It was supposed to be a day of celebration. June 8, exactly 24 years to the day when Cameroon scored a memorable victory against Argentina the then holders of the World Cup. Phone companies and local sports officials had planned to ‘triumphantly’ lead the new pride of Indomitable Lions to the plane that was to take them to the World Cup in Brazil. Well, the squad didn’t turn up. They refused to fly to Brazil until a row over match bonuses was resolved. They only left the country around 5:45 in the morning of 9 June.
Haven’t we heard this before? Cameroon sports officials and players not in agreement over bonuses before or during a FIFA World Cup. Even that famous victory over Argentina in Italia 1990 (which sparked a historic run to the quarter-finals) was obtained amid disputes over match bonuses between the players and authorities from Cameroon’s sports ministry and the football federation.
“[Bonuses were] discussed until the eve of the opening match (against Argentina),” said Bertin Ebwelle, Cameroon’s left-back at the tournament in Italy. “I can assure you that the discussions were rough and it wasn’t until 5 a.m. that the last player received his bonus,” he told Camfoot.com recently.
Four years later, the players spent sleepless nights arguing over bonuses and the Lions crashed out of the competition after suffering heavy defeats in the hands of Brazil (3-0) and Russia (6-1).
Yet, Cameroon did not learn.
In 2002, possibly the best Indomitable Lions squad since 1990 refused to board the flight that was supposed to take them to Japan for the World Cup except a row over bonuses was resolved. They ended up staying for days at an airport hotel and arrived behind schedule. The Indomitable Lions, then African Champions, were bundled out of the World Cup after a 1-1 draw with Ireland, a 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia and a 2-0 defeat to Germany.
Fast-forward to 2014. Cameroon had just started their pre-World Cup training camp in Austria when media reports suggested the players were locked in a row with the country’s football authorities over bonuses. Both sides sought to downplay the seriousness of the issue until it boiled over on Sunday.
After the ‘industrial action’ by the players the federation announced in a statement that the issue had been settled, claiming that they had to draw from private loans to get the money to the players. Really?!
This team qualified for the World Cup in November 2013. Both the authorities and the players know the history surrounding bonuses. What were they doing in the past 6 months? Why must every participation at the World Cup turn into a farce over something that could be agreed months earlier?
Officials blame the players for asking too much and insisting on being paid before delivering a service. They think the players are going to ‘unpatriotic’ lengths (i.e. refusing to play matches or fail to board a flight) to negotiate their demands. There are conspiracy theories in the media that these demands are linked to internal politicking with some players trying to bring down the federation.
Some in the media have questioned why a team that has not won any major tournament in the last decade should be making such high claims for match bonuses. Others have asked if the players will refund the money taken in advance, if they crash out of the tournament. Many wonder why the government should be paying footballers close to FCFA 50 million each in a country where swathes of the population go without clean drinking water or electricity?
Whatever the case, this bonus saga is a complete disgrace for the players, the officials and the country.
“This issue has to be resolved once and for all,” Ebwelle said. That way, players know from the qualifiers what they are going to earn at the World Cup… that way a player can decide whether he wants to go to the World Cup or not. If he decides to go, then he accepts what the nation offers him,” he added.
According to Jules Denis Onana, another 1990 World Cup veteran, negotiations over match bonuses in Cameroon are always tense due to the mistrust between the two involved parties, especially as the players increasingly feel officials use funds that accrue from tournaments to line their pockets instead of investing the money into the development of football in the country.
“Negotiations will always be difficult where there is no trust,” Onana wrote in an open piece published on Cameroon-footbuzz.com. “All that is needed to ensure that footballers and officials can negotiate in a peaceful climate, is a little more transparency around the source, allocation, and use of funds,” the former centre-back, now turned player agent, said.
Will Cameroon learn?