Coincidence has a way of rearing its head in football. For Lauren, the 2000 Men’s Olympic Football Tournament was full of chance occurrences and twists of fate. A redemptive semi-final spot-kick, a final against the country where he was raised, which ended in a penalty shootout after a 2-2 draw – all moments packed with personal significance.
Combined, they saw Lauren and his team-mates become the first Cameroonians to win Olympic gold, in any discipline, the importance of which was not lost on him. “It was not only for me as an individual, but also for the country,” Lauren said in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “The people were suffering a lot. The happiness it brought the population made me proud.”
A promising if unspectacular opening 3-2 victory against Kuwait, in which Lauren scored the crucial third, was followed by 1-1 draws against USA and the Czech Republic, with the Arsenal man scoring his side’s only goal against the Europeans. The Africans progressed to play some unforgettable knockout matches.
In the quarter-finals, they faced Brazil. “In any tournament they are going to be one of the favourites,” Lauren said. “You meet some players who really assume their role and duties and Patrick Mboma is the kind of guy who enjoys taking charge of the situation. When he saw the free-kick he went straight away to pick up the ball and scored a brilliant goal.”
Ronaldinho equalised deep into stoppage time to send a thrilling game, in which Geremi and Aaron Nguimbat received their marching orders, into extra time. “The kind of spirit we showed is why Cameroon are known as the [Indomitable] Lions,” Lauren said. “We just didn't give up.”
Substitute Modeste Mbami embodied that spirit, thumping home a golden goal to send the nine men through. That meant a semi-final against Chile, against whom Lauren had history. Six minutes into his FIFA World Cup™ debut in 1998, he had been sent off against *La Roja. *
**With the score level at 1-1 in the Sydney 2000 semi-final, and a minute left on the clock, Cameroon were awarded a penalty kick. There was only going to be one man to take it. “I felt that it was my moment, for me to reverse the situation,” Lauren recalled. “I went straight to the ball. I didn't think about anything else at all, just scoring. It was firstly for myself, secondly for the fans and thirdly for the whole of Cameroon.”
It showed African teams were not just there to appear. It helped people respect us more.
Born in Cameroon after his family fled former Spanish colony Equatorial Guinea, Lauren was raised in Spain having moved to Seville aged three. That made the final against his adopted homeland an emotional experience. “I had some quite conflicting feelings,” Lauren recalled. “I feel Spanish but Cameroonian as well. To see people who I had played with at the youth academy in Sevilla like Jose Mari or [Carlos] Marchena, it was a strange feeling.”
It was an inauspicious start for Les Lions Indomptables,* *a 20-year-old Xavi scored a wonderfully-placed free-kick after just 75 seconds. Then the Spaniards were awarded a penalty in the fourth minute. It was Angulo versus 16-year-old goalkeeper Idriss Kameni.
“He was so young but he had so much confidence,” Lauren remembered. “He also had a legend there coaching him in [former Cameroon goalkeeper] Thomas Nkono. Kameni became the extension of Nkono on the pitch.”
Kameni saved. The European side eventually doubled their advantage moments before the interval. A fortuitous Amaya own goal saw Cameroon back into the finale, with Samuel Eto’o firing the Africans level just before the hour-mark. 2-2 after 90 minutes, as it had been in the CAF Africa Cup of Nations final against Nigeria six months previously. As in Lagos in February, it was to be penalties after a scoreless extra time.
“There were a lot of fans who had spent all their savings to see this game, so we could not disappoint them,” Lauren said. “What we did was remarkable. There was no fear that we couldn't win at half-time, even at 2-0 down.”
Three perfect penalties by Mboma, Eto’o and Geremi were followed by a miss for the luckless Spaniard Amaya. Cameroon’s No12 was next. “The pressure is always there, but it's about confidence,” Lauren said. “If I had any doubts that I might have missed I wouldn't have stepped forward for the penalty.”
He scored, placing his penalty in the same spot he had against Chile. David Albelda responded in kind but Pierre Wome’s decisive kick secured gold. Nearly 105,000 inside Stadium Australia in Sydney had witnessed history.
What next? Four of that Spanish squad - Carles Puyol, Xavi, Carlos Marchena and Joan Capdevilla - would lift the World Cup, in Cameroon’s continent, in 2010. Cameroon retained their Cup of Nations crown in 2002, on penalties, with Lauren again scoring in the shootout. Half of the Cameroonian Sydney 2000 squad would also head to the 2002 World Cup, where the Lions lost their indomitability, exiting at the group stage. But, for Lauren, the Sydney victory displayed African presence in the latter stages of major tournaments is far from coincidental.
“It showed African teams were not just there to appear,” Lauren concluded. “It helped people respect us more, just like Cameroon did [at the World Cup] in 1990. Slowly, we see African teams gaining more respect, like with Ghana reaching the [World Cup] quarter-final [in 2010]."