After years of disarray, the Indomitable Lions are back on the world map, while the Elephants still need to convince their fans ahead of Brazil 2014
By Kingsley Kobo
Cameroon and Ivory Coast are the latest African teams to qualify for next year's World Cup in Brazil after Nigeria booked their place on Saturday.
While both sides overcame strong opposition in the form of Tunisia and Senegal in their play-off fixtures, there are contrasting moods surrounding the success of each side in reaching the 2014 finals: while Cameroon - reunited with Samuel Eto'o - may be showing glimpses of their old selves, Didier Drogba and the Elephants are yet to fully convince supporters they have what it takes to more than just make up the numbers next summer.
The Indomitable Lions defeated Tunisia 4-1 in brilliant fashion during the second leg of their playoff, arousing all-night partying across the streets of the central African nation.
Jubilant supporters trooping out of the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium in Yaounde on Sunday could still recall how gloomy the atmosphere was at the same venue on October 8, 2005 when their team was held to a 1-1 draw by another north African side, Egypt, which gifted Ivory Coast a spot at the 2006 tournament in the final matchday of qualifying.
Boisterous football moments such as these have been uncommon of late in Cameroon after the good old days of Roger Milla, the Biyik brothers and Patrick Mboma. Locals had witnessed how their once formidable Lions were tamed and caged up as other teams proceeded to successive Africa Cup of Nations finals in 2012 and 2013, with minnows Cape Verde among the sides that participated in the dismantling of the plucky Cameroonian team.
Samuel Eto'o and company did appear at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, but their early exit unmasked signs of corrosion within the squad as tensions between players and coaches reached breaking point.
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Three head coaches – Javier Clemente from Spain, Frenchman Denis Lavagne and Cameroonian Jean-Paul Akono – all tried to redress the situation but failed to put the house in order, with many observers blaming more deep-rooted problems in the nations's Football Association.
The arrival of 65-year-old German coach Volker Finke in May this year brought some radical changes to the set up. Unwavering in the face of pressure from players or the FA, his pragmatic approach to curtailing Eto'o's supremacy over the entire group earned the coach more admiration from players as well as local fans.
And now with an elusive World Cup ticket in hand, Finke should have carte blanche to clear up other prevailing issues as he prepares the team for their seventh World Cup, with a guarded focus on the country's best-ever performance in the competition - the 1990 edition where they lost in the quarter-final.
Eto'o, who has long dubbed the 2014 finals as his last chance on the international stage, is back in the fold as a leader of the team and the banner beneath which Cameroon's supporters will rally. Now is his opportunity to firmly establish himself alongside Milla in the annals of World Cup history.
Things are a little different for Ivory Coast. While they qualified for their third World Cup in a row after edging an obstinate Senegal 4-2 on aggregate, underneath the jubilation and ego at being the continent's highest-ranked side, there lies plenty of anxiety.
Most fretful of all are local fans, sports journalists and pundits, all calling for the removal of standing coach Sabri Lamouchi, whom they assume lacks the knowledge and proven experience to mastermind a World Cup campaign.
The Elephants' jittery showing against the Teranga Lions in Casablanca on Saturday rekindled a waning animosity for the former Inter midfielder, with Salomon Kalou's last-minute goal coming just moments after Senegal spurned a superb chance to snatch the World Cup spot from Ivory Coast's grasp.
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It is difficult to pinpoint the tactical achievements of Lamouchi since his arrival in May 2012. Although the team did qualify and play at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa, the beaten finalists of the previous competition crashed out in the last eight.
Who is really doing the job, the coach or the players? That is the big question emerging from the camp. The football federation, which has acknowledged a lack of love for Lamouchi from the population, was bracing for his dismissal should the national team fail to qualify for the World Cup, and are now left with a decision over the future of the man who confessed he came to "learn the act of coaching in Ivory Coast".
Importantly, Lamouchi enjoys strong support from the top men of the group such as Didier Drogba, the Toure brothers and goalkeeper Copa Barry. It's likely the FA will allow Lamouchi and his charges to continue quietly with preparations while officials grapple with critics, assuring the nation that the team will deliver in Brazil.
Next year's showpiece will likely be the swansong for the over-praised and underachieving golden generation, with close to half of the fold set to retire from international football. And after so many near misses in the past and the weight of expectation somewhat lifted, the Elephants may surprise a few critics in Brazil 2014, allowing the current crop of stars to write a happy ending to their as yet disappointing story.