Cameroon, Nigeria look dangerous

S. DINAKAR

WILL the Indomitable Lions roar? Can the Super Eagles soar? These are questions that are becoming increasingly frequent. They spring from the bigger question: Can Africa throw up a World Cup champion?

The 'Dark Continent' now gleams with some exceptional players. Men, who dazzle with a rather unique brand of football, blending skill with power and speed.

Yet, can the teams and the players put it all together in the biggest stage of them all?

Five African sides - Cameroon, Nigeria, Tunisia, Senegal and South Africa - are in the fray making their way through a tough qualification process. A stiffer test awaits them.

Truth to tell it is unlikely that a side from Africa would actually go on to triumph. If one of the sides, breaks into the last four stage, that will represent a huge achievement in itself.

Among the select five, Cameroon - 'the Indomitable Lions' and Nigeria - 'the Super Eagles' - are the most threatening.

This will be the fifth appearance for Cameroon in the World Cup, an African record. More importantly, it will be the Indomitable Lions' fourth successive trip to the World's biggest footballing stage, a feat that reflect's Cameroon's consistency.

Cameroon ambushed Argentina in the inaugural match of the '90 World Cup in Italy, and went on to make the quarterfinals before going down to England in a high-voltage clash.

The image of the charismatic Roger Milla, coming out of semi-retirement and poaching goals with an amalgam of speed, skill, and instinct, is fresh in memory.

For someone in his late 30s, Milla's spirit was astonishing. Not to forget his 'hip shaking' celebration after every strike that had the crowds enthralled.

Thomas N'Kono, a formidable shot stopper and Francois Oman-Biyik, a versatile attacking player, are a couple of other outstanding names to roll out of Cameroon.

African champions in '84, '88, and 2000, Cameroon emerged triumphant in the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, a significant result.

Indeed, strikers Patrick Mboma (if fit), Samuel Eto'o, and fleetfooted winger Lauren Mayer Etame, who figured prominently in the Olympic gold medal triumph, will travel to eastern Asia.

Mboma, the current African Footballer of the Year, is a red hot forward who can slice through most defences. However, he is under an injury cloud, a torn tendon being particularly worrying for him and Cameroon.

Cameroon figures in Group 'E' that also includes Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Republic of Ireland. It has a fighting chance to go through to the next stage.

Germany is no longer the force it used to be and the Republic of Ireland is more of a dogged side than a dangerous one. Saudi Arabia produces brilliant football in the odd match, but is not a consistent threat at the highest level.

"If we play concentrated, total football and feel positive, we should have no problem in proceeding to the next round. Cameroon is a wonderful team. Our objective is to go as far as possible. But we must win the first match (against Ireland) just as the '90 squad did against Argentina in Italy," says coach Winfried Schafer.

Captain and defender Rigobert Song is optimistic too - "We are fully mobilised for the World Cup and we hope for something extraordinary. This team is solid, each time we come together we play like a family. Everybody wants to give the best".

Cameroon won the African Nations Cup in Mali last year, and it did that with some solid play. It had also become the first side in 37 years to successfully defend the African Cup.

Schafer's boys did not concede a goal in the tournament - they took on Congo, Ivory Coast, Togo, Egypt, Mali and Senegal - and the defence did stand out. "There was huge pressure at the Nations Cup because everybody expected us to win the Cup again. My squad proved that it can live with such pressure," he said about the famous victory in the dry, bleak West African landscape.

While it is true that Cameroon has appeared a well knit unit on the field, it cannot be denied that this African nation has been dented by internal turmoil, especially over the issue of coaching.

Former VfB Stuttgart and Karlsruhe coach Schafer took over Cameroon just seven months back, and that was after a troubled phase, where the players and the coaches did not see eye to eye.

Cameroon plays a direct, aggressive brand of football, and could 'knock out' a couple of big names. It is also vital that the dangerous Mboma, who turned out for English club Sunderland this year, recovers in time.

Like Cameroon, Nigeria glitters with talent. The Super Eagles were within a whisker of entering the World Cup quarterfinals in USA '94, when a last gasp Roberto Baggio strike provided a life-line to the Italians, and subsequently shut out the proud African nation.

In France 98 too, Nigeria promised much in the first round before suffering a humiliating 1-4 defeat at the hands of Denmark in a last sixteen clash, a night when it had nowhere to hide in the arena.

'Jay Jay' Okocha, who figured in that game, will be looking forward to wiping away those unhappy memories.

Said Okocha, a dazzling midfielder, in a recent interview - "We couldn't understand how we lost to Denmark (1-4). It's quite unbelievable. It's always possible to lose a football match, but not like that." He is confident that things would be different this time around.

