The Indomitable Lions of Cameroon will be among the youngest and most inexperienced squads of the upcoming World Cup in South Africa with at least half of the team having less than 15 international starts to their name and an expected average age of 25. This would be the result of a renewal set in motion by their French-born manager, Paul Le Guen, who has about 8 uncapped players in his provisional 29-man squad currently camping in Austria.
A respected African soccer commentator, Mark Gleeson, has attributed this huge change in personnel to a “crisis of confidence in the coach’s head”. While respecting his suggestion that it is a panic induced change; I would contend it is rather a logical move that Le Guen had been mauling for months.
Le Guen stepped-in only four months to the end of qualifiers and had to use the men at his disposal to obtain his results. He tweaked the formation, tactics and overall management of the team, but didn’t introduce any massive changes in personnel.
Admidst the fanfare, songs, drums and title-winning dreams in Cameroon following the country’s qualification to the World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), Le Guen kept his cool and repeatedly said that the AFCON in Angola would be an experimental turf in a long and complicated preparation for the World Cup and the country’s future in football.
He was lapidated by the media and crucified by the fans for underestimating a “people’s pride” and losing focus on a much easier prey than the World Cup. They had good patriotic reasons to feel that way; but the three-times winner of the French League as the coach of Lyon had surely detected weaknesses in the Indomitable Lions. Their fierce determination not to miss the World Cup for a second time had contributed to their success but the team needed re-jigging.
With the qualifiers over in November 2009, he began to inject change in small doses. He dropped about 5 players who were regularly called up during the qualifiers and named uncapped players like Joel Matip, Ndy Assembe, and Georges Mandjeck for the AFCON.
Le Guen started in Angola with the squad that played the qualifiers but it displayed the flaws which had certainly caused him to insist that Cameroon were not favourites. He fully engaged his process to change the squad, handing starting places to younger players such as Aurelien Chedjou, Eyong Enoh, and Georges Mandjeck.
This logic of change continued after the AFCON as he had a greater understanding of his players and the areas which required revamping.
In his provisional World Cup squad he, however, maintained confidence in 18 out of the 22 players who were in Angola. Just 5 of them: Andre Bikey, Somen a Choyi, Alo’o Efoulou, Gilles Binya, and Henri Bedimo Nsame did not make the cut. This could be expected since none of them was a consistent first-choice- player in Le Guen’s selections.
I had tipped Somen to make the team due to his ability to play in different wings and his good run at his club, but I must admit that his last worthy performance in a Cameroon shirt was against Austria in August 2009. Henri Bedimo looked to me as a good back-up for Assou-Ekotto at left-back; Paul Le Guen had clearly indicated his worries about him during the African Cup of Nations by often regretting Assou-Ekotto’s absence.
In essence, there is a nucleus of the squad that is known with the extra men (in the 29) around to battle for the places left by the 5 who were not retained.
Should we consider the replacement of 5 second-choice players by a coach as panic?
It is evidently unrealistic to think a team with so many uncapped players will win the World Cup. Maybe that’s why Le Guen does not want to be drawn into speculating on a semi-final berth as the local media would want him to. He (who happens to be on a short contract) has apparently opted to take a long-term approach to building the Indomitable Lions. Something his predecessors could not do either by lack of will-power or due to the pressure to succeed.
The youngsters/newcomers in his provisional squad may or may not feature at the World Cup but they would have taken the pulse of the den, ready to become the back-bone of the team in the years to come.
Claude Leroy implemented a similar policy in the run-up to the 1998 World Cup in France. He handed a place to the juvenile Samuel Eto’o and brought in Djanka Beaka, Cyrille Ndoh, Lauren Etame, Chiatoh Bill and a host of others who became the core of Cameroon’s successes between 2000 and 2003 although they were knocked-out of the group stages in France.
Cameroon is therefore in a process of evolution or transition under Paul Le Guen. We can only tell the success of this strategy when the ball starts rolling next June14 against Japan.