Winner of the Men's Olympic Football Tournament with Cameroon in 2000 and named CAF African Footballer of the Year shortly afterwards, Patrick Mboma knows more than most about the tournament that is due to kick off in Beijing on 7 August. The Indomitable Lions icon is now working as a players' agent and harbours great expectations for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, when the global showpiece will be staged for the first time on the African continent. FIFA.com met up with the man who struck a total of 11 goals in the CAF Africa Cup of Nations.
FIFA.com: Patrick, the Olympic Games will soon be starting. How prestigious is this tournament compared to club competitions, the FIFA World Cup and continental championships?
Patrick Mboma: For a footballer, the World Cup has no equivalent. It's still the number one event. There's no point denying it: the Olympic Games will never have the same aura as a World Cup, even if they scrap the Under-23 rule. You mustn't forget that we won despite a number of withdrawals. Even though it comes around every four years, for European and South American teams it poses real problems for players over 23. We're seeing that again this year.
Did winning the competition with an African team render the triumph even more special?
Yes, without doubt. I'd always wanted to play for the Cameroon team but in my dreams I thought about the Africa Cup of Nations and nothing else. Even in February 2000, I was a long way from thinking about Sydney and the immense pleasure it would bring. We brought back our country's first ever medals and, added to that, they were gold. On the podium, I screamed out the national anthem and my pride was even greater than when I won my first Africa Cup of Nations earlier in the season. I wouldn't swap my two Africa Cup of Nations wins for the Olympic gold for anything in the world.
What was it like returning home with the gold around your neck?
It wasn't a triumphant return compared to the Africa Cup of Nation wins in 2000 and 2002. We couldn't predict the date of our return and a friendly against France was programmed for just four days after the final. But a few months later we were honoured and congratulated and it was spectacular.
The next FIFA World Cup is going to be a historic event as it will be held in Africa for the first time. Do you regret not being able to take part?
Yes, very much so. I'm convinced everything will be ready and, when it starts, then we'll truly appreciate that the World Cup is being staged on the continent. It's very symbolic to feel it happening in your country or a neighbouring country.
Turning to the standard of African football, how high would you say it is at the moment?
You only need to look at how highly African players are rated in Europe. In 2000, my title as best African footballer didn't have the impact it would now. These days, it's unthinkable that the player awarded that title would not be a serious candidate for the Ballon d'Or. By that, I mean a place in the top ten. In 2000, I didn't even get one vote. In the past, people used to take note when an African won the UEFA Cup, for example, whereas no one's surprised when they win the Champions League now.
Progress seems less evident on the international stage, however. How long do you think it will be before an African side wins the FIFA World Cup?
I'd say it depends on the generation. In 1998, we looked to Nigeria, in 2002 it was ourselves and in 2006 it seemed Côte d'Ivoire might go furthest. Now Egypt are the dominant force. Yet the Pharaohs are not one of the five or six best teams in the world at the moment. No team has been able to stay on top for long. Having a star like [Samuel] Eto'o, [Michael] Essien or [Didier] Drogba isn't enough - you need a whole team. Progress will only come with better organisation. We need to be able to pay closer attention to what's going on down the line. Without that we'll have little chance of seizing our chance when it comes. In 2002, the World Cup was too soon for us and I'm afraid 2010 will come too late for Côte d'Ivoire. But, then again, having seen Greece winning the Euro, I have to say an African victory in the World Cup would hardly be a miracle.
When you see the impact of African players in the European game these days, do you ever tell yourself your African Footballer of the Year award in 2000 came a little too soon?
When I was young, I watched Abedi Pele on television and told myself that if I could ever be anywhere near as good as a player like that, I'd be happy! After Sydney, I didn't even think about it, so I can't have any regrets. If I was going to regret anything, it would be that it came five years too early because I would have been a lot richer otherwise (laughs). Above all, I would have had more opportunities to sign for one of Europe's biggest clubs, even if I did get an approach from Inter Milan at the time. But it's true that the award didn't lead to an important change in my career. Today, whoever wins it becomes a global star.
You exploded on to the scene fairly late. Looking back, what thoughts do you have on how your career developed?
At 19, I was playing for (French amateur club) Stade de l'Est and when I played my first match in the third division with Paris Saint-Germain, I said to myself "at least I'll be able to tell my children about this." Now, they see photos of me on the internet. I really didn't think I'd ever get where I did. The first time people really talked about me, I was 26. In other words, I was far from being a [Lionel] Messi or a [Sergio] Aguerro, who are stars at a very young age. But I wouldn't ever risk going back in time. When Lens let me down in 1996, I was torn in two as a man and in four as a player. I came back from a long way down. There wasn't the same scouting coverage at that time either. I wouldn't have passed through the net with all the scouts there are today.
What separates the players who go on to make names for themselves and those, possibly just as talented, who remain unknown?
It's a question of the right things happening: someone who knows what they're looking at spots you, you score at the right time or a coach gives you a chance. Perhaps without that, [Franck] Ribery and [Steve] Savidan would still be playing in the third division. It all comes down to very little. A large part of it is talent and hard work, but you need luck once in a while. You have to be focused all the time because you never know when you might be spotted. In my time, there weren't so many youth tournaments, whereas now clubs go after players from the age of 13. I'm presumptuous enough to think that between the ages of 10 and 15 I was more gifted than everyone else and that things would have been different if I'd been around today.
You eventually gained recognition at club level while in Japan. Moving there proved to be the right choice, but what made you go? Japan was the best springboard for me after PSG sent me out on two consecutive loan spells. They were treating me like a youngster just out of the academy but I was 25. Japan was a crazy but strategic decision. My place in the national team was not put in danger by the transfer. I was heading into the unknown but Leonardo, who I knew at PSG after he came back from there, reassured me. So I chose to take up the challenge. A year later, I'd scored 25 goals in 28 matches, PSG wanted to buy me back and six months after that I was back in Europe.
You also managed to score a memorable goal over there that got shown around the whole world. That must have helped too.
It was the kind of thing you can work on in training but you never try in a match. It was instinct that made me hit the ball and as soon as I touched it I knew I'd connected in the way I wanted. When that happens, you're on top of the world for the next 60 seconds because you've just achieved perfection. But ten seconds later, you tell yourself you were possibly a bit lucky (laughs).
It is quite surprising you did not stay for long in the English Premier League. Was that your own choice?
No, it was a mistake. When I was in Japan, everyone told me I had the right style to play in the Premier League, but I dreamt about Italy and Spain. For me at the time, Italy was the best championship. African players were less appreciated in the Premier League than they are today. With hindsight, I'd happily swap my four years in Italy for two in England.
Which moments from your career thrill you the most when you look back?
The French Cup and French League Cup with PSG are superb memories. The same goes for the French League Cup with Metz, but nothing compares to a win with the national team. The whole country stops for a week, everyone forgets their problems and 15 million people celebrate without politics and ethnicity dividing them.
Who are the players you played with that impressed you the most?
George Weah, Dominique Bijotat for his professionalism and Gianluigi Buffon.