It’s just days before the 2002 World Cup kicks off and Cameroon’s squad is still thousands of miles away. Instead of acclimatising to the surroundings of the Japanese training camp they hope to call home for the next few weeks, the entire team is in Paris – refusing to budge from the hotel they’re congregated in.
The Indomitable Lions are locked in stalemate. But not the sort that star players Samuel Eto’o or Geremi can escape from with a shimmy or slick attacking move.
Cameroon’s players are at loggerheads with their own football association, with a bitter negotiation taking place over payments the squad claims have been withheld following qualification for the tournament in South Korea and Japan. This is a contest where neither side will settle for a draw.
As the last-minute disagreements continue to rumble on days beyond the squad’s arranged flight to Asia, the disruption starts to take its toll.
“We had a major breakdown in Paris before the World Cup and we spent six days in a hotel without training properly,” striker Patrick Suffo recalls of the moment that characterised his World Cup experience.
“We’d finished our preparation properly and had set a date to travel to Japan, but we had some conditions before leaving. We’ve had many, many problems in the past with our officials and the money that was prepared for the players – they take it for themselves.
“We asked for it to be paid before we reached Japan and everything was arranged for months, but a week before [the tournament] they said they’d pay us when we were out there. We knew that if we went, nobody would get the money.
“In our case, the bonuses were not just for the World Cup, but the qualifiers before. Some players were playing at a very low level and couldn’t earn as much as what was promised. We needed to go there with our minds free to concentrate on football, but these guys [at the Cameroon FA] started to make things difficult for us.”
After days of wrangling, the money was paid and Cameroon’s squad made their belated journey to join the World Cup party. But before they touched down in Japan, they faced further upheaval when their chartered flight was forced to make an emergency landing in Bangkok after failing to gain permission to fly over Cambodian, Vietnamese and Filipino airspace.
It meant that Cameroon’s promising side – a group that won gold at the Sydney Olympics two years earlier and triumphed at the Africa Cup of Nations just months before the World Cup – would only have a few days to settle in the new time zone before their opening match against Mick McCarthy’s Republic of Ireland. It was far from what Suffo and his teammates had in mind when they qualified.
“We went there wanting to make a big impact and top what our idols did in the past, especially the 1990 team,” says the former Barcelona B and Sheffield United frontman.
“We knew they reached the quarter-finals and our ambition was to reach that level. We were very confident of doing that. We’d had the same team for the last four or five years. It was a routine for us and we were confident that we could have achieved more than we did. Our aim was to be remembered, but unfortunately it didn’t go very well.”
Despite Suffo’s regrets, Cameroon’s campaign didn’t start too badly. Patrick Mboma put the African side ahead against Ireland, only for Matt Holland’s rasping half-volley to steal a share of the spoils.
Next up were Saudi Arabia, and while Cameroon looked sluggish throughout, an Eto’o goal secured all three points – although Robbie Keane’s last-gasp equaliser against Germany in the group’s other match meant any hopes of qualification now hung in the balance. Cameroon would need at least a point against the Germans, or a favour from the out-of-sorts Saudis, to stand any chance of progressing to the knockout phase.
It wasn’t to be. Despite Germany going down to 10 men in the first half following Carsten Ramelow’s sending off, Rudi Voller’s side scored twice through Marco Bode and Miroslav Klose to seal victory. And to make matters worse, Suffo was given his marching orders for two late challenges after coming on as a substitute.
“The game against Germany we could have won,” Suffo says. “Germany didn’t hit us like people expected them to and if you watch that game back, we matched them and had a few chances when we could have been ahead by two or three, then we let in that goal. If you watch it again, it’s a 50-50 game.
“I still feel I didn’t deserve to be sent off. I believe I was sent off because Germany had a red card and the referee had to compensate. It was sad for it to end like that, nobody liked that. At the time I was sent off, we still had chances and I believe if we had played with 11, we could have pulled something off.”
Instead of progressing to the knockout stage with history in their sights, Cameroon were heading back to the airport with their dreams shattered. But even their departure from the tournament didn’t go without more internal swiping, as Cameroon FA President Iya Mohamed told camfoot.com that the federation had “knives to our throats” over the bonuses row and accused the players of being “derogatory”.
If there’s one thing that Cameroon’s players and officials could agree on, though, it was that the delay in getting to Japan and the jetlag the team suffered as a result of arriving late had resulted in a below-par showing.
“We had one of the best Cameroon teams ever and we didn’t get the result we should have got with that team,” Suffo adds. “We have regrets for ourselves because we had the players, the coach, the mindset and everything, but there’s always something that comes in to mess things up. This time, it wasn’t from the players, it was our officials.
“That’s the saddest thing about it. When you know you have the players and quality to go far, then for non-footballing reasons you don’t make it.”
Although internal conflicts caused an unsavoury backdrop to Suffo’s memories of his only World Cup, he still remembers the experience fondly.
“It was like a dream true and was very special to me,” he says. “It was always one of my goals to play in a major tournament with Cameroon because I know what it means for people back home.
“There were a lot of positives and the experience itself was fantastic. Talking for myself, it was an achievement in itself to be at the tournament because [selection for] the team was very competitive, so to find a place wasn’t easy. It’s something I’m proud of, even if it didn’t go as well as we wanted it to go in the end.”