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Africa Cup of Nations

Cameroon’s latest bonus dispute may not be fatal for Afcon hopes

17:46 BST 22/06/2019
Cameroon Africa Cup of Nations 2017
The Indomitable Lions have been here before, and could be stronger for their controversial impasse

Finally, Cameroon are in Egypt, and a story which would have been one of the great controversies in the history of the Africa Cup of Nations has been averted.

The Indomitable Lions left it until the eleventh hour to finally embark on their flight to North Africa, having been engaged in a standoff with the Cameroonian Football Federation due to a disagreement about bonuses.

The players were reportedly demanding 40 million francs (€61,000) each, over double the amount which had already been sent to them by Fecafoot.

It had appeared, until midway through Friday afternoon, that Cameroon were on the brink of missing out on the tournament altogether as, after attending the farewell laid on for them at the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium on Thursday, the team returned to the hotel rather than board their flight.

The federation attempted to mediate, with the sports minister, other state dignitaries, and even the legendary Samuel Eto’o drafted in in an attempt to end the impasse.

However, it was only on Friday afternoon that the Lions finally opted to make the journey to Egypt, even though their demands hadn’t yet been met. 

They missed Caf’s deadline for teams to arrive, and it remains to be seen whether they will face a sanction, but they will compete…and that hadn’t been a given a few hours earlier.

The episode will again raise major questions about the governance of Fecafoot. 

All African football federations encounter problems, and there have been regular impasses between playing staff and the authorities—even as Cameroon were plotting their stand-off, Zimbabwe had boycotted training and were threatening to no-show their opening match against Egypt.

However, none have quite encountered internal friction quite like Cameroon, where the schisms of a nation are reflected—but not replicated—in the divisions within the footballing structure.

The incident once again will be used as evidence of the greed, selfishness, lack of patriotism and general avarice of modern footballers—African or otherwise, perhaps—and certainly, it remains tricky for the average soccer fan to empathise with players, often exceptionally wealthy in their own rights, who appear to be quibbling over the odd ten thousand Euros more.

However—and maybe they were included in their list of complaints to shadow or soften the demands for increased income—but the Cameroonian squad explained, in their open letter to the public, other reasons why they weren’t stepping onto the plane.

The first complaint—that many of the squad had at least partially paid their own air fare to join the camp—and the last two, however, hinted at other problems within the federation.

Their demands paint a picture of utter disorganisation, of a lack of effective communication—highlighted in point six—and a complete absence of genuine trust between team and officials.

Intriguingly, in point seven, absent trio Joel Matip, Nicolas Nkoulou and Stephane Mbia are all name-checked, with the communique directly stating that the three refused to join the team due to ‘disorganisation’ on the part of the federation.

This raises several intriguing questions; why is Mbia named, rather than any of the other seven players who rejected the call-ups to the Nations Cup in 2017 or this year, when—due to his employment by a Chinese club—he’s unlikely to have been considered anyway.

While Matip and Nkoulou would have played, their introduction into the 2019 narrative begs the question: “Why was Fecafoot’s disorganisation bad enough to justify those two pulling out, but not ‘bad enough’ for the 23 players named in the current squad to honour their call-ups?”

There are double-standards there, whichever way you cut it…

The foibles of Fecafoot, their relationship with their own team, and the players’ approach on this occasion, will all be investigated in greater depth over the coming weeks, but for now, the Indomitable Lions’ attention must turn to the Nations Cup, and their title defence.

Typically, the presumption is that off-field controversies and payment hold-ups such as these will distract a team and undermine their preparation.

There’s plenty of precedent; Ghana and Cameroon at the 2014 World Cup both endured nightmarish, embarrassing campaigns, with bonuses and allowances primary on the agenda, while it was a similar story for Togo ahead of the 2006 World Cup, as they continued along a far too well-hewn pathway.

However, from chaos and conflict can also emerge great success…just ask Cameroon.

Ahead of the 1990 World Cup, in which they became Africa’s first side to reach the quarter-finals—an achievement that has never been matched—and defeated reigning champions Argentina in their opener, Cameroon’s preparation had been marred by a bonus dispute that threatened to derail their campaign, although Fecafoot did have an excuse on this occasion.

"In 1990, the man who was supposed to distribute the bonuses for the Lions' fantastic World Cup ran away with the money, leaving the players empty-handed,” explained Filipo Maria Ricci in his book ‘Elephants, lions & eagles’.

Joseph-Antoine Bell led the infamous industrial action—in a protest about the non-payment of bonuses and the poor materials that the team had access to, 

Ultimately, the standoff was drawn to a close—some of the players have later credited Roger Milla for instilling in that young team a sense of calm and perspective that had previously been missing—and Cameroon took to the field against Argentina at the San Siro.

Perhaps now, as then, the team will be stronger for having endured, fought, battled and stood alongside one other as a unified front in the face of a common ‘enemy’.

Certainly, in Cameroon’s case, they have recent history of standing unified—and becoming more than the sum of their parts—in the face of external hostility.

In 2017, they were written off and borderline ridiculed ahead of their Afcon campaign, but Hugo Broos pulled together a rag-tag bunch—strengthened in the fraternity of experiences shared—and took them to the title.

Could controversy, and the unity that was evidenced by two documents signed by all 23 members of the playing staff, be the precursor to another successful title tilt?

If anyone can do it, Cameroon can…