When Achille Emana talks about playing for his country, every word he speaks is laced with pride and honour.
"It doesn’t matter who the coach is, which country he is from or who your team-mates are," he says bluntly. "It all comes down to pride in wearing your country’s shirt. We're the Indomitable Lions, and past generations of players have left their mark and given us our status throughout the continent. We need to keep this name alive and have the same desire for success as those who achieved great things before us."
The Real Betis midfielder, who was first called up for his country by Otto Pfister and is now used as a playmaker by current coach Paul Le Guen, is desperate to put in a good showing at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ after a frustrating year on the domestic front.
Back in 2007, Emana found himself at a crossroads in his career. He was plying his domestic trade in the French Ligue 1 with Toulouse, being courted by teams in Spain (having been on Valencia’s books as a youth player) and on the point of turning his back on Cameroon. Jean II Makoun and Modeste Mbami had the midfield slots sewn up, and Emana unwisely chose to vent his frustrations to the media. "I’ve been a pro for seven years and for five of them, I’ve been treated like a dog in my own home country. I’m sick of people treating me like an idiot so I’ve told them to forget it. I don’t want to be considered for selection any more so they might as well forget about me," was his message to the powers-that-be.
Fortunately for all concerned. Pfister found the right words to persuade the player to think again and the son of Marc Emana, the former Canon de Yaounde star, appeared at the CAF African Cup of Nations 2008, where Cameroon slipped to a bitter defeat to Egypt in the final.
Playing in the hole
When Le Guen took over, Emana, who has a French Ligue 2 winner’s medal from 2003 from his time with Toulouse, was given an attacking midfield berth in the 4-3-3 formation which the former Rangers manager decided to implement.
Describing the player's role in that system, Le Guen said: "Achille isn’t the usual type of playmaker. He’s better playing in the hole, but he’s an exceptional talent." Emana featured in 10 of Cameroon’s qualifiers, including the crucial last few matches which saw them secure their place at South Africa 2010 after a poor start.
He finished as second-top scorer with three goals, equal with Jean II Makoun and behind only Samuel Eto’o with nine. "We’re lucky to have him,” says Emana of the prolific striker. “He transforms the attack. He’s a megastar but that doesn’t pose any problems for us."
Losing in the African Nations Cup quarter-finals in Angola this year was seen as a disaster by the Cameroonian fans and media. After playing dominant, attacking football under Le Guen en route to the World Cup, the Indomitable Lions' display brought comparisions with their failure to reach Germany 2006. "When we went to Ghana [in 2008], the media were all concentrating on Côte d’Ivoire, and we crept into the final," said Emana, implying his compatriots perform better when not among the favourites.
As fate would have it, the midfielder might also have to miss out on the start of the pre-tournament get-together for South Africa 2010. His Betis side remain in the hunt for promotion back to the Spanish top flight and Emana may well be needed for what could be a decisive game against current leaders Real Sociedad on May 23.
Pressure and passion
Former goalkeeper Thomas N’Kono, who has become something of a mentor for Emana, maintains that his protege has not shown what he is really capable of this season. "Achille has incredible potential," he says. "I’ve told him any number of times that he underestimates how valuable his strength is in modern football. He's the kind of player that needs to feel important to the team, which in turn feeds his confidence. He has the ability, he just needs to realise it."
Emana should now be used to the pressure, however. When last we spoke to him, during the 2008/09 season which ended in relegation, the midfielder spoke of the passion the supporters have for his club. "Betis can fill half a stadium on their own when they play away from home - they’re like Marseille in France. The passion for the club and the pressure heaped on it are enormous. People really love Betis."
It is an affection that is shared by the people of Cameroon for their national team, and one Emana is determined to repay in South Africa in just a matter of weeks.