Nigeria also has Celestine Babayaro, a lion-hearted defender, and Nwankwo Kanu, who can conjure astonishing goals.

Nigeria has a steep climb ahead. In the Group of Death, Nigeria will battle for life along with Argentina, England and Sweden. The situation could also bring the best out of these often enigmatic footballers, most of whom have honed their skills in Europe.

Argentina and England, with an array of stars, nurse World Cup victory ambitions, while Sweden is an efficient unit, that has progressed from a tough European qualification phase.

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, but it would sure be hoping that it has the right man for the right job when the 'D-Day' arrives.

Now, to Senegal, the 'new kid on the block.' It is also a giant killer. The West African nation defied most predictions, surviving a daunting qualification phase, where it managed to sneak ahead of Morocco on goal difference to top the group, which also consisted of Algeria and Egypt, all sides that had history and experience on their side.

And then, Senegal, enhancing its reputation, reached its first African Nations Cup final, before eventually going down to Cameroon in a penalty shoot-out. From a side, whose previous best display was a semifinal finish way back in '90, it was indeed a dramatic run. Senegal's outstanding defence, conceded just one goal in six encounters.

It is a side bristling with youth and energy, mainly comprising players based in Europe. In its World Cup qualifying campaign, Senegal went down in just one game in eight, and was tight in defence all along.

And the man who knocked in the goals was El Hadji Ousseynou Diouf, who struck on eight occasions. The French-based player, kept his temper under check, and played the role of the 'hit man' for his side to perfection.

Other players to watch out for in the Senegal side are Khalilou Fadiga, Henri Camara, Lamine Diatta, Ferdinand Coly, Salif Diao, and goalkeeper Tony Sylva, who have all gained much from their exposure to French football.

Interestingly, French star Patrick Vieira hails from Senegal. And not surprisingly, the team is coached by a Frenchman, Bruno Metsu, who has blended the side into a combative unit, that is difficult to score against and deadly on the 'break.'

There will plenty of spotlight on Senegal too for it takes on champion France in the inaugural contest of the World Cup. Considering that most of the 'West African Lions' are familiar with the French style and methods, the holder may have to be careful against the underdog.

The hard tackling but skilful Uruguay, and Denmark, that dishes out a free-flowing type of football, complete Group 'A' and it is rather unlikely that Senegal will actually progress to the next stage.

However, do not count Senegal out. In its first World Cup campaign, the West African nation could be the surprise packet.

If Senegal is the happening team in African football, then Tunisia, is a side that appears to have lost its way, after qualification.

The side fared poorly in the African Nations Cup, being eliminated in the first round, and has been mired in controversy ever since. Noted coach Henri Michel resigned soon after the disaster in the Nation's Cup.

Earlier, he had been honest when he said - "When I see how we have performed, and that we'll be going to the World Cup with this squad, I have to be worried. If we carry on like this, we will be courting catastrophe."

Tunisia has been clubbed in Group H with Japan, Belgium, and Russia, and, unless there is a dramatic improvement in form, could be flying back early from the big event.

A defence oriented team where goal-keeper Ali Boumnijel is a difficult last hurdle, Tunisia will be seeking goals from Ziad Jaziri and Ali Zitouni, who were absent during the Nation's Cup. The moody but brilliant Adel Sellimi is also in the picture. Fluent midfielder Zoubeir Baya will be around too, and he is one Tunisian whose reputation has not been dented in recent times.

The side has new coaches in Ammar Souyah and Khemaies Laabidi. It remains to be seen though whether they can work up a miracle.

South Africa will do with some good fortune too. It will not be easy for the country in Group 'B', where Spain, Slovenia and Paraguay represent a stiff challenge.

The 'Bafana Bafana' have, however, been steady over the last ten years, following their return to international football, after the country's return from isolation.

South Africa clinched the African Nation's Cup in '96 and qualified for France '98, where it displayed 'flashes' of good football, without putting it all together to win key matches.

However, there has already been some bad news for South Africa. Its skipper and ace striker Shaun Bartlett, laid low by an achilles tendon injury, will miss the World Cup finals. The Charlton Athletic forward suffered the injury during the African Nations Cup, and attempts to get him fit for the mega event have proven to be futile. "I am heartbroken," said Bartlett recently, revealing his feelings.

The side still has versatile players such as Sibusiso Zuma, Delron Buckley and Siyabonga Nomvethe, and possesses a shrewd coach in Jomo Sono. South Africa may have an outside chance to progress to the next stage, but, they will have to put mind over matter. It is a speedy side, but, on occasions, leaves holes at the back.

Out of Africa all these teams come. Can they conquer?