Cameroon leave it late as 2019 Afcon qualifying stage reaches conclusion
Stripped of hosting rights and under-performing in their obligatory qualifiers, Clarence Seedorf's side have left it late to reach the finals in Egypt
A little over three and half months ago, Cameroon had a great deal to look forward to as a proud football nation that likes to regard itself as Africa’s stand-bearer in the sport.
The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) was due to be held on its soil for the first time since the 1970s. They would be defending the title. And they just had collected a respectable result, beaten by only a single goal in a friendly against Brazil.
Things have taken several turns for the worse since. At the end of November, faced with overwhelming evidence that preparations to stage the largest-ever Nations Cup, with its expanded 24-country cast list, had fallen too far behind schedule, the Confederation of African Football, Caf, stripped Cameroon of its hosting rights.
On top of the bruises to national self-esteem, Cameroon also confronted the fact they no longer had an automatic place in the finals, which is given to hosts but not to reigning champions.
Luckily, Cameroon had been fulfilling matches in a qualifying group, as part of their obligations under a new Caf system. Unluckily, they had not excelled in them.
So it is that Cameroon, two points behind Morocco in Group B, find themselves still a point shy of securing second place as they take the unsung Comoros Islands on Saturday in Yaounde, knowing that defeat would put the Comoros en route to the relocated final tournament in Egypt this summer along with Morocco.
So there’s edgy atmosphere for the celebrated head coach of Cameroon, the former AC Milan, Real Madrid and Netherlands midfielder Clarence Seedorf to calm as he faces a D-day he certainly did not plan for when he accepted the job with the so-called Indomitable Lions last August. Nor will he be in command of anything like a full-strength team.
Among his tasks through his nine months in charge was to persuade a reluctant band of senior players to reverse their decisions to stay away from the national team. Seedorf has had some success, but in the cases of central defenders Joel Matip, of Liverpool and Nicolas Nkoulou, of Torino, the refusal continues.
“If they are not with us, it’s because they don’t want to be,” shrugged Seedorf. “We did everything we could.”
Goals have been in short supply, too, and the absence of three preferred strikers, Villarreal’s Karl Toko Ekambi (suspended), Porto’s Vincent Aboubakar and Angers’ Stephane Bahoken (both injured) is a concern.
As is the possible aftermath, even if Cameroon equal or better the 1-1 draw they managed in Comoros in the previous group meeting. The islanders, understandably angry that their chances of qualifying have been made harder since Cameroon were stripped of the hosting rights, have threatened to take legal action against Caf for not excluding Cameroon altogether, which is the usual procedure when designated hosts fail in their responsibilities to stage the event.
And quite an event it will be, this June in Egypt, a logistical challenge with 52 matches to accommodate and finalists arriving from just under half of all the continent’s sovereign nations.
With 24 places available in the finals, rather than the previous 16, Africa’s traditional heavyweights might have assumed they would canter through. But Cameroon, five times champions, are not the only former winners in jeopardy.
Zambia, the 2012 champions, are already out of contention, while South Africa, home of the continent’s wealthiest domestic league, play Libya in North Africa on Sunday still needing a draw.
Burkina Faso, runners-up to Nigeria in 2013 and bronze medallists in 2017, are also on the brink. On Friday night they face Mauritania knowing they must win and hope Angola, above the Burkinabe in second place in Group I, lose at home to Botswana, who are bottom of the group.
The surprising leaders of Group I? Mauritania, heading for an Afcon for the first time in their history, and flag-bearers for a troupe of less feted countries making the most of the expanded format.
Madagascar will be in the finals as tournament debutants, and so might Burundi if they can avoid defeat in Bujumbura against Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Gabon on Saturday. Lesotho have a chance of a first Afcon, too, if they manage a win in distant Cape Verde.
Elsewhere, Mozambique’s footballers hope to give a country devastated by Cyclone Idai something to cheer. A victory in Guinea-Bissau will put them through.
Group G, meanwhile, has a topsy-turvy look, with Zimbabwe leading it, Liberia in second and DR Congo and Congo-Brazzaville, both former Nations Cup winners, below them. No one, however, is qualified yet from that group, and should the two Congos win their matches against Liberia and Zimbabwe, they would both make it to Egypt.
In West Africa, there’s a neighbourhood joust with high stakes in Benin, who need to hold Togo - for whom Emmanuel Adebayor is back in the fold after the latest of his international ‘retirements’ - to a draw to prevent the Togolese overtaking them.
But a win may be needed for Benin, with minnows Gambia in with an outside chance of qualifying if they can defeat Algeria, who are already through.
Updated: March 22, 2019 10:46 AM