African superstar Samuel Eto'o is banking on fighting spirit driving Cameroon into the CAF Africa Cup of Nations quarter-finals on Thursday.
The Indomitable Lions tackle fellow former champions Tunisia at the new 20,000-seat Tundavala Stadium in this southern Angola town and the stakes are sky high. Victory for four-time title holders Cameroon over the Carthage Eagles and they are definitely through to the last-eight phase of the biennial African football showcase.
A draw might suffice, depending on what happens between leaders Gabon and lowly Zambia at Ombaka Stadium in Benguela; a loss will condemn one of the pre-tournament title favourites to a humiliating early exit. But three-time African Footballer of the Year and Inter Milan striker Eto'o says the thrilling come-from-behind 3-2 victory over Zambia last Sunday rekindled his pride in the national team.
"I was so proud to be Cameroonian that night, to be part of a team that displayed so much character and could rise to the occasion in the most difficult of situations," said the Lions captain. "It was a very difficult match for us with Zambia playing so well and defeat stared us in the face midway through the second half, but we fought on knowing the implications of not securing maximum points."
The striker who succeeded long-serving defender Rigobert Song as skipper when French coach Paul Le Guen took control last August, played a central role in the recovery by scoring the second goal with a trademark clinical finish. And Eto'o, who helped Cameroon conquer Africa in 2000 and 2002, and is the leading all-time CAF Africa Cup of Nations scorer with 17 goals, has reason to be hopeful against a Tunisian side that must triumph to survive the group-phase cull.
The countries have clashed three times in the 53-year Africa Cup of Nations with a 1-1 stalemate in 1982 followed by Cameroon victories in a 2000 semi-final and a 2008 quarter-final. It was 3-0 in Nigeria 10 years ago and 3-2 after extra time in Ghana two years ago after one of greatest games of a great tournament was settled by a Stephane Mbia strike on 92 minutes.
This Nations Cup may have kicked off with Côte d'Ivoire the almost unanimous media favourites, but few rejected the possibility that Cameroon could go all the way and come within one title of six-time champions Egypt. Captain and defender Karim Haggui accepts Tunisia came into the Cup wearing a work-in-progress tag as caretaker coach Faouzi Benzarti put his faith in youth after a shock failure to reach the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
"We have a young team in Angola that is improving with every game. Chances were missed in our draws against Zambia and Gabon due to inexperience," confessed the sole survivor of the 2004 Cup-winning squad. "However, the outcome of this group is far from settled. We still have to face Cameroon and a win takes us through to the knockout stage," added the 25-year-old 'veteran' of the 'Eagles' squad.