When Stephane Mbia arrives in Brazil for the 2014 FIFA World Cup™, it will be the fourth time that he has appeared on a global stage, so the 28-year-old will be one of the veteran players in Volker Finke's team.
He represented his country at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Finland, where he scored the equalising goal four minutes into injury time in arguably the most spectacular game ever played in the competition as the west Africans came from 5-0 down in the 70th minute against Portugal to draw 5-5. Five years later, Mbia travelled to China where he played in the Cameroon U-23 side that competed at the Olympic games, losing after extra time against Brazil in the quarter-finals. He was then a member of Indomitable Lions that competed at the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa.
Mbia has mixed feelings when he thinks back to the first World Cup finals hosted in Africa. “We did not leave a good impression in South Africa when we lost all three matches. There was not a good atmosphere in the team at that time. But it is different this time around. There is a good atmosphere. More than half of the players invited to the World Cup training camp in Austria in May already played in South Africa. We've all grown older, more mature and experienced.”
There has been some press coverage of problems within the Indomitable Lions camp, including about the question of bonuses, and Mbia admits that there were some issues. “It is true that there have been problems, but I think they can happen anywhere. The bonus issue was a shame, especially as it reoccurred. That issue should have been sorted before the training camp. Dealing with it later wastes time and energy and it is not ideal to prepare calmly.” He nonetheless says that he was confident the team would arrive in Brazil with all issues having been finalized. “As I said, the atmosphere is very good and calm and is different from what it was four years ago in South Africa.”
Finke making the difference
Mbia believes the explanation why the team atmosphere is so much better this time around is two-fold. “We learned from our mistakes. That is one reason, but the other reason is our new coach, Volker Finke. We have had several coaches since 2010 (Javier Clemente, Denis Lavagne, Jean-Paul Akono ) and all of them had their merits.
“Mr Finke puts a lot of emphasis during his talks to the players on the concept of respect. We should have respect for team-mates and their work. We all respect the selection process. We are all very disciplined and follow instructions. We work really hard.”
Mbia, who played his club football for La Liga team Sevilla, with whom he won the UEFA Europa League this past season, says that Finke has earned the respect of the players. “He demands a lot from the players, but he also protects them. Tactically, he has taught us a lot. He is a coach who wants his team to have ball skills, to create chances.”
Disappointingly, Cameroon had a problem scoring in Brazil 2014 qualifying, and Mbia says it is something that the players are aware of. “It is true that we did not score often, except in the return match against Tunisia [when Cameroon won the home leg of the third round qualifier 4-1 to advance to the finals], We can still improve in that area, and we have the players to get there. I think it will get better as we work tactically. But in a competition like the World Cup, you have to be efficient. It is unlikely that you will get that many chances, so you have to try to take those that you get.”
Cameroon will be making a record-breaking seventh appearance at the finals – more than any other African country, but only once have they escaped the group phase. That was in 1990 when a Roger Milla-led team became the first African country to qualify for the quarter-finals. They have been drawn in Group A against the hosts Brazil, Croatia and Mexico, and Mbia believes the first game against Mexico on 13 June in Natal will the most important one.
“It is our ambition to go through to the knock-out stage. It is important not to lose the first game, because it can determine a lot of things. Mexico is a very good team, their style reminds me of that of Spain. Technically, they are very strong. Then we face Croatia, who have [Ivan] Rakitic and [Luka] Modric. They are one of three teams that will fight for second place in the group. Brazil are favourites and it does not bother me when they say they will finish in first place. Brazil is always a favorite, especially if they play at home.”