COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
The end of an international tournament often opens up a new paradigm, especially when there is an unexpected winner. Cameroon, unfancied and buffeted by the absence of several deserters, are the new African champions; what will follow, and how it will affect the rest of the continent, will be interesting to observe.
Their squad of relative unknowns will almost certainly grow in stature and profile, and come to wear the tag of champions with increasing assurance. This victory is particularly opportune, as the Indomitable Lions will defend their crown on home soil two years hence. Any notion of this being a one-off can be safely discarded.
First of all is a summer engagement at the Fifa Confederations Cup, after which they will square up to Nigeria’s Super Eagles over two legs in 2018 World Cup qualifying.
Following failure to qualify for a second consecutive Nations Cup, Nigeria have swiftly put house in order, and sit pretty at the top of the qualifying group with a 100 per cent record, a full four points clear of Cameroon in second-place. Watching the Central Africans hoist the trophy on Sunday was particularly galling—it was their fifth title, but only the second won without having to best Nigeria in the final match.
However, the double-header in August and September has effectively rendered that particular concern secondary. Whereas the Nigeria faithful evinced a quiet but bullish confidence prior to the tournament, there is now a sincere sense of all too familiar dread.
So much of it is psychological, of course. Cameroon will not be remembered as great champions – their story is more remarkable than the manner of it – but there is something to be said for the sense of duty and expectation that comes with pulling on the national team shirt. It may have been the least talented Cameroon side in a generation, but a Cameroon side it indeed proved to be.
If this crop has discovered a way to tap into that visceral reserve of resolve and identity, it changes the dynamic of the upcoming engagements with Nigeria. Run through both teams, and aside the centre-backs and probably Fabrice Ondoa, you would do well to find any member of the Indomitable Lions’ starting 11 who would get into the Super Eagles'.
However, the heft of the psychological redresses this qualitative mismatch, with Cameroon’s hold over Nigeria well-documented. Worse still is the fact that the scars never quite heal before the scab is ripped off and the wound flows red again—the most recent coming together in a Cup final, a day shy of Valentine’s in 2000, was the ultimate heartbreak.
There is also the fact, uncomfortable and inconvenient as it may be, that for the Super Eagles under Gernot Rohr are not quite tested yet. This is a very young side; while the talent available is undeniable and Zambia away remains a big ask, but the Chipolopolo are not the stone of stumbling they were earlier in the decade.
The visit of Algeria also came in rather serendipitous circumstances, with erstwhile coach George Leekens taking charge of his first game in Uyo.
The contrast to Cameroon could not be starker. The impact of seven top-grade, competitive internationals in three weeks is not to be overlooked – cohesion has been built and trust reinforced. Defying daunting odds and overcoming the many withdrawals has also forged a tighter bond, a purification in the crucible of adversity.
Three games (at the very least) at the Confederations Cup in June means that when these eternal enemies walk out side by side in August, one team will be in markedly finer fettle. With the events of the past month, it is just as well that the Super Eagles built up something of a cushion over the first two games.
However, with Algeria themselves not quite buried in the group – even accounting for their atrocious Nations Cup campaign – Rohr and his charges will not be afforded the luxury of resting on their laurels. Any less than four points from those two games could suddenly blow the group wide open.
Four points over two games against a team that went through Afcon 2017 without a loss, and only conceded twice all tournament. Piece of cake.