Cameroon’s U-20  national football team reached the final of the African Youth Championship where they lost to Nigeria on Sunday. At a time when most of the country’s national teams are faltering, it is easy for fans to be carried away by euphoria.

Cameroon supporters welcome Lions in Dakar on 24 March 2011, GF

Yes, the team was generally good – tactically well organised, disciplined, athletic and rigorous under the masterful leadership of Martin Ndtoungou Mpile.

Their primary objective was to qualify for the U-20 World Cup, which they did. In the process, they reached the final of the Africa Youth Championship (a secondary objective) and did their utmost to try to win it.

NO CREATIVITY

It is a functional team with Cameroon’s  trademark  mental strength and  fighting spirit (evident in their come-back in the final against Nigeria). They certainly made Cameroon media and fans happy via their victories.

However, a youth team is not essentially about winning; it is often about development.

For years now, Cameroon has had problems producing creative and skilful attackers, offensive midfielders and wingers. Unfortunately, this team did not reveal players who could potentially supplement the deficiencies of the senior teams in such departments.

Did we see  a potential Samuel Eto’o , Patrick Mboma and (I dare-say) Roger Milla in that Junior national squad in South Africa? No. The team was not clinical in-front of goal. They relied on set-plays (free-kicks and corners) to score except in the final when they had their backs to the wall.

The most promising striker was Ohandza Zoa. He has a good work rate, partcipates in defensive duties but he must improve his first touch, his positioning, the timing of his runs and his finishing. To his credit he did score two goals whereas the likes of  Jacques Haman, Toko Edimo and Tageu were woeful in this aspect.

In the 80s and 90s,  Louis Paul Mfede, Djonkep Bonaventure, Ernest Ebongue dazzled defenders on the African continent (and even on the world stage) with their displays on the flanks. Since they retired we have struggled on the wings with the notable exception of the period when Salomon Olembe and/or Lauren Etame Mayer – used their speed and power to outpace opponents.

Did we see new wingers from the junior team that competed in South Africa? Not quite.

Cotonsport Garoua’s Edgar Salli, who was used on the left and right flanks,  was surely Cameroon’s most brilliant player at this tournament. He seemed to be the best crosser of the ball (from open and set play). Yet he looked laboured at times and gave the impression of being a relay midfielder who had been stuck on the wing because there was no one else capable of doing the job.

In many ways,  Salli reminded me of Geremi Njitap who could play on the flanks but was originally (and naturally) a N°8. There was little to write home about the others who played on the wings.

MORE DEFENSIVE TALENT

Whereas the likes of Theophile Abega, Gregoire Mbida (Arantes), Tokoto, and (if we stretch it) Cyrille Makanaky used to weave creative magic in the middle of the pack to link to attackers, such players have gradually disappeared from our national teams. The closest we’ve seen since include Simo Augustine (in the late 1990s) , Marcus Mokake (who never succeeded to encrust himself to the team), Daniel Ngom Kome and Achille Emana (who dribbles but finds it hard to be effective).

Did we see people capable of holding the ball, creating the chance and make the right passes to Samuel Eto’o, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, Vincent Aboubakar or even Ohandza in the future? No.

As noted repeatedly on this blog, the Junior Lions passed the ball well from defence to midfield; they effectively harried their opponents and recuperated the ball but the transmission in the final third of the field was awful.

In effect,  the best players in this Junior Lions  squad were the central defenders (Yaya Banana and Mvom Meyo), and the central midfielders (Eric Nyantchou and Frank Kom)  which follows a common pattern in the past 10-15 years : physical, athletic, never-say-die central midfielders and central defenders.

They will add to the dozen or more people who are currently ahead of them: Stephane Mbia, Nicolas Nkoulou, Sébastien Bassong, André Bikey, Enoh Eyong, Aurelien Chedjou, Georges Mandjeck, Jean Makoun , Landry Ngeumo, Alex Song, Joel Matip…etc

THE GAME PLAN

Many would argue that this is the typical Cameroonian player: big, strong, and mentally tough! It has been so, since Claude Le Roy (and western European coaches) took over the mantle in the national team as from 1985. It became even more the case when most of the development players (through football academies and newly created clubs) became essentially targeted to an international market  that requires big, physical, combative lads.

But it wasn’t so in the period of the Yugoslav trainers of the 1970s who worked to rebuild the national team through the local clubs. The process which led to the first qualification to a World Cup in 1982 and a first Africa Cup win in 1984 with a set of players who combined skill, power, creativity and improvisation.

It was Issiar Dia’s dribbles that broke the Lions’ defence for Demba Ba to score for Senegal on 26 March 2011 in Dakar. Who unlocks compact defences for Cameroon and picks the right pass for Aboubakar, Webo, Eto’o  and Choupo-Moting?

It is the second consecutive U-20  final that Cameroon is losing  and on both occasions the opponent rose to our physical challenge and had the additional spark and genius – Andre Ayew (Abedi Pele’s son) for Ghana in 2009 and Kayode for Nigeria in 2011 – to inflict harm (goals). Where are our creative men?

Maybe the take home message from this tournament is that Cameroon (technical directorate) needs to re-think its football to include style,finesse and flair to the steel that is already available; failing which, at best  we shall continue to be runners-up and at worst fail to qualify to any tournaments.

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