Barcelona’s famed training academy, La Masia, has been in the news recently as its past generations have combined to make a masterful team, as confirmed before a global audience in the UEFA Champions League final victory against Manchester United. But two current members of the academy are in line to make news in a different way: by participating in the upcoming FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia for Cameroon.
Both Armand Ella and Gael Etock are young Africans making waves in the junior structures of the Spanish club after being recommended to the European champions by its most famous African of recent times, Samuel Eto’o. A nimble attacker, Ella impressed at the African Youth Championship in April where Cameroon finished second to reach Colombia 2011. Etock is also a forward, one possessing a surprising turn of pace and an explosive technique. He is a player that has often been compared to Cameroon’s all-time leading score Eto’o. The highly-rated pair, however, represent just two of a myriad of internationally-based talent that Cameroon’s under-20 coach Martin Ndtoungou Mpile can chose from as he sits down in the next days to decide on his team for the championship.
Fresh from a tour of several European countries to select players for his squad, the coach has a remarkable panoply of youngsters to look at from clubs across the world. The sheer range of choices represents the wide swath of talented players that departed their home shores at a young age to seek their footballing fortunes around the globe.
The Eto’o connection
Ever since Eto’o emerged as a fresh-faced 16-year-old from the Kadji Academy to join Real Madrid, a proliferation of similar schools have attempted to produce talent for the world market. The current Inter Milan striker now has his own foundation, working not only on taking players to overseas clubs but also seeking to give them a solid educational and social grounding.
There are Cameroonian youngsters not only at Barcelona but also to be found at clubs like Real Zaragoza and Levante, who have benefited from Eto’o's patronage. Tens of others have headed off under their own steam to far flung destinations. For example, players from clubs in Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Thailand and Tunisia are also in contention to make the final squad as Cameroon prepare to face New Zealand, Portugal and Uruguay in the tournament in Colombia from 29 July to 20 August. There is every chance the Junior Lions - known as the Lionceaux - will have the most ‘international’ look about their line-up, with the prospect of more transfers to Europe and South Africa to follow after the event for the remaining home-based contingent.
When they competed at the CAF African Youth Championship in South Africa in April, the side that lost to Nigeria 3-2 in an exciting final was closely watched by scouts from teams across Europe. Officials at the tournament said representatives of some 50 clubs from Portugal to Russia were present in the stands, furiously taking notes on potential talent. For years, national coaches in Africa have been promoting the export of players who they feel get better conditioning, tactical discipline and self confidence leaving home and playing in more rigorous leagues. That has even started to become the case at youth level, and Ndtoungou has been seeing the benefits in his fit and powerful team.
The youth are catching up
Cameroon’s success in African football at senior level - a record number of FIFA World Cup appearances for an African side plus a collection of four CAF Africa Cup of Nations titles - comes on the back of their consistent exporting of top players, right back to the days when Roger Milla and Thomas Nkono were among the first African internationals playing at European clubs. But youth success has not kept pace. Cameroon have won just one African title each at the U-17 and U-20 levels, although they have reached five finals in the case of the latter. And despite the success of Ghana and Nigeria at World Cup level, Cameroon have never made it to a semi-final in either global youth tournament.
However, in the country, there are high hopes that coach Ndtoungou will be able to benefit from the precocious experience his current crop of talented youngsters have already picked up far from their home base and that this world-wise contingent will give Cameroon a competitive edge at the world showpiece. Their top scorers at the African Youth Championship offer an interesting comparison. Striker Frank Ohandza plies his trade in Thailand's Premier Division, while midfielder Edgar Salli is based domestically with CotonSport, but the AYC Player of the Tournament has been strongly linked with a move to South Africa’s Premier League.
Cameroon have announced that they will be trying to bring these disparate elements together in a pre-tournament build-up that includes a domestic training camp, a tour of either the Middle East or Europe and finally a camp in Brazil from the middle of July. “Our ambition is to present the best face of our football in Colombia,” Ndtoungou has said.