As recently as 12 months ago, the name Joel Matip stirred little recognition in the world of professional football. The now 18-year-old brother of Bundesliga professional Marvin Matip, Joel was playing in Schalke 04’s youth team and had yet to make his first league appearance for the club. The appointment of new coach Felix Magath would radically change life for the defensive midfielder.
Fresh from leading VfL Wolfsburg to championship success, Magath had no great financial resources to draw on at his new club, so from the start of the season he placed his confidence in up-and-coming youngsters. Among these raw talents was Matip, who was born in Bochum to a father from Cameroon.
After making his debut for Schalke away to Bayern Munich last October, Matip enjoyed an exceptional first season in which he made 20 Bundesliga appearances, scoring three goals and helping his club clinch a runners-up spot in the championship.
Stepping up to the top flight
“I’m absolutely delighted to have made the jump into the Bundesliga squad this season,” the 1.93m-tall defensive all-rounder told FIFA.com. “As a youth team player I really couldn’t imagine it would happen so fast. I am especially pleased to have made so many appearances and accumulated so much time on the field. But I’m still young, and I know that I can and must improve in all kinds of ways.”
Things did not stop at club level for young Joel. On December 23 last year, Cameroon coach Paul Le Guen selected the rising star for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations. “I was in seventh heaven when I got the news, right before Christmas,” Matip said of the Frenchman’s phone call.” I was astonished and extremely proud.”
To many people’s surprise though, Matip declined the invitation to the tournament in Angola. “It wasn’t an easy decision, but ultimately the timing was not very good. I would have missed a lot of important school time just weeks before the final exams, and I would also have missed out on preparations for the second half of the season, along with the first few matches after the winter break. Looking back, I am sure I made the right decision.”
International debut in March
Accepting Matip’s decision, Le Guen took his Cameroon squad to Angola, where they went out in a gruelling quarter-final clash to eventual champions Egypt, but the coach kept his eyes on the German-born prospect. After he continued to notch up impressive performances for Schalke, Matip eventually made his international debut for Cameroon against Italy on 3 March. Coming on as a substitute at half-time, the youngster delivered an assured performance against the reigning world champions.
“I was completely thrilled, right from the first training sessions when I found myself alongside great players such as Samuel Eto’o and Alexandre Song,” enthused the new international.
A few days after his first appearance for his father’s country, the midfielder made a final decision in favour of Cameroon at the expense of a possible international career in Germany’s colours. “It was not a decision I made easily, but something I considered at great length,” he said. “In the end it was my gut feeling that tipped the balance.”
FIFA World Cup call-up
It seems that Matip made the right choice too, because a few weeks before the start of the tournament he was called up by Le Guen into his 30-strong squad ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. “It would be the fulfilment of a dream for me to be there,” he said. “The fact that I was selected to play the match in Italy gives me encouragement.”
Joel is well aware of the challenges that lie ahead in South Africa. “We are in a difficult and finely-balanced group,” he said of Cameroon’s opponents in Group E. “The Netherlands won all their qualifying matches, while Denmark won their group ahead of Portugal and Sweden. And Japan should not be underestimated either. Before EURO 2008 they drew 2-2 in Germany and came close to winning the game.”
“The first challenge for all the teams is to get through the group stage and into the knock-out rounds. Then we will see what might be possible. Who knows, perhaps Cameroon will go as far as they did in 1990,” Matip said, recalling the Indomitable Lions’ march to the quarter-finals in Italy 20 years ago.
“African teams can spring a surprise”
Senegal are the only African nation to have reached the quarter-finals of a FIFA World Cup since, when they were beaten in extra time by Turkey at Korea/Japan 2002. However, Matip confided to FIFA.com that he is expecting something special from the continent’s representatives in South Africa.
“I believe that all the African teams will spring a surprise, because they will enjoy some kind of home advantage. For example, South Africa have been drawn in a really difficult group, but with their fans behind them they must have a chance. Ghana served notice of their class during the World Cup in Germany, while Côte d’Ivoire have a number of players that have made a great name for themselves in Europe, especially Didier Drogba. Algeria are also capable of surprising a few people. I wouldn’t like to predict who will get furthest – but obviously I hope it will be Cameroon!”