Cameroon travel to Togo on 28 March to begin the next phase of their quest to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. One man the Cameroonians will be looking to as they bid to negotiate the arduous third and final round is Real Betis star Achille Emana. FIFA.com visited the versatile midfielder in Seville to get his views on their chances of success.
'No room for error'. That is message the former Toulouse player wants to get across as Cameroon begin their preparations for the final push for a place at South Africa 2010. While the pain caused by the last-minute penalty miss that dashed their Germany 2006 qualification hopes may have eased, the Indomitable Lions are determined not to let cruel fate play a hand this time around.
"It was a bitter experience and it showed that it's out on the pitch where everything is decided," said Emana, a Valencia youth product who spent several seasons with Toulouse, before returning to Spain in the close season. "We are not thinking about South Africa yet or the advantage we will have by competing on our home continent. Our first objective is to get there."
Under the guidance of Otto Pfister, who took charge of Togo at Germany 2006, Cameroon strolled through the first qualifying round, outclassing section rivals Cape Verde Islands, Mauritius and Tanzania to top the group with 16 points. Held to a goalless draw by the Kilimanjaro Stars, the Cameroonians won their other five games, conceding only two goals in the process, and rounded off the campaign off with a 5-0 defeat of Mauritius.
That strong showing provided the perfect antidote to their loss to Egypt in the final of last year's CAF Africa Cup of Nations. After witnessing two continental championships from the bench, Emana was an indispensable member of the side that almost went all the way in Ghana, a disappointment that he and his team-mates have since come to terms with.
"It was a big let-down for us but we had to get over it straightaway," he explained. "It's always hard to take when you lose to a late goal. We lifted ourselves immediately, though, and overall I think we did pretty well in the first qualifying round."
"The defence has been vital so far. Some people were saying we had problems at the back but we've let in very few goals. We've also got more strengths than weaknesses. Our midfield is solid and we're scoring goals up front. I believe we've proved our qualities and all we have to do now is go out and fulfil our ambitions."
Central to the realisation of those ambitions is Samuel Eto'o. The Barcelona striker was the side's leading scorer in the first phase and, aside from Côte d'Ivoire's Didier Drogba and Emmanuel Adebayor of Togo, he has few peers in the African game. "With Samuel on your side you always have a chance," commented Emana. "He has a tremendous presence up front and the fact that he is a major star is not a problem for us at all."
The emergence of a big-name player, however, can pose a problem for some teams. "With a big star like Adebayor we've seen the Togolese struggle a bit more because they're the team to beat now. It's got tougher for them and that's understandable. What's more the Sparrowhawks are the favourites to win the group to my mind, even though we've moved up to 14th in the FIFA World Ranking."
With Geremi Njitap and Rigobert Song as the recognised leaders of the pack, the Indomitable Lions have enough experience to help the likes of emerging talents Stephane Mbia and Alexandre Song fit in alongside recently-established performers such as Jean II Makoun, Modeste Mbami, Timothee Atouba and, of course, Emana. And according to the Real Betis man, each generation is well aware of the responsibility that comes with pulling on the famous red-and-green shirt.
"No matter who the coach is, what their nationality is, or the team that goes out to play, the most important thing is the pride the players feel at wearing the Cameroon kit. We are the Indomitable Lions. Our elders blazed the trail for us and made the country a force to be reckoned with on the continent. Our job now is to ensure the name lives on. We have to show the very same commitment as the players who achieved so many great things before us."
The next step in Cameroon's preparations is a friendly against Guinea next week. Time will tell if that warm-up match is the prelude to big things for Emana and Co.