OPINION: The Road Less Travelled
Posted: 28 November 2014 Time: 20:39
Ed Dove takes a look at two African giants with contrasting reactions to World Cup failure and their mixed fortunes ever since.
Both Cote d’Ivoire and Cameroon endured a summer to forget in Brazil. It was an all too familiar story for the Elephants as they let progression slip away and fell at the first hurdle for the third consecutive time at the World Cup.
It was even uglier for Cameroon, who headed home after three defeats, with the worst group-stage goal difference in the 2014 edition of the tournament.
They stole headlines with their brutality and bickering but, sadly, this was nothing new for a side that have often struggled to escape in-fighting and self-sabotage.
Both returned from Brazil knowing that reconstruction was needed. However, with the 2015 Cup of Nations on the horizon, there was precious little time for large-scale renovation. Fascinatingly, the two heavyweights were drawn together for the Afcon qualifying process, meaning that their improvement (or otherwise) could be measured in parallel.
The respective federations opted to react to their disastrous summers in contrasting ways.
In the Orange corner, urbane coach Sabri Lamouchi stepped down. The former French international had been tasked with eking one final glory out of the Golden Generation, but only succeeded in wheeling that talented collective closer to the retirement home.
Herve Renard, who guided Zambia to an unlikely continental crown in 2012 (ironically defeating the Cote d’Ivoire in the final), replaced his compatriot.
In the green corner, conversely, Cameroon opted to stick with Volker Finke.
Despite their summer shambles, they are the only one of Africa’s World Cup quintet not to have changed managers since Brazil.
Considering the ease with which coaches are dropped and discarded in modern football (and the African game is no different), it was refreshing to see Finke be given another chance.
Arguably, Cameroon’s decision—to stick, rather than twist—was the braver of the two nations.
They took the road less travelled.
In September, when the two teams met in Yaounde, it was a chance to see how both had evolved.
Intriguingly, the new man Renard picked a conservative team, while Finke, who has been in his post since May 2013, was the more adventurous.
Only one of Renard’s starting XI that day hadn’t been present in Brazil. Nine of the other 10 started at least one match during the World Cup. Indeed, he largely kept faith with the players who had fallen short during the summer.
Finke, by contrast, had no hesitation in introducing new blood.
Of the XI that he picked that day, for a genuinely high-profile continental clash, four players hadn’t even made their international debuts before the qualifying programme began. A fifth, Georges Mandjeck, hadn’t been seen since September 2012.
With inclusions, come exclusions, and Finke has wasted little time in ridding Cameroon of the perceived bad influences that compromised their World Cup campaign.
Amazingly, 15 of the 23 players he took to Brazil haven’t started a match for the Indomitable Lions since. The German manager clearly identified the side’s great failing and has adopted extreme measures to resolve it.
On that afternoon in Yaounde, when they welcomed the Elephants, Finke was completely vindicated. Despite such a purge of resources, there was a chasm between the two sides and Cameroon won 4-1. They were inspired by 21-year-old Clinton N’Jie, just one of several precocious talents fast-tracked to the first team.
They won’t all work out in the long term, but the likes of Barcelona’s Fabrice Ondoa and defenders Ambroise Onyongo and Jerome Guihoata suggest that the brittleness of the summer might be a thing of the past.
Cameroon ultimately won four and drew two of their group-stage matches, accruing 14 points. Only one side, Algeria, managed more. The mess of Manaus and the blunders of Brasilia have all but been forgotten.
For the Cote d’Ivoire, ‘moving on’ has not been so easy; while Finke has been proactive, Renard has regressed.
He was brought in to transition away from the faded Golden Generation and to usher in the future. Instead, ahead of their final qualifying fixtures, the French boss was to be found desperately trying to lure retired veterans Kolo Toure and Didier Zokora back to the fold.
One great failing explains Renard’s U-turn; the Ivorian defence.
In the whole of the Afcon qualifying programme, only four teams conceded more goals than the Elephants. The shambolic display in Yaounde was replicated a month later when the Democratic Republic of Congo came to Abidjan.
Back in 2012, when the Elephants met Renard’s Zambia in the Afcon final, they had the meanest defence the tournament has ever seen, going the whole competition without conceding.
The decline has been startling.
Renard, realising the paucity of options in the heart of defence, had little choice but to turn to the veterans.
To his credit, haphazard goalkeeper Boubacar Barry has been replaced by Sylvain Gbohouo, and that, at least, has led to an upturn in fortunes.
There is one important difference between the two sides’ post-World Cup predicaments.
As is often the case with great rivals, the similarities are often more notable than the differences: Think Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage, the Luftwaffe and the RAF.
Both of these nations have been blessed with superstar strikers for the best part of the last two decades. However, while both Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba hung up their boots this summer, their departures have had contrasting consequences.
Eto’o’s departure arguably helped Cameroon. The Everton striker was reportedly becoming an ever-more divisive influence behind the scenes, while his presence in attack was arguably stymieing the progress of Vincent Aboubakar.
The Elephants, however, lost a talisman, and despite Drogba’s obvious limitations, his departure has left a void that the trio of Wilfried Bony, Lacina Traore and Seydou Doumbia have so far failed to fill.
Volker Finke, through his squad selections and personnel decisions, has clearly demonstrated that he has identified and (for now at least) solved Cameroon’s great recent weakness, their lack of squad harmony. Renard, by contrast, may have identified the Ivorians’ Achilles heel, their defence, but great improvement is needed if the Elephants are to be genuine contenders in Equatorial Guinea.
In sticking with their manager, Cameroon took the road less travelled, and, with the Afcon on the horizon, that has made all the difference.