The Cameroon Coaching Conundrum

Ngime Epie

Omam BOmam Biyik Scores his historic goal against world champions Argentina

The Indomitable Lions of Cameroon have missed out on so many international football rendez-vous in recent years to the point that they are beginning to phase out of the memories of football lovers. Their latest miscarriage at this year’s African Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea has dealt a serious blow to their fans who were only beginning to hope and dream again. Group stage exits have become a familiar pattern rather than surprise to Cameroon.

They have not gone beyond the group stage of the World Cup since their 1990 exploits. That poor record is slowly being transferred to the AFCON ― after failing to qualify for the 2012 and 2013 editions, they crashed out at the group stage in 2015 for the first time since 1996. Give the situation any name of your choice but in simple language, this is a crisis. In fact the crisis is at various levels ― the government, FECAFOOT, the Ministry, the players and the coach. For now, this article is about the coaching crisis the Cameroon national team is experiencing. Why have coaches become so volatile in the last ten or so years in a country where football is everyone’s first profession?

In a country (and continent as a whole) where football has become the people’s opium, there is scarcely a forgivable margin of error given the pride that goes with victory-victory at all costs. Perhaps this explains why the coach is always the scapegoat in case of any setback ― the just ended African Cup of Nations would not prove the contrary. Alain Giresse who has spent just under two years at the helm of Senegal has left for failing to guide the Teranga Lions past the group stage of the ACON, Michel Dussuyer would end his close to 5-year tenure at the helm of Guinea despite guiding them to an historic quarter final place at the AFCON, while Henrik Kasperszack is almost certain to leave after failing to pilot Mali past the group stage of the competition. While others are anxiously waiting for their futures, the debate on whether to maintain Volker Finke rages on.

 

In a country (and continent as a whole) where football has become the people’s opium, there is scarcely a forgivable margin of error given the pride that goes with victory-victory at all costs.

 

With the ‘20 million coaches’ in the country, FECAFOOT and the Ministry of Sports and Physical Education authorities have found it difficult to get the right man for the job. It is not the first time this is happening in fact, apart from Frenchman Pierre Lechantre (1998-2001) and German born Winfried Schäfer (2001-2004) who have each had a three-year spell in the den, the Lions have not enjoyed a stable relationship with any sweat merchant for longer than three years since 2004. So far, we have a list of twelve coaches ― both nationals and expatriates ― who have marched past the den in eleven years (2001-2012). Here are a few reasons for the volatility of coaches in Cameroon.
First of all, the selection process which appears to be very transparent and objective is usually shrouded in a cloak of power tussle between the FECAFOOT and the Ministry of Sports and Physical Education. In some cases, individuals clamour to have their candidates picked that in the end one wonders how the selection committee could have meandered through all these corridors to emerge with the most qualified coach. It goes without saying that whoever is selected eventually would be under the thumb of an individual or a group of individuals that facilitated his selection. This will obviously affect their efficiency and bring them in conflict with the public.
And then there is the public, who feels they can comfortably replace the head coach at the helm of the squad vibrating from home as they watch the match from their TV screens.

 

 So far, we have a list of twelve coaches ― both nationals and expatriates ― who have marched past the den in eleven years (2001-2012).

Disheartening as it may be, neither CAF nor FIFA nor any other football or sports-governing body has awarded Cameroon the title of the country with the most coaches. This 20-million-Cameroonians-20-million-coaches canker worm has eaten deep into the country’s football fabric and is known to have cost us an arm and a leg in the past. The social media is a powerful tool used by the public to try to influence decisions on the pitch. The recent case of #bringbacknjieclinton that made rounds on Twitter and Facebook speaks volumes. A cursory look at comments from Cameroonian football websites makes a strong case for itself. Read, for example, the following excerpt from a comment made to a camfoot.com article about the Cameroon-Mali encounter that ended in a tie:

 

Je vous disais il y a deux jours que je ne comprends pas cet entêtement de FINKE à vouloir aligner KOM à tout prix. Et pourtant chaque fois que ce joueur est aligné, nous ne gagnons pas et jouons très mal (Souvenez-vous de Sierra Leone Cameroun. Quand en plus il est associé à LOE, on se retrouve avec un tandem de joueurs qui n’ont jamais évolué ensemble. Quant à la ligne d’attaque, comment ne voit-il pas que CHOUPO et ABOUBAKAR ont des profils presque identiques et ne sont nullement complémentaires sur le front de l’attaque. Pourquoi ne pas maintenir Choupo en meneur de jeu et associer ABOUBAKAR à un autre attaquant comme en deuxième période ?

[Two days ago, I was telling you guys that I do not understand this unnecessary insistence of FINKE’s to play KOM at all cost. Whereas, whenever this guy is on the pitch, we never win and always put up a poor performance (remember Sierra Leon-Cameroon.) Worse still is the mismatch KOM-LOE duo who have never played together before. As for the attack, doesn’t he see that CHUOPO and ABOUBAKAR have almost similar profiles and can therefore not be complementary? Why does he not use CHUOPO as the lead attacker and ABOUBAKAR as substitute during the second half, for example? [My translation]

Lastly, our desire to win all games is sometimes at odds with the coach’s plan. Some coaches are hired to rebuild a dying team. Like Egypt and Nigeria who are going through a reconstruction phase, Cameroon should be prepared to lose a few games today to win many tomorrow. The last time Cameroon attained any significant height in a major competition was in 2008 when they were finalists at the African Nations Cup held in Ghana and since then it has been a succession of failure stories. This is an indication that reconstruction is the next logical step to take and I think this is Mr. Finke’s mission. However, the desire to win is pushing Cameroon to hand the German a brown envelop so early.

 

And then there is the public, who feels they can comfortably replace the head coach at the helm of the squad vibrating from home as they watch the match from their TV screens.

 

Depending on which side of the coin you look at, the stats speak for and against the German who has barely spent one year on the job. Finke has lost just one of his last 9 competitive matches since the 2014 World Cup debacle, conceding just four and scoring 11— why would you not want to keep a coach who has more than once stated his mission is to reconstruct the team? On the other hand, the stats are appalling, in 16 competitive matches under his watch since taking over last year, the German has a limping 37.5 percent win rate, has finished bottom of the group in his two major tournaments, conceding twelve goals in the process. You can make a case for or against the German but the truth is, the team needs a stable coach with objectives.

In the end, any coach who takes the reins finds himself between a hard place and a rock. The coach is torn between his allegiance to whoever ‘made’ him coach, the Cameroonian public and doing the right thing. If he does his ‘maker(s)’ bidding, he will be in conflict with the public who will most certainly spit their venom on him. If he obeys the public, which in most cases is impossible because of the myriad of opinions, his maker(s) will threaten fire and brimstone. The last option ― make his own decisions based on the facts and means at his disposal ― is out of the question as it will set him on a collision course with both the authorities and the public. That is why anyone who desires to take FINKE’s job should get ready to be confused, angry and frustrated.

 

Ngime Epie is a poet, freelance translator and journalist

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