Fate throttles the Indomitable Lions

INITIALLY, it was thought to be only an innocuous fall. But the impact of the sudden collapse of Marc-Vivien Foe was to have wider ramifications as the 2003 FIFA Confederations Cup itself was left in complete disarray when the death of the Cameroon midfielder was finally confirmed an hour later. Not so unexpectedly, the whole football world was simply turned upside down in a matter of a few minutes, and the tournament itself looked as if it was as good as over, even as Foe's dumbstruck colleagues tried hard to fight back their tears and reconcile themselves to the morbid tragedy.

The French team members pose with the trophy after beating Cameroon 1-0 in the final of the Confederations Cup at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, north of Paris. -- Pic. AP-

Quite ironically, what should have been a moment of great joy for the Cameroon side — celebrating its first passage into the final of a major FIFA event — tragically turned into an hour of uncontrollable grief. The Indomitable Lions had just lost a brother, a genial figure, who had made it into the team as a teenager and had matured to be one of its mainstays in the midfield through two World Cups and four African Nations Cup campaigns.

Little wonder then that Foe's unexpected death dwarfed what limited sporting significance the final enjoyed among the fans of the game even though the Cameroon side had boldly decided to take the field against host France as a tribute to their lost brother. The African champion, with its neat ball skills and outstanding physical presence, proved itself to be a worthy finalist but in the end it was a trifle unlucky, being felled by a Thierry Henry golden goal which led France to a second straight title triumph in the Confederations Cup. It was just a case of the heart not responding to the mind, the Cameroon players being driven by their emotions, their desperate mission to win the Cup for Foe notwithstanding.

Clashing with the end of the Spanish season, the tournament itself was ill-timed as it was missed by a bevy of superstars and their absence did little justice to the FIFA claim that the event was a `mini World Cup'. It was enough reason also for the critics to ridicule not only the world body but the tournament as such, especially when World champion Brazil, without Ronaldo and Rivaldo, was knocked out right at the preliminary stage.

Yet, it would be hard for any genuine football fan to dismiss the revival of the French fortunes particularly in the background of what it was forced to suffer in Asia last year. Starting as one of the top favourites to win the 2002 World Cup, France, which had proved itself invincible, winning the 1998 World Cup, 2000 European championship and the 2001 Confederations Cup in Japan, was forced to make an ignominious first round exit being beaten hollow by the likes of Senegal. It was a show, which had also led the French public to demand damages for this affront to national pride and complete disillusionment.

Given such a background, the French showing in the tournament was itself a big inducement for the Gallic gathering across all the three venues of the 12-day event, what with the home team getting into its groove with wins over Colombia, Japan, New Zealand and Turkey before overcoming Cameroon in the final. It was a sumptuous feast for the French fans with their team scoring 12 goals and its hero, Thierry Henry, being voted as the best player of the tournament. Indeed, France's victory had been expected even before a ball was kicked simply because its new coach Jacques Santini had the strongest side available to him.

Though his midfield was largely reshaped in the absence of Zinedine Zidane, Claude Makelele and Patrick Vieira, the first choice back five of goalkeeper Fabien Barthez and defenders Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly, William Gallas and Bixente Lizarazu were all available. And more importantly, there was Henry. Ably supported by his Arsenal team-mates Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord, Henry was at his best and had little challenge before collecting the best player and top-scorer awards after his fourth goal of the tournament had sealed the final in favour of France. It was just a perfect down payment as well for the debacle in Asia where France had made its exit without a goal and without a win in three matches.

Drawn alongside Colombia, Japan and New Zealand in Group A of the preliminary league, France had little difficulty before motoring itself to the semi-final with a clean slate. The only tough hurdle en route came in the form of Colombia, which showed considerable flair in holding back the French attack after allowing an early goal, scored by Henry off a penalty. France once again showed its prowess as it took an inspired Japan in its stride, thanks to the strikes by Robert Pires and Sidney Govou, before running up a huge 5-0 win over the Kiwis in its last league match.

Colombia, recovering well from its 1-0 defeat against the home side, outplayed the Kiwis 3-1 after being in arrears all through the first session and then overcame Japan 1-0 in a needle match to finish second in the group and thereby book for itself a place in the semi-finals. Japan had earlier won against New Zealand 3-0 in the opening match of the tournament and had indeed looked as one of the outside bets to take the second spot in the four-team league.

Zico, its new manager, had always pointed towards the tournament as his first big challenge after taking the reins of the Japanese side from Frenchman Philippe Troussier soon after Korea/Japan 2002. But despite impressive displays against the Kiwis and the French, it was still sad to witness Japan make its exit, being beaten by a 68th minute goal by Giovanni Hernandez. With seven yellow cards and no reds in three matches, Japan, however, picked up the FIFA Fair Play award as consolation for its efforts. Perhaps more comforting for its Brazilian coach, though, will be the exciting brand of attack-minded football that his side brought to Europe. Still, Zico needs to work on the peren<147,3,1>nial Japanese problem of lacking punch upfront, though in Shunsuke Nakamura the team seems to have found an exciting player in the class of the veteran Hidetoshi Nakata.

New Zealand, on the other hand, looked pale and unprepared for a global meet of this stature. It was hardly in the picture in any of its three matches and was beaten soundly by its opponents and could not even open its account in the points-table. It was a performance which could have also cost the Oceania zone, its promised spot in the 2006 World Cup in Germany, with the FIFA executive altering its earlier decision on the final day of the tournament and giving it only a half-a-spot to be competed alongside the fifth qualifier from the South American (CONMEBOL) zone qualifiers.

