On 1 April 2016, Soline Djoubi could not quite believe what she was seeing. In a room containing FIFA World Cup™ legend Roger Milla, several government ministers and the Chairman of the Cameroonian Football Association, all eyes were instead riveted on the young footballer and her team-mates, who had just helped to qualify Cameroon’s U-17 women’s side for the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup for the very first time.
Like the other illustrious guests, the captain of the Bébé Lionnes (baby lions) was asked to share her thoughts, and when she spoke, her voice was timid and slightly hesitant – hardly surprising for a 16-year-old thrust into the limelight. A few months later, when FIFA.com caught up with her, she again spoke in undertones, but there was a marked increase in volume and confidence when the subject of Cameroon’s historic qualification for Jordan 2016 was broached.
“It’s been a while since we managed it, but it’s always a pleasure to talk about it,” she said enthusiastically. “Especially as we had a rough time of it during the qualifiers. That made it even more emotional when we finally made it.”
The aforementioned difficulties arose in Cameroon’s first-round tie with Ethiopia, which almost saw their adventure come to an abrupt end before it had properly begun. Despite recording a 2-1 home win in Douala, courtesy of a brace from Djoubi, they found themselves facing an early exit in the return leg in Addis Ababa.
“Ethiopia were leading 2-0 until the 87th minute, when we finally managed to score and make it 3-3 on aggregate,” she recalled, referring to Alexandra Takunda Engolo’s late strike, which led to general confusion about the rules. “We asked the referee if we were going to play extra time, which suited us as we could see that the Ethiopians were tired. But she explained that in our age category, you have to go straight to penalties.”
Djoubi slotted home her country’s first spot-kick, in a shoot-out that finished 5-4 in favour of Cameroon, after six attempts each. “Those two legs were really quite tricky,” she said. “But the trouble we had, the tiredness we felt, and all the hard work we put in – all that is in the past now. We’ve forgotten the qualifiers. We’re on great form and we’re ready for the U-17 World Cup. All we want now is to be there.”
It was current Cameroon coach Minkreo Birwe who first handed the captain’s armband to Djoubi, spotting within her the talent to motivate others. Indeed, she has already given some thought to her pep talks in Jordan. “I’ll tell my team-mates that this might be the only time in their lives that they get to play at a World Cup,” she explained. “We’ve been given an opportunity, and we have to seize it. We have to try to make history, which would be incredible. We must give 100 per cent, because it’s a World Cup, and there’s no room for error.”
That last point is particularly salient given that Cameroon’s opponents in Group B will be Germany, Canada and Venezuela, three teams with vast experience in the U-17 age category. But Djouba and her team-mates will likely take inspiration from their senior compatriots, who surprisingly reached the Round of 16 – where they were unfortunate to lose to China PR – on their FIFA Women’s World Cup™ debut in Canada last year, having adopted an attacking, high-tempo style throughout the competition.
“They showed that, to go on a good run, you don’t have to be a team that’s used to appearing at World Cups, or have a huge amount of experience,” she said. “If they hadn’t missed their chances against China, they could have gone pretty far. They made everyone sit up and take notice, and they got a lot of young Cameroonian women interested in football.”
Daring to dream
The 16-year-old Bébé Lionnes skipper was one of those young women, even though her initial excitement for the beautiful game had different origins. “When I was little, I used to kick a ball around with my big brothers; I didn’t even know that women’s football existed,” she recounted, speaking as if her childhood was in the distant past, even though she was still taking part in summer youth tournaments barely three years ago.
At the age of 14, she joined AS Police. The following year, she moved to Canon Yaounde, and within a few months, she was invited to U-20 and senior-team get-togethers, where she gained the experience that enabled her to shine during the U-17 side’s two qualifying fixtures against Ethiopia and Egypt.
“I think Cameroon can win the U-17 Women’s World Cup; all of the teams that qualify should have that aim,” said the promising No8, who wears that number out of appreciation for Andres Iniesta, one of many top-level players she admires, such as national icon Samuel Eto’o, Lionnes striker Gaelle Enganamouit and Brazilian star Marta.
“It’s the first time we’ve taken part, but we intend to go as far as possible. Why shouldn’t we allow ourselves to dream? Our main asset is our mental attitude. It’s not enough to have good technique and be physically strong; you need great team morale as well.”
If Cameroon’s mindset and team spirit do end up taking them all the way, and they return home with the prestigious trophy, Djoubi can look forward to carrying out countless more interviews in her quiet yet self-assured voice.