regard to the introduction of professional referees. Not only did this group show that they knew the rules and how to interpret them, but also proved that they were mentally and physically in good shape and that they had courage. Especially on the physical side, these "most important people on the pitch" (Erzik) were of a very high calibre. "Never before have match officials been so well prepared for a tournament," was Erzik's comment.
Here he had the fitness test particularly in mind, which was carried out in a track and field stadium in Sydney and which all the group passed, some with flying colours. One of the referees did the 200 meter run in the very good time of 23.2 seconds, plus the 50 meters in 6.5 seconds, also a good turn of speed. One of the female referees covered 3000 meters during the 12-minute run and Erzik was impressed: "I am very proud. The results of the fitness test were simply excellent all round."
He does not find it hard to explain these outstanding performances. Today many referees devote six days a week to the task, considerably more than in the past. "Anyone who can only train twice a week will not have much chance of reaching the top level as a referee any more," says Erzik.
Many have in fact already practically made their hobby into their main job and are almost professionals, earning most of their income from their efforts with the whistle. The intensified training efforts that they put in, together with the fact that they are involved in more matches, lead to an improvement in performance.
Erzik considers Sydney 2000 as proof - the ratings of the men and women, not just in black any more but also in yellow, grey or green, were significantly better than during the Atlanta Olympics in the USA four years ago.
He expects a further improvement when FIFA officially launches professional refereeing, which he is convinced will happen in the foreseeable future: "The introduction of professional refereeing is both logical and necessary. It should not be the case that a person with so much influence in such a giant industry as football should be working on an amateur basis."
A superb generation
Cameroon's coach Jean-Paul Akono stated that he believed his side would win the Olympic title months before the tournament started. "We have some excellent individual players, good combined play and great team spirit. We could write history in Sydney and win the gold medal," he said during a training camp in Germany, mentioning as his strongest players Pierre Wome (Bologna), Geremi Njitap (Real Madrid), Samuel Eto'o (Real Majorca), Lauren Etame Mayer (Arsenal), plus captain and star forward Patrick Mboma (AC Parma). But it was not just the experienced players who shone in Australia. Akono is equally proud of his up and coming youngsters, who seem to be emerging in a rich stream in this country with only 15 million inhabitants. Currently Cameroon has a number of exceptionally promising young players. Akono's comment: "My country has a superb generation of young footballers at the moment."
The Cameroon team that played Down Under was a homogenous group, an efficient mixture of talent and experience, of artistic attackers and solid defensive workers. They were a team that could not only play attractive football but also showed passion, courage and unselfishness. The final was not the first time that their fighting qualities came to light as they staged that incredible comeback from being 0-2 down to take gold, but had earlier been in evidence in the quarter-final against Brazil. For part of that game they themselves were the team with only nine men and yet they still managed to beat the 1996 bronze medal winners. Brazil won the Fair Play Trophy - in the women's tournament this distinction went to Germany - but that was scant compensation for their early departure from the competition. Certainly not for Brazil's coach Wanderley Luxemburgo, who was relieved of his position after this disappointing performance from his "seleção".
Reigning champions Nigeria also had an unhappy time; at no stage did they look like putting on a repeat performance of their superb showing of 1996 and they went out in the quarter-final also. As for the host country, they suffered the sad fate of playing well in all three of their games in front of a fair and enthusiastic public and still failing to earn a single point. This was a bitter disappointment not just for the players, called the Olyroos, but also for coach Raul Blanco who expressed his anguish after the second defeat: "We've been dreaming of an Olympic medal for four years and now all our hopes are gone in four days."
Even so, the attacking style of the Australian team warmed the hearts of the fans, as did that of the Japanese who only went out on penalties against the USA in the quarter-final. Japan were one of only five teams that chose not to take advantage of the "three players over 23 rule", and this was a conscious decision on the part of their French coach, Philippe Troussier. His aim is to build a young team for the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ that will be at its peak in two years time. Troussier was optimistic after what he saw from his squad in this competition: "When the World Cup comes along, Japan will be in a strong position: I have a number of good and intelligent players. As I see it, there will be twelve to fifteen of the Australian group in the World Cup squad in two years time."
Korea also came with a young side, managed to win two of their group matches, yet were edged out by Spain on goal difference. But they too look good prospects for the World Cup, with several very promising players in the team.
During the football tournaments at the Olympic games in Australia, it was not just the players and coaches who were in the spotlight as usual, but also the supporters. In Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Canberra there were groups of painted, decorated and good-humoured fans having a great time in the stadiums. For their exemplary behaviour they too could have been given a gold medal. Spurring on their own teams energetically and vociferously, their presence created a great atmosphere in the stadiums.
Exceptional in this respect were the Australian fans. Both the women's and the men's teams received terrific support, even after it was clear that their chances of going further in the competition had come to an end. A unique example was provided by the last group game for the Australian men, which they lost 1-2 to Honduras. They had also lost their two previous games, but the public were not deterred in the least. The crowd in the Sydney Football Stadium accepted their team's third defeat in great style. After the final whistle the majority of the 37,788 spectators rose to their feet and bad farewell to the Australian team with a standing ovation.
The loyal fans of the Japanese team were also in a similarly celebratory mood. Coached by Philippe Troussier, the Japanese men's team had at least 5,000 fans behind them for their matches. Many of them were wearing the Japanese national team shirt and had the country's flag painted on their faces. The Asian side had a good run and this was honoured by their countrymen back home after the team had qualified for the quarter-final. In order to see the next match, against the USA, three plane-loads of fans flew to Australia and were unlucky to see their heroes lose the match on penalties. "Our fans are unique," said Troussier; "the Japanese are just mad about football."
And he should know; practically every day he was able to experience for himself how passionate the supporters were. Wherever the French coach went he was accompanied by Japanese fans, hoping to get an autograph or photos. In Australia he was sometimes still busy at two o'clock in the morning signing pieces of paper, pictures or even the arms of the team's devoted followers.
Another group of keen supporters were the Chilean fans - there were as many as 15,000 of them present for some matches, practically all immigrants to Australia who have been there for a number of years. And their efforts were not in vain as they encouraged their team as far as the bronze medal. Much credit for this success is due to the support of the fans, said Chile's captain and star striker Ivan Zamorano.
FIFA President pleased with his visit
More successful were Chile, led by their experienced captain Ivan Zamorano, who was top scorer with six goals to his credit. The South Americans' exciting play and attacking spirit made a big impression, and their tally of 14 goals was ahead of any other team, deservedly earning them the bronze medal. Among their talented younger players were striker Reinaldo Navia (four goals), Pablo Contreras and David Pizarro. They were totally delighted with their 2-0 win over the USA in the play-off for third place, especially Zamorano who is now 33 years old: "A great ambition of mine has been fulfilled - playing in the Olympic Games and earning a medal."
Another very satisfied person was FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter, who visited all five venue cites - Sydney, Adelaide, Canberra, Melbourne and Brisbane - and was very impressed by the tournament organisation, the standard of play and above all by the behaviour of the spectators. "I leave Australia with a very good feeling," said Blatter to the media just before his departure. "I think that these Olympic Games have shown that football is completely integrated within the Olympic family."
This seemed to be a competition that everyone can be proud of. Over a million spectators turned out to watch the matches, played in modern stadiums. Most of the games were of a high standard and there were plenty of goals - 103 in all or an average of 3.22 per match.