If you choose to believe the experts, the time is rife for an African team to make the latter stages of a FIFA World Cup™, with a growing number of voices predicting that at least one team from the host continent will make it through to the semi-finals of South Africa 2010. When talk turns to which African teams are capable of such a feat, Cameroon would be many people's candidate to go a stage further than the quarter-final the Indomitable Lions managed at Italy 1990.
FIFA.com took the opportunity to talk to Cameroon coach Otto Pfister about the current round of qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and to discuss the state of African football ahead of the showpiece event in South Africa in two year's time. After spells in charge of Togo, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal and Rwanda, the 70-year-old German certainly has all the experience needed to make a candid and insightful assessment of the prospects for the continent's great hopes.
FIFA.com: Mr Pfister, your team has been in very impressive form during qualification for South Africa 2010. Is your place in the next round already assured? Otto Pfister: We only need one more point from the two remaining games to reach the next round, so it's looking good for us. That said, the next game, away to Cape Verde Islands, will be the stiffest challenge we've faced so far in this round. We'll be getting together at a training camp at the end of August to give the players a chance to play on an artificial pitch in preparation for the game in Cape Verde.
Is there a risk of underestimating Cape Verde Islands?
We all know there's no such thing as minnows anymore. Cape Verde play a very clever counter-attacking game and their squad is blessed with players plying their trade in the Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish leagues. We have to be careful especially as we have a few weaknesses. We've been winning our games, it's true, but we still need to improve our finishing and generally move up a notch. Furthermore, don't forget that Samuel Eto'o is suspended for the game.
After your narrow defeat in the final of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations, how high are expectations in Cameroon?
Well, the fact that we made the final at all was greeted very positively in Cameroon. The defeat was obviously hard to take, but it's history now and we've moved on. There was a lot of pressure on the team before the Cup of Nations. I took over just nine days before the tournament started. To be honest, one expects constant pressure when you're the coach of Cameroon.
What is your view of African football at the moment?
There's no doubt in my mind that African football has come on in leaps and bounds recently. You could see the tactical and technical improvements at the last Africa Cup of Nations which, in my opinion, was the best one to date. The African teams have definitely caught up with the rest of the world.
Looking ahead to South Africa 2010, what do you think is feasible for African teams to achieve?
Depending on form, Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire and ourselves are probably the strongest African teams. I do think that it's realistic to expect an African team to reach the semi-finals of the next World Cup. Home advantage will naturally play a role as the familiar surroundings, climate and general atmosphere will favour the top African teams.
You sound very upbeat about your chances of making it to South Africa.
We definitely have a very good chance but a lot depends on the draw for the next qualifying round. I've been in this business long enough to know that you need a bit of luck at times to be successful.
Can you explain why the north African teams have been so dominant at continental level but have so far failed to shine at FIFA World Cup tournaments?
Let me put it this way, north of the Sahara, the infrastructure is superior compared to the south and this is reflected in the relative strength of the leagues - the northern leagues are so much stronger. I was the coach for many years at Zamalek in Cairo, and I can say that the Egyptian league is just as strong as the Swiss first division. Due to the infrastructure, the north African teams have a big advantage at continental level. However, at World Cup-level, footballing ability is what counts and here sub-Saharan teams have the advantage, which one can appreciate when you consider how many of their players are signed to top European clubs. As national coach of Cameroon I know this all too well. When I name my squad, I don't have to think about who I can call up but rather who I can leave out.
Are there any up-and-coming players from Cameroon likely to be making a name for themselves on the world stage in the near future?
Alexandre Song of Arsenal is definitely one to watch, even though I was given a hard time by some journalists the first time I played him because nobody had heard of him (laughs). Modeste M'Bami, who has already achieved 'not-for-sale' status at Olympique Marseille is another player that always gives everything. Then there's Christian Pouga, who recently transferred to Sevilla after impressing in the Swiss League and Somen Tchoyi, of course, the Red Bull Salzburg player who's spicing up the Austrian league.
Finally, with respect to the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008 in which Cameroon is participating. How well do you believe the team can do?
I think the tournament is a good chance for Cameroon to leave their mark on the international stage once again. We managed to win gold eight years ago in Sydney and I'm optimistic we can do well again. Certainly a place in the last eight is realistic.