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Africa Cup of Nations

Old Hands Aboubakar & Nkoulou unlikely poster boys of Cameroon’s redemption

10:30 GMT+3 06/02/2017
The duo were the most senior players in the Cameroon squad and both struck to bring home the fifth Afcon title for the Indomitable Lions

Cameroon ended a 15-year wait for the African title on Sunday evening in Libreville when goals from Nicolas Nkoulou and Vincent Aboubakar were enough for the Indomitable Lions to come from behind and down fancied Egypt.

The Central Africans hadn’t been the final of the continental showpiece since 2008 until goals from Michael Ngadeu Ngadjui and Christian Bassogog fired them past Ghana in the second semi-final in Franceville, and in truth, few expected them to get that far…let alone to reach the final.

In the years since they last graced the Nations Cup showpiece, the Indomitable Lions’ stock has fallen remarkably, to the point where they could be considered—ironically alongside their vanquished final foe Egypt—as the fallen giants of the continental game.

They failed to even reach the Nations Cup in 2013, and were eliminated in the first round in Equatorial Guinea two years ago, but perhaps the nadir truly came at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Here, for the second consecutive Mundiale, the Lions were the first team eliminated when—amidst infighting and the infamous on-field spat between Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Benjamin Moukandjo—they slumped out in disgrace with zero points and after conceding nine goals.

Moukandjo, one of the players who came under the most intense criticism after that World Cup, is now a changed man, and captained the team to the title in Gabon.

Indeed, the FC Lorient forward has made no secret of the fact that he and his Cameroon teammates have been committed to changing the nation’s reputation for the better and dragging them out of the doldrums.

"We knew we had an image to redress," Moukandjo told journalists ahead of Sunday’s final. "There was a disagreement between us and the supporters and we had to change this.

“We wanted the fans to start loving the team again,” he added, “and we knew we had to get out of the group.”

Even before Sunday’s success, the national team’s supporters have begun to rediscover their love for the Indomitable Lions, with the animosity that had characterised their recent outings—and the majority of Broos’s year-long tenure—steadily fading away.

The Belgian coach is perhaps the key protagonist in Cameroon’s tale of redemption.

After replacing Volker Finke, he had the courage to ‘do things his way’, and instead of returning to the same old tried and tested failures, he opted to go in a different direction and, in a bid to restore a sense of national pride to the famous dark green shirts, to fill the squad with new faces and hungry youngsters.

Even in the build-up to the tournament, there were unwanted distractions and tensions, with Joel Matip, Allan Nyom and Eric-Maxim Choupo Moting just some of the players to have rejected the manager’s invitations.

As if to make a point, and to complete the rupture with Cameroon’s unhappy past, Broos also opted to leave experienced duo Henri Bedimo and Aurelien Chedjou at home.

Even during the tournament, he largely placed his faith in some of the squad’s less heralded names, with the likes of Bassogog, Ngadeu Ngadjui and Adolphe Teikeu coming to the fore.

By contrast, Tottenham Hotspur forward Clinton N’Jie—currently on loan at Marseille— wasn't seen after the first two matches, while erstwhile regular Edgar Salli made just a fleeting appearance in Gabon.

Considering Broos’s decision to axe so many experienced players, it was ironic that two of the squad’s few ‘older hands’ were the ones who turned the tie in Cameroon’s favour against Egypt.

Aboubakar has been limited to a peripheral role for the Lions under Broos after losing his way at club level, but was introduced as a half-time substitute for Robert Ndip Tambe as the Lions sought to turn the contest in their favour. He rewarded Broos’s belated faith with the stunning winner in the 89th minute.

Nkoulou is arguably an even more exceptional case.

The former skipper was jilted by Broos—somewhat remarkably—during the tournament, and made to watch on while younger, less experienced and arguably inferior colleagues held forth. Yet an injury to Teikeu prompted his introduction after just half an hour of the final, and midway through the second half he made his mark with the equaliser.

Heading into this tournament, Nkoulou was the only one of Cameroon’s players to have previously featured in a knockout game at a major tournament.

He was an unlikely candidate to be the poster boy of Broos’s title triumph, but, as the fireworks die down and the ticker tape falls back down to earth, it’s hard to imagine that any of the squad will have ‘felt’ this Cameroonian ‘redemption’ quite like Nkoulou.