Some monikers are so self-explanatory that they do not require lengthy explanations. When Denis Lavagne summed up his mission as newly-appointed coach of Cameroon by stating that he wished for his team to become known as ‘the Germans of Africa’, most fans understood exactly what he meant.
Having formerly enjoyed a highly successful spell at the helm of Cameroonian outfit Cotonsport Garoua, Lavagne is very familiar with the country’s footballing culture, and is well-placed to point out that the west Africans have borne that label in the past. “People gave them that nickname because of their habit of winning games 1-0. In 2002, they won the Cup of Nations without conceding a single goal,” he told FIFA.com.
Since the 2008 edition of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations, in which they lost to Egypt in the final, the Indomitable Lions no longer strike the same fear into the hearts of opponents. To make matters worse, rumours of internal strife within the dressing room have circulated constantly.
Brought in to rejuvenate the ailing African side the day after former coach Javier Clemente had been released from his duties, Lavagne remains optimistic about the future, and is dismissive of talk of disruptive influences.
“Since I got here, I’ve not seen any sign of dressing room unrest. Either that, or they’re hiding it from me,” he said with a smile. Unbeaten in three games since his appointment, the Frenchman has been pleased with what he has seen so far.
“At the Marrakesh tournament in November, you could see how closely they were working together on the pitch, how good the atmosphere was within the squad, and how well organised things were. After everything I’d heard, it was a big surprise,” he said.
Following a draw with Angola in December, the Cameroonians came close to slipping up in February in their opening qualifying match for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, due to be held in South Africa. Playing away in Guinea-Bissau, they needed an 87th-minute Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting goal to prevent Lavagne from failing his first competitive test as national coach. The former Sedan youth academy director nevertheless viewed this last-gasp victory as a sign of mental fortitude.
“We didn’t have much time to prepare for the match – we held just one training session the night before. Despite that, my players showed a real togetherness, fighting for each other till the final whistle. For me, that’s the proof that morale is high. This team hasn’t lost for seven matches, and I’m happy, in spite of the flack we’ve received back home. There’ll always be people who criticise because it fits their own agenda,” he said.
“I knew that beforehand and it doesn’t really bother me, because I believe that we’re on the right track,” continued Lavagne, who is keen to see his players again at the next squad get-together in May.
“We’ll then have ten days to get ready for our 2014 World Cup qualifiers in June, which should give us enough time to work on some finer points. We’ve got a new fitness trainer, and because of that, some brand new working methods. The overall goal is for the players to feel as fresh as possible out there on the pitch,” said the Beziers native.
“We mustn’t forget that this group is still young. It’ll take time for them to gel properly – that always takes a bit longer when younger players are involved,” he added.
First versus Congo DR at home and then Libya away, on 1 and 8 June respectively, Cameroon will have to find a more immediate path to victory. “With a national team, you rarely have enough time to get all the right things in place,” said Lavagne, adding, “Since I arrived, we’ve had four training sessions and three matches.”
The compatriot of Paul Le Guen, who resigned after his team’s disappointing 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ campaign, has followed in the footsteps of his predecessors by lowering the average age of the squad.
“Up front, we’d come to the end of an era, and the coaches before me had also reached that conclusion. Lots of the young players that I’ve brought in had already been called up by Le Guen and Clemente. My job is to build on the foundations they created, which are pretty solid. In defence and midfield, I’m not going to make an awful lot of changes. The squad just needs to mature and start to show the full extent of its qualities,” continued the former Bastia assistant coach.
Lavagne’s objective is even more far reaching than booking tickets for South Africa 2013 and Brazil 2014; he hopes to revive the winning mentality that was such a characteristic of Cameroon sides of the past.
“That’s what we’re trying to achieve. Previously, Cameroon teams were always capable of battling to win a game, even when they weren’t playing well. It’s a part of their make-up that they lost recently, so we need to retrieve that quality,” he concluded. Then, and only then, can Cameroon once again be considered the African equivalent of Germany.