Patrick Mboma won Olympic gold with Cameroon at Sydney 2000
He's the competition’s second-highest scorer
The former forward looks back at the Indomitable Lions’ incredible run
The career of Cameroon forward Patrick Mboma is inextricably linked with the Olympic Games and Japan. Languishing on the bench at Paris Saint-Germain in 1997, he decided to try his luck in the Land of the Rising Sun with unfashionable Gamba Osaka.
What might have been a risky move turned into a masterstroke for Mboma, whose exploits in the Far East eventually earned him a high-profile return to Europe and the chance to become an undisputed first choice for his country. As well as appearing at the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™, he helped Cameroon to lift the CAF Africa Cup of Nations trophy in 2000 and 2002 and to win gold at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Sydney 2000, a tournament in which he was the second-highest scorer with four goals.
That Olympic gold medal, which came four years after Nigeria had won one of their own, remains his proudest achievement as a player, as he revealed in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: How did you come to make the decision to go to Japan in 1997? Patrick Mboma: The most surprising thing for me was that they came in for me. I was playing under Ricardo at Paris Saint-Germain and wasn’t getting a game. An agent called me to say Gamba Osaka wanted to make me an offer, but I can’t say it appealed to me to begin with. It was the money that made me think again because they were offering me eight times what I was getting at PSG, plus guaranteed regular football. I knew some big names had gone to play in Japan, and I knew from the first training session that I could achieve big things. I scored 24 goals and gave 15 assists in my first season and the club finished runners-up in the second phase. It had taken me just a few months to get to the top in Japanese football. The press and the fans went nuts about me, which made me really proud and gave me a lot of confidence.
Weren’t you worried about going off the radar? I knew there was a risk that people would forget about me, which is why there had to be something in it for me financially. In the end, PSG called me to offer me more than I was getting in Japan. Ultimately, though, I chose Serie A, which was the top league at the time, and signed for Cagliari. I became a first choice for the national team and I helped us qualify for the World Cup in 1998. My Japanese adventure definitely paid off for me.
What was going through your mind when you travelled to the Olympic Games Sydney 2000? We weren’t thinking of winning a medal. I didn’t know everyone in the squad and I knew that some of our big-name players like Marc-Vivien Foe, Salomon Olembe and Rigobert Song weren’t being released by their clubs. There were only five us in the squad who’d played at the Africa Cup of Nations six months earlier, including Samuel Eto’o. He was a player I knew I could link up with, but that wasn’t enough to make a team. We said to ourselves: ‘It’s going to be tough. We’re going down there to take photos’ (laughs). I went and bought a digital camera before we got on the plane. I was going as a tourist. I was excited about the chance to rub shoulders with all these global sports stars but I was soon to be disappointed because we weren’t staying in the Olympic Village.
When did you realise that you might be in with a chance of a medal? We grew in confidence slowly but surely. To begin with, we just tried to ensure we didn’t make fools of ourselves. We squeezed out of our group and came up against Brazil in the quarter-finals. We just said: ‘It’s been great to take part. Let’s try to keep our heads held high.’
Were you surprised at how determined you were? They’d said they were going to win the Olympic Games. They had Ronaldinho, whom we’d heard of but didn’t know. I think they were a bit condescending towards us. And when you go into a match in the wrong way, then it’s hard to put it right. They found it really difficult and you could see them yelling at each other. They were clearly better than we were but they didn’t do the job as a team. We made the difference with our desire, commitment and determination.
You scored a free-kick after 17 minutes. I can’t explain it to you but as soon as I put the ball down and took a step back I knew I was going to score. I’d scored a few in my career but I wasn’t [Sinisa] Mihajlovic or [Michel] Platini. That goal inspired us!
Were there any doubts in your mind when Ronaldinho equalised in stoppage time? Yes, of course! And on top of the equaliser, we had a second man sent off. It was 9 versus 11 and we were playing Brazil! I was feeling really good but the coach took me off. Even so, we still managed to get the golden goal.
In the semi-finals you faced free-scoring Chile, led by an in-form Ivan Zamorano. Beating Brazil gave us so much confidence. We were all over them in the opening 20 minutes and played with real quality. The problem was we were without our two suspended defenders and our defence decided to play the offside trap. It was a disaster but our keeper, Carlos Kameni, kept us in the match until we conceded an own goal with a little over ten minutes remaining. The Chileans absolutely dominated the game in the second half and it looked like it was all over. Somehow I managed to dig deep and tell myself that it wasn’t over and to pick the guys up again. There was a place in the final to play for. I equalised a few minutes later and we completed an incredible turnaround when Lauren scored a last-minute penalty.
The situation was reversed in even crazier fashion in the final, with Xavi opening the scoring for Spain in the second minute, before they doubled their lead just before half-time. Don’t forget that Kameni saved a penalty from [Miguel Angel] Angulo at the start of the match! We were playing well and Spain’s second goal was a bit of a fluke. We didn’t feel second best but the problem was that three of our best players – Eto’o, Lauren and Geremi – played in La Liga and were pretty scared of the Spanish. Pierre Wome and I played in Italy and we’d have been scared if we’d been playing Italy. We didn’t have any inferiority complex in that game, though. We lifted the morale of the team and got everyone in a positive mindset. I spoke a lot to the boys during the warm-up. I was almost lying to myself. The coach was really down at half-time. I got up and said that if they could score two goals in 45 minutes, then so could we, especially as we had the chance to go on and make history by winning the Olympic gold medal. That lifted everyone, including the coach, who made two changes and reshuffled the team. It worked because within 15 minutes we were level.
How did the Spaniards react? They just lost their way. We knew the importance of the mental side of the game. They had one man sent off and then a second and found themselves in the same situation we’d been in against Brazil in the quarters. But even with that advantage, we knew it could still happen for them, especially when they hit the post from a free-kick. We froze for a few minutes after that and then we got back on the front foot. Eto'o scored a golden goal but it was wrongly disallowed for offside. The game went to penalties and the five players who’d scored for us in the Africa Cup of Nations final all scored again.
What was going through your mind when you received the gold medal? I’d won a few tournaments before, some of them with last-minute goals or on penalties. You’re smiling for weeks afterwards, so you can just imagine how it felt to be an Olympic champion. It’s also not the kind of thing you dream of when you start your professional career. Playing for a big African nation, winning the Africa Cup of Nations or scoring a World Cup goal were the things you’d usually dream about. By the time I played in the Olympic Games, I’d already achieved everything I’d hoped to with the national team and I didn’t envisage picking up a medal. And then a fortnight later we went and won it. You should also remember that Cameroon had never won gold before. There was just this indescribable feeling of joy. I’ve been trying to describe it for more than 20 years. Nothing’s given me more pleasure in football than winning that gold medal. When I sang, I mean, when I yelled the national anthem, I had all these positive thoughts swimming round my head. And then there’s the fact that it came out of nowhere. We weren’t that well prepared and we came so close to getting knocked out a few times.