The 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™ was notable for many things and not least for introducing a certain Rigobert Song to football fans the planet over. At 17, the Cameroon defender became one of the youngest ever players to grace the global stage and now, 16 years on, he can rightly claim to be the king of the Indomitable Lions, boasting more caps than any of his compatriots.
If he is granted the chance to add to his tally in South Africa this summer, Song’s vast experience will no doubt prove a valuable commodity for his exciting young team-mate Nicolas Nkoulou. “I’m happy to be playing alongside him because, a few years ago, I only saw him on television,” said Nikoulou, who at 20 is conscious of the lessons he can learn from the elder statesman. “He’s always talking to me. He tells me to try and do as he does, give everything and be aware that we’re playing for a whole nation.”
Song may well start uttering words of a different nature if he fails to make Cameroon’s travelling party, on the other hand, and that remains a serious possibility given that Nkoulou’s recent emergence has nudged the former captain closer to retirement. The iconic centre-back has been in the game long enough to know that his days are numbered, especially considering his young counterpart’s staggering progress so far.
A starter for Monaco at 19, Nkoulou is no stranger to major international tournaments having appeared in his first shortly after joining the principality club in summer 2008. Nkoulou delayed his Ligue 1 debut for the chance to contest the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament at Beijing 2008 and after spending the opening match on the bench, he came on as a right-back in the second game. He has not left the line-up since.
‘One day I’ll be there too’
Although Cameroon eventually fell to Brazil in the quarter-finals, Nkoulou was assigned to mark Ronaldinho and kept his illustrious opponent quiet throughout. His side may have ultimately fallen short of the mark set by the Samuel Eto’o generation in 2000, winners at the Sydney Games, but the fledgling defender will always savour his memories of the event.
“It’s the dream of every young player,” explained the Yaounde native, whose skills were first honed by KSA Douala. “When you play a sport, you have idols, dreams and goals. When I watched the Games in 2000, I told myself that one day I’d be there too. Defending my country’s colours in the senior team was also one of my goals.”
That latter objective was met during a friendly encounter with South Africa in November 2008, and Nkoulou continued impressing enough to earn himself selection for Cameroon’s 2010 CAF African Cup of Nations campaign in Angola. Now fielded in his favourite position at the heart of the defence, he went on to become one of the few Indomitable Lions spared criticism as the team limped out of the competition in disappointing circumstances. Beaten 1-0 by Gabon in the group stage and only able to draw 2-2 with Tunisia, their tournament ended with a 3-1 extra-time loss to Egypt in the last eight.
Talent and versatility
Exiting the competition at the same stage was enough to prompt Côte d’Ivoire to part ways with coach Vahid Halilhodzic, but Cameroon opted to retain faith in Paul Le Guen. For his part, the former Lyon coach has stuck with Nkoulou, whose reliability, distribution and versatility mark him out as a special talent. Still preferred in central defence for his country, he operates as a holding midfielder for Monaco, and that ability to shine in a number of roles has helped him contest more than 40 matches in all competitions in what is only his second season in the French top flight.
“It’s always preferable to have several strings to your bow,” said Nkoulou. “That’s what makes it possible for me to play a lot. If I wasn’t able to perform in a number of positions, there’s no doubt I wouldn’t have appeared in all those games. I’m young, I’m learning about different positions and I try to give my best whatever the situation.”
It was at centre-back that Nkoulou again stood out during a friendly against world champions Italy in March. With Song not even called up to the squad, his young rival helped hold the Azzurri forwards at bay in a goalless draw, but he is loath to read too much into what was both an impeccable individual display and a solid team performance. “That draw was neither reassuring nor disappointing,” he says. “Yes, they were the world champions, but we won't be resting on our laurels. We’re still a team under construction.”
Cameroon must now ready themselves to face Group E rivals Denmark, Japan and the Netherlands on South African soil, so forging a sturdy defence will undoubtedly be central to those reconstruction efforts. Unfortunately for Song, Le Guen is likely to prefer a modern edifice to a historical monument when he looks to build from the back.
Nicolas Nkoulou began his career with Kadji Sports Academies in Douala, the same club where fellow internationals Samuel Eto'o, Carlos Kameni, Stephane Mbia, Georges Mandjeck and Eric Djemba Djemba all first learnt the ropes.
Nicolas Nkoulou has contested every minute of Cameroon’s 12 matches since Paul Le Guen took over as coach in July 2009.
Nicolas Nkoulou models his playing style on that of France legend Laurent Blanc: “He’ll always be my idol and I’m moved every time I get to play in front of this giant of French football.” That respect notwithstanding, Nkoulou helped Monaco defeat Blanc’s Bordeaux in the French Cup Round of 16 this year.
Nicolas Nkoulou has yet to score either for club or country. The only time the young defender has found the back of the net so far came during a match between Monaco and Marseille on 13 February 2010, when his own goal handed Marseille a 2-1 victory.