Eleven years, hundreds of matches, six different championships on three continents: such has been the career path of one of the greatest players in the history of Cameroon football. Like Roger Milla before him, Patrick Mboma has made an indelible mark on the hearts of many supporters. From Yaoundé to Sunderland, via Paris, Osaka, Cagliari and Parma, this rangy striker has left nothing but good memories behind him. Winner of the CAF African Cup of Nations (2000) and the Olympic Football Tournament (2000), the Indomitable Lion has, at the age of 34, decided to make way for younger, hungrier members of the pack. In an exclusive interview for FIFA.com, he looks back on the highlights of a long and eventful career.
FIFA.com: Patrick Mboma, it is two months since you hung up your boots. How do you feel now?
Patrick Mboma: I feel satisfied... For the last two or three years, I've known that come what may, the career I've had would leave me many happy memories. I know I could have done better, as I've never been voted world player of the year or won the World Cup…. But I didn't expect to have such a full career either, or that Lady Luck would smile on me so much. I'm proud of the honours I've won, but also of all the declarations of affection I've received over the years.
You grew up in the Paris region. Back then, did you dream of playing for Paris Saint-Germain?
You bet! It's normal for young players to want to stay close to their friends and family, so playing for PSG was fantastic for me, all the more so because the club was not exactly famous for its youth scheme or giving young players an opportunity.
But then came the hard part of holding down a regular place in the side…
I was delighted just to sign for the club, as I knew I would benefit from the excellent working conditions and develop faster alongside top-class players… It's true, however, that my record at PSG was nothing to write home about. I did my best, but the different coaches I played under there never showed sufficient faith in me. But we can only do our best: the rest is down to chance, the coach's opinion, injuries, etc.
After being loaned to Chateauroux, you went back to PSG for a year before joining Metz, with whom you won your second consecutive League Cup...
It's true that I am the first to have done the double with two different clubs. I didn't play a lot the first time with PSG, but in the second campaign, only injury kept me out of the final. I also won a French Cup in 1995 with Paris Saint-Germain.
Of all the clubs you've played for, which do you feel the greatest bond with?
Gamba Osaka. In Japan, I developed both as a player and as a person. There, I really learned to trust myself and felt very strong. As well as dominating the Japanese championship, I took advantage of my time there to establish myself as international level. I really lived the glory days at Osaka. People would mob me in the street, I was constantly giving interviews, kids had posters of me, I was always on TV… The supporters were truly amazing, and it was the first time I had seen so many Cameroonian flags in stadiums so far away from my country. I left the club purely for sporting reasons, as I wanted to put my new-found self-belief to good advantage in a bigger championship. I didn't consider France at the time, despite getting an offer from Paris Saint-Germain, as I had my heart set on Spain, England or even Italy.
Indeed, you ended up at Cagliari, then Parma, for whom you scored a famous double against AC Milan. What can you recall about that game?
The background was nothing really unusual. I'd been playing in Italy for over two years and I'd already scored against AC Milan before that. Parma were genuine title contenders and a match against Milan was a key stage in our season. The summer before, however, I had won the Olympic Games and scored against France in a friendly match, so I knew I was a good player. I may not have been a Weah or a Shevchenko, but I knew I wasn't out of place in their company. And then I scored the two goals, which changed some people's minds about me.
But you still left Parma soon after…
At that time, Italian journalists regarded me as "irreplaceable"! But despite having had an excellent season, I felt that my coach and the club directors still didn't fully believe in me… And that's why I left.
Many people may not realise it, but you also played in Libya and England. What do you remember about those two experiences?
After I scored a hat-trick (left foot, right foot and header) for the Lions in Tripoli, I caught the eye of Colonel Gaddafi and ended up playing there. But it was my worst nightmare as a footballer and the fact that no one remembers it suits me fine.
As for Sunderland, I arrived there with only 11 matches of the season left to play. In my second game, I got a standing ovation from 45,000 fans, but then I injured my ankle in my fifth game against Arsenal, which curtailed my time with the club. Apart from the fact that the lifestyle and weather in Sunderland were not too good, I regret only staying there for three months. If I'd arrived at the start of the season, I might well have ended my career in the English championship. The fans wanted me to stay, but the decision was down to the manager. The public's desire for me to stay at their club for another season was very flattering.
You've played in a total of six different championships. Which one do you remember most fondly?
Definitely Italy. In the four years I spent there, I left a lasting impression in the minds of many Italians. I came up against some great players, put in some great performances, and became only the second African player to score a hat-trick in the Calcio. I also learned a new language. It's a very tough league, and I'm proud to have been a success there.
Turning to your relationship with the Indomitable Lions. Why did you refuse to play for the national side early in your career?
