CAMEROON'S CHANCES OF RETURNING TO THE WORLD CUP FINALS FOR AN AFRICAN-RECORD SIXTH TIME SEEMED IN SERIOUS PERIL EARLY IN THE LAST STAGE OF QUALIFYING. A SHOCKING loss to Togo prompted the dismissal of manager Otto Pfister, and a draw at home with Morocco under stopgap skipper Thomas Nkono left the four-time African champions with only one point after two matches.
Enter Paul Le Guen. The 45-year-old French-man, fresh off a disappointing spell of managing Paris Saint-Germain, stepped in to rescue Cameroon from the bottom of the qualifying table. Le Guen's risky decision to take the captain's armband from veteran defenseman Rigobert Song and give it to striker Samuel Eto'o paid handsome dividends as a recommitted squad responded with four straight victories—scoring nine goals and conceding just one—to book a place in South Africa.
Ever since Roger Milla came out of semi-retirement to inspire Cameroon to the quarterfinals at Italy 1990, where the Indomitable Lions came within minutes of knocking off England, Cameroon has blazed the trail for African soccer on the world stage. The Lions have won the Africa Cup of Nations four times, but their greatest international accomplishment to date was a come-from-behind victory over Spain for the gold medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
An influx of talented young players, such as attacking midfielder Alex Song and midfielder Stéphane Mbia, promise more success for Cameroon in the future, but it's four veteran players—Eto'o, Rigobert Song, defenseman Geremi and goalkeeper Carlos Kameni—who are the team's mainstays and have been since the 2002 World Cup. This summer's tournament could be a swan song for Cameroon's golden generation, and it will be motivated to go out in style.
As the first team to have played an international match in postapartheid South Africa, in 1992, Cameroon can expect considerable fan support throughout the tournament. But it will need more than local backing to advance from a group with no obvious pushovers; every team in Group E has played in at least three World Cups.
Eto'o, who earned his first cap for Cameroon at the tender age of 14, is one of the world's most dangerous poachers and an obvious Golden Boot candidate in South Africa. The three-time African Footballer of the Year, who moved to Inter Milan last summer after five years with Barcelona, delivered nine goals in 11 matches during qualifying. First-choice forwards Achille Emana and Pierre Webó, also Spanish league veterans, often partner with Eto'o in the attack and benefit from the attention he commands from defenders.
Eto'o's production is largely dependent on the playmaking of Arsenal midfielder Alex Song, 22. Alongside him in more defensive roles are Lyon's strong, energetic Jean Makoun and Marseille's Mbia, who shows promise as a holding midfielder and should compete with Celtic's Landry N'Guémo for a starting role.