Africa Cup of Nations: Cameroon carry the Lions’ share of troubles

Cameroon No.17 Arnaud Djoum battles for the ball during his team's surprise run to Africa Cup of Nations glory in 2017. Photograph: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty
Cameroon No.17 Arnaud Djoum battles for the ball during his team's surprise run to Africa Cup of Nations glory in 2017. Photograph: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty
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If unpredictability is supposedly the greatest asset a leader can have, defending champions Cameroon can consider themselves blessed.

It was that lack of guarantees that robbed them of the opportunity to host this Africa Cup of Nations, which will now kick off in Egypt this week, while the team have enjoyed fluctuating form since they won the trophy in 2017.

A consistent supply of goals was a problem manager Clarence Seedorf inherited and while work has been done to pose a greater threat at free-kicks and corners, who and where the goals will come from is still anyone’s guess.

In the final four qualifying games, the Indomitable Lions were goalless in three but resolved the issue when it mattered most to book their place in Egypt in the final match, against Comoros. They netted three goals in that decisive head-to-head and have added another three over the course of two warm-up matches against Zambia and Mali.

The additional loosener, against a lowly Alcorcon side, was designed to bolster that scoring belief and the team responded by rattling 11 beyond their opponents without reply.

“We have to take advantage of our great physical power and the height in the team. This is something we’ve analysed and are keen on improving,” said Seedorf, pictured inset, the former Dutch international who is assisted by countryman Patrick Kluivert, as he looked ahead to this competition.

But, there has been controversy over selection. While some big names such as Liverpool centre-back Joel Matip and Torino defender Nicholas Nkoulou are disappointing absentees, having ruled themselves out, others such as Vincent Aboubkar, the striker who grabbed the winner in the 2017 final in Gabon, failed to make the cut due to a knee injury that limited his game time during the 2018-19 season.

Others such as Wolfsburg forward Paul-Georges Ntep simply failed to convince Seedorf he was worthy of making the cut. He scored in that one-sided rout of Alcorcon but was one of those cast adrift when the 34-man squad was cut to 29.

Right up to the last minute it was uncertain which way Matip and Nkoulou would sway and was just another layer of the unpredictability of this squad at this tournament.

“We’ve been speaking to Matip, Nkoulou and other players,” said Seedorf, in answer to the criticism. “Their absence in the national team is not down to us but them. We’ve been hunting for players and it’s either they want to play for Cameroon now or they don’t.

“We have shown lots of interest 
but it’s a personal decision the players have taken and we respect it. We hope with time things will change.”

Two years ago Cameroon were written off yet then went on to win, and when their hosting of the event was kiboshed, there were doubts cast on their participation.

It was fears around serious delays in its preparations and the ongoing volatility of separatist rebellions near two planned venues that led to them being stripped of the right to stage the expanded competition – which this year welcomes 24 teams, instead of the previous 16 – but the Comoros Islands argued that should have been enough to disqualify them as well.

It was a battle that cast a shadow on the final qualifier between the nations, and on into the warm-up
before Seedorf and his players learned they would be okay.

But the uncertainty does not end there. Not as far as clubs are concerned. Players such as Hearts’ Arnaud Djoum are out of contract and considering options. The Tynecastle club have told the midfielder that they want him, but, at 30, and with few more chances to win a big deal, he has made it clear he would prefer to see how the tournament evolves and whether other offers come in.

It means that if Cameroon go all the way, the club could be left waiting until the Nations Cup wraps up on 13 July, by which stage other suitors may come calling.

A disappointing campaign for the defending champions would appear more beneficial to Hearts. At the moment the only competition appears to be Cypriot club Apollon Limassol and the less time Djoum spends in the shop window the less that list is likely to grow.

It all depends how long the Gorgie club are willing to wait. Unpredictable and uncertain, it seems to be the way for this Cameroon squad and this defence of their Africa Cup of Nations.