One of the intriguing aspects of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ is Cameroon’s return to the big stage. Absent from Germany 2006, the only one of the last six world finals they have missed, the Indomitable Lions will be making their reappearance in Group E, where they will face the Netherlands, Denmark and Japan.
It looked at one stage as if the African giants might fail to qualify again. Collecting just one point from their first two games in their final qualifying group, the four-time African champions were forced to replace coach Otto Pfister with Paul Le Guen.
That tactical switch, combined with the emergence of a new generation of players, came just in time. Quickly establishing his authority, the former Lyon coach injected fresh blood into the team and began to impose his ideas, with his new charges stringing together four successive wins to qualify for South Africa.
Sticking to his principles despite Cameroon’s disappointing showing at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations Angola 2010, the Frenchman has just announced his provisional squad for the world finals, finding room for only a handful of experienced campaigners.
Among the many novices in the frame for a place in the final 23-man squad are three friends who all play their club football in a corner of northern France and who would be only too happy to delay their summer holidays for the biggest football show on earth.
Making up the trio is Valenciennes goalkeeper Guy-Roland N’Dy Assembe, his club team-mate and right-back Gaetan Bong, and Aurelien Chedjou, currently bringing his defensive skills to bear for Lille, some 50 kilometres further north. Another local resident who was also in the reckoning was Henri Bedimo, a left-back with nearby Lens. Sadly for him, though, he failed to make the cut.
“We call each other after every game but it’s not always easy to meet up,” N’Dy Assembe tells FIFA.com. “At least this way we’ll be able to see each other, though I can’t stop thinking about Henri. It’s a real shame he won’t be with us.”
While N’Dy Assembe only came into the Cameroon fold at Angola 2010 and Chedjou at the end of the qualifying competition for South Africa 2010, Bong is a complete newcomer. The holder of dual nationality, the Valenciennes youngster represented France at U-21 level, though there should be no doubt as to where his allegiances lie. “As I’ve always said, I was born in Cameroon and I’m Cameroonian,” he explains. “I owe a lot to France and that’s why I couldn’t turn down the invitation to play for the U-21s. But make no mistake, it’s Cameroon I’ve always wanted to play for.”
A learning curve
His wish could soon be about to come true. Bong’s first goal is to avoid becoming one of Le Guen’s seven discards, an outcome neither he nor N’Dy Assembe and Chedjou are willing to contemplate. “I’m well aware that this is an opportunity that invariably comes up just once in a lifetime, and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I don’t miss the boat,” says the Lille man.
“Being named in the provisional squad takes me a step closer to fulfilling my childhood dream,” adds N’Dy Assembe. “I’ve got a lot of work to do though if I’m going to make sure of my place at the training camp.”
As the biggest selection surprise of all, Bong is even more modest about his hopes of making the final pool: “There are a lot of other players who deserve this as much as I do. They’re in my thoughts and I know how lucky I am. Now I’m going to fight my hardest to get in the 23. This is already fantastic news for me, so making the finals will just be the icing on the cake for me, a bonus. I’m young and I want to make the most of this so I can learn and develop.”
In his role as potential understudy to Carlos Kameni, N’Dy Assembe is also looking to gain some valuable experience. “For me it would be a chance to find out what the top level is all about and learn how to handle the pressure,” he explains. “I’m not expecting anything more than that.”
That educational experience will be made all the richer by the presence in Le Guen’s squad of Cameroon’s old guard.
“The older players are like big brothers to us,” acknowledges Chedjou, now something of a veteran with eight caps to his name. “They know that have to get the key points across to us in a short space of time. But they also know that it’s not easy to wear the colours of your national team. You have to prepare yourself for something like that, so it’s great to be able to go through this transitional period with them. Take Rigobert Song. He knows he’s going to be handing over to us soon but his attitude remains fantastic and he’s still a great example to the defenders. He’s very close to us and he’s a real gentleman.”
Eto’o leading by example
Another player who encapsulates the team spirit in the Cameroon camp is Samuel Eto’o, who was appointed captain by the incoming Le Guen. “Samu is always giving us encouragement and urging us to push ourselves all the way,” adds Chedjou. “He’s won everything in his career but he still has this incredible desire to win. He’s not the type of guy to revel in his own success.”
The harmonious atmosphere bodes well for South Africa, with a number of pundits tipping Cameroon’s class of 2010 to go further than their illustrious predecessors managed.
Their previous best came at Italy 1990, when the likes of Thomas N’Kono, Jean-Claude Pagal (Gaetan Bong’s uncle), Francois Omam-Biyik and Roger Milla shook the football world to its foundations in reaching the quarter-finals before unluckily going down 3-2 to England.
The current crop believe they can raise the bar. “I can honestly see us winning the title,” says a bullish N’Dy Assembe, while Chedjou adopts a more guarded tone: “We need to perform at our very best if we are to put our poor display at the African Cup of Nations behind us. What we want to do is to come away from South Africa without any regrets. I know we can pull off a surprise, like reaching the final for example.”
Providing they get the nod from coach Le Guen, the trio of young hopefuls will soon have the chance to show their confidence is not misplaced.