When I was first called up at the end of the 93/94 season, it came out of nowhere and had me dreaming of the World Cup. Henri Michel gave me a runout, liked what he saw and added me to his preliminary squad. We headed off to Martinique for a training camp, but when the final squad was submitted to FIFA, my name wasn't in it… I still remember that fateful day of 2 June 1994… You've got to understand that for a 23-year-old player, something like that's a real body blow!
Have you ever sorted it out with Henri Michel?
Apparently, it wasn't him that was responsible. I don't know exactly who, but it wasn't Henri Michel who dropped me from the squad. I've no way of knowing what went on in Yaoundé when I was in Martinique, but it no longer matters to me in any case.
In 1996, you refused to take part in the CAF African Cup of Nations because you considered the national team to be disorganised. And Cameroon came a real cropper there…
The Cameroon debacle in 96 was as predictable as that of the World Cup in 94. On both occasions, I knew that their wasn't much cause for optimism. I knew I was good enough to make a difference, but the working conditions needed to be better. Later, I decided to join those who were trying to improve things. I just said to myself one day: "forget the past, I'm back on board!"
You then became the darling of an entire nation by securing your country's qualification for the 1998 FIFA World CupTM in France.
I came back at a time when Cameroon needed grit and determination. I was bursting with confidence and playing with great freedom, which is how I came to score two goals against Zimbabwe in August 1997 to take my country through. Perhaps I realised it a little too late, but just being picked for the Indomitable Lions is a great honour in itself.
Another of your international appearances stands out: in October 1997, you played against England in London…
Not only were we playing England, but the match was at Wembley, so I added an appearance at a legendary stadium to my list of honours! All footballers dream of playing and scoring there, so it's a cherished memory for me. I remember exchanging my shirt with Andy Cole, and my brother had come to watch me play… I was in seventh heaven.
What is your greatest memory as a player?
Singing the Cameroonian national anthem in Sydney and being awarded the gold medal at the 2000 Olympic Games. It was a truly incredible ego trip. I felt on top of the world, having given my country an Olympic gold medal, an honour I never even dreamed about at the start of your career. What's more, we did it without some key players (Song, Foe, Olembé, etc…). To be honest, I had bought a digital camera before the trip, thinking we were going to Australia more as tourists than genuine medal contenders. The feeling of pride at winning it and having played an important role for the team… that's what made me the happiest footballer alive at the moment when the anthem rang out. When Pierre Wome scored the winning penalty in the final, I looked up and saw the stands awash with colour... And then, the Cameroon flag was raised. It's my finest memory by a long way.
And what about the worst?
There are several… First, there was the defeat by DR Congo in the quarter-finals of CAF 98. We were the superior team, but we paid the ultimate price for an error of organisation. This match was, for a long time, the low point of my career. After that, there was our elimination at the hands of Germany in 2002, when I'd been convinced we would make the last four. I hadn't shouted it from the rooftops as I wanted to catch our opponents by surprise, but I was certain we could do it. We missed the chance to show that we were one of the world's top football nations.
Can you remember any defender who was particularly tough to play against?
I would say Alessandro Nesta, who I played against for Cagliari. I knew I was capable of troubling many defenders but he was having none of it and played superbly that day. I'd like to know if he views it as one of the best matches of his own career… Along with Fabio Cannavaro, he's the opponent who has given me the hardest time.
Who's the best player you've played with?
I've played with Georges Weah, Lilian Thuram, Gianluigi Buffon… Singling out any one of them is just too difficult.
Who do you see becoming the next Patrick Mboma?
I think I'll pass on that one! But seriously, I hope he arrives quickly, for Cameroon's sake. Whoever he is, he should aim a little bit higher than my level, more like a Roger Milla or Samuel Eto'o, for example. There's been a Milla period, then that of Omam Biyik, then Mboma, and now it's the Eto'o era. In view of what Samuel's managing to do at club level, I don't see how he can fail to do better than I did for Cameroon. He already has two African Player of the Year titles to his name. It's true that even greater demands will be made on him by the Lions, but I'm still convinced that he will be the focal point of the team for many years to come.
Finally, you've had a long, 11-year career at the top. What's the secret of this longevity?
I don't really think you can talk about a long career in my case. To be honest, I suffered more than my fair share of injuries in the latter stages and I've been able to keep playing and extending my contracts mainly on the strength of my reputation. What's more, I started late as a professional, so there's not much difference between a young player who starts at 17 and finishes at 31 and me starting at 20 and finishing at 34. But at least I was more mature when it all started happening for me. If my knee had allowed it, I would have liked to continue for one or 2 more years, even with the Lions. But that's life…