Brazil was expected to have a stroll in Group B wherein it was pooled together with Cameroon, Turkey and the United States. But without the services of its famous Ri-Ro pair and in the absence of Roberto Carlos, the side made a mess of its chances before bowing out at the end of the first stage. It was indeed a mighty fall for the five-time World champion as it failed against Cameroon and then held to a draw by Turkey. The lone consolation for Brazil, which was also let down by the repeated failures of Ronaldinho to move into the centre-stage, was the disappointing 1-0 win against the Americans, carved by an Adriano goal which again was a gift from the rival defence. Perhaps, the only saving grace for the South Americans was the consistency shown by Emerson, who had missed last year's World Cup due to injury, in the midfield. He was at his best and was in the forefront shaping up moves with the usual Brazilian flamboyance but had little support coming his way from either his midfield colleagues or those upfront.

Cameroon, the current African and Olympic champion, having started off with a brilliant 1-0 win against Brazil, never looked back before topping Group B. The victory against Brazil, shaped up by a superb effort from Samuel Eto'o 10 minutes from time, also marked the first ever victory by an African side over any South American opponent in the history of the biennial competition. The African side, thereafter, earned a hard fought win over Turkey through a last-gasp penalty by Geremi before drawing with the U.S. The drawn affair helped Cameroon to avoid France and instead allowed it to take on Colombia in the semi-finals.

Turkey, an invited team in the strength of its spectacular showing in the 2002 World Cup, was indeed the biggest surprise of the competition. After its third-place finish in Asia, the entry of the Turks into the semi-final of an equally elite tournament normally should not have raised eyebrows. But with many of his established players either injured or unavailable, the Turk manager Senol was left with only a young side, most of the players being drawn from the Turkish under-21 squad. The blooding of the youngsters in the competition had promptly drawn predictions that the new kids would be out of their depth.

But led by Tuncay Sanli, Okan Yilmaz and Gokdeniz Karadeniz, Turkey played an exciting brand of football as it won over the United <147,4,0>States 2-1 in its opening encounter before losing through the last-minute penalty against Cameroon. However, Turkey was not finished as yet and this it showed while exacting revenge against Brazil for its two defeats suffered during the last World Cup at the hands of the South Americans. The 2-2 draw left the two teams with an identical tally of four points but could not stop the European team from marching ahead into the semi-finals on goal-difference.

Colombia, which had progressed into the round of last four mainly on account of its tight defence and the goal-scoring prowess of Giovanni Hernandez, was once again impressive against Cameroon in the incident-ridden first semi-final. Yet, the South Americans could hardly stop Cameroon from taking the lead, which came when Geremi picked up a poor clearance and got the ball — with the help of Djemba and Mohamadou Idrissou — through to Pius Ndiefi in front of the rival goal.

Ndiefi came up with a perfect volley and his shot was met with little resistance before the ball rolled into the net. This was in the 10th minute and though the game was followed right through with some great attacks from either side, the match overall was overshadowed by the death of Foe, who had collapsed in the midfield in the 72nd minute and was stretchered out of the field. His death was pronounced an hour later when doctors failed in their efforts to revive him. The whole football world was plunged in darkness and in grief.

Consequently, the second semi-final between France and Turkey was played out in an atmosphere of deep emotion after the news of Foe's death spread. The pre-match proceedings were fittingly sombre and the sentiment palpable, particularly among the French players who had played alongside Foe in both France and England. The match, however, was undoubtedly one of the best games in the competition, laced with five goals and a missed penalty. In more ways than one, it was a perfect homage to the Cameroon midfielder who was also remembered by the French players as soon as they shot into the lead.

Pires, breaking clear on the right, cut inside and pulled the ball back to Wiltord. He passed it to Henry, who found himself left alone in the box and had little trouble in slipping the ball past Recber Rustu. <147,5,0>Henry, then, fittingly invited his team-mates to join him in paying tribute to Foe by pointing a finger to the sky. It was a great act of sportsmanship and as a hush fell on the crowd, there were many eyes filled with tears.

France soon increased its lead with Pires converting a peach of a pass from Henry. But any chance of the host team running away with the game was stalled by Turkey, which recoiled well to cut down the lead through Karadeniz. However, France was back in business quick enough and was successful to go into the breaker with a healthy 3-1 lead as Wiltord made no mistake after collecting a ricocheted rebound off an attempt by Pires. Turkey nevertheless overcame this setback four minutes after the restart through Sanli and did have a chance to equalise when a penalty came its way during the last minute when Olivier Dacourt tugged on Ibrahim Uzulmez's shirt. But then, Yilmaz could only put his effort wide to the post, much to the relief of the French fans. Turkey, later, claimed the third spot with a 2-1 win over Colombia, the winning goals coming through Sanli and Yilmaz. The consolation goal for the Colombians was scored by Hernandez.

Foe's presence was equally felt in the final as Cameroon and French players stood behind a giant picture of the deceased player to observe a minute's silence. Also fittingly, following Henry's winning goal, the French captain Marcel Desailly called his counterpart Rigobert Song to help him hold aloft the Confederations Cup, which from 2005 will be renamed in honour of the memory of Foe. It was quite an emotional finish to the tournament, which, perhaps, was summed up best by one of the banners in the crowd: A Lion never dies, he sleeps.

The results Game No. Date Match Result Venue Team Played Won Drawn Lost GF GA Pts Game No. Date Match Result Venue Team Played Won Drawn Lost GF GA Pts Semifinals Game No. Date Match Result Venue Third place Final

16. 29.06.03 Cameroon v France 0-1 AET (0-0) St. Denis