Cameroon football supporters were contemplating the unthinkable just two months ago - a second consecutive FIFA World Cup™ without their national team.
The country that had qualified a record five times from Africa were bottom of Group 1 in the final elimination phase for South Africa 2010. Minnows Gabon had six points after two rounds, shock 2006 qualifiers Togo four and Morocco and Cameroon one each with the 'Indomitable Lions' last on goals scored.
A 1-0 away defeat by Togo was bad enough, but being held goalless by serial poor travellers Morocco before 50,000 Cameroonians in Yaounde was hard to stomach and veteran German coach Otto Pfister quit soon after. Enter Paul Le Guen, a 45-year-old former France defender and coach of Lyon, who he guided to three consecutive national league titles before less happy spells at Rangers and Paris St Germain.
He knew his only chance of FIFA World Cup salvation for Cameroon lay in winning the remaining four qualifiers, and his team have cleared the first three obstacles with space to spare. The last hurdle is away to Morocco this Saturday in Fes, where a win will guarantee Cameroon a place among the five African qualifiers for the first FIFA World Cup staged on the continent.
A draw will suffice if second-placed Gabon fail to win away to Togo and the 'Lions' could even afford a loss if a similar fate befalls the unpredictable Gabonese 'Panthers'. The only certainty is a French-coached team will top the group as Gabon are led by Alain Giresse, a member of "le carre magic" (the magic square) midfield that mesmerised Europe two decades ago.
Morocco need maximum points to have any hope of making the 2010 CAF African Nations Cup - the FIFA World Cup qualifiers double as qualifiers for the biennial continental tournament - so Cameroon face formidable foes. But former star Cameroon striker Patrick Mboma has faith in Le Guen and believes Cameroon will clinch a sixth FIFA World Cup appearance after appearing in the 1982, 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002 tournaments.
Cameroon reached the 1990 quarter-finals in Italy and led England before losing in extra time to achieve a feat only one African country - Senegal in 2002 - has matched. "Paul is ambitious and although it is a tough assignment, he has the talent to do it. All the ingredients are there because Cameroon possesses excellent footballers," Mboma said in a radio interview.
Mboma knows the reserved, media-shy and strict Le Guen well as they were team-mates at PSG during the 1990s when the Cameroonian was among the most feared strikers in Africa. "He does not talk much to journalists or to people around him, but I like him. Paul has a special personality and will not tolerate nonsense from anybody."
The revolution instigated by Le Guen when he took over three months ago included axing long-serving defender Rigobert Song and replacing him as skipper with three-time African Footballer of the Year Samuel Eto'o. There was also a recall for Spain-based striker Achille Webo, who rewarded Le Guen with two goals in his first match, a friendly win in Austria that preceded two FIFA World Cup victories over Gabon and one against Togo.
Giresse, whose hopes of taking Gabon to South Africa suffered a massive blow when beaten home and away by Cameroon within four days last September, was initially sceptical whether Le Guen could adapt quickly enough. "Paul will realise that it is complicated coaching an African national team. He will have to immerse himself in local life and its unusual organisation. He has not much time and the environment is completely different to Europe."
But seven goals and three victories later, Le Guen is in pole position, one point ahead of Giresse entering the final straight with the greatest qualification prize in football at stake.