Very few football observers expected Cameroon to shine at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations, currently taking place in Gabon, due to the numerous absences that the former continental champions have had to contend with. To make matters worse for the Indomitable Lions, they found themselves in a challenging group, one that featured the host nation, 2013 finalists Burkina Faso and surprising outsiders Guinea-Bissau.
The man who orchestrated this success, Cameroon’s Belgian coach, Hugo Broos, spoke to FIFA.com about his charges’ run to the last eight. “I’m very happy with what we’ve achieved so far at the Cup of Nations, as our group-stage matches were tricky,” he said. “When you look at teams like Côte d'Ivoire, Algeria and Gabon going out, you have to be pretty satisfied with how we’ve done.”
Cameroon did play with fire a little towards the end of their match with Gabon, when their opponents struck the left-hand post of Fabrice Ondoa’s goal and then almost scored on the rebound, making Broos and his staff break out in a cold sweat on the bench.
“I never had any doubt about our ability to qualify for the quarters, but when the ball hits the post like that, anything can happen,” explained the 64-year-old. “Our keeper then saved us again. We were lucky not to concede a goal, and that would have been us out. Generally speaking, though, we created a good few chances in the match and we deserved to qualify after the way we performed in all three games.”
With the group phase now behind them, Cameroon are now fully focused on their much anticipated last-eight clash with Senegal, who defeated Tunisia (2-0) and Zimbabwe (2-0) and drew with Algeria (2-2), although they did rest almost all of their regular starters in that third match. The Lions of Teranga topped their section and are now viewed by many as the new favourites for the tournament.
“We’re now into the knockout stages of the competition, where teams don’t have to think about points totals anymore and matches tend to be much more open,” Broos said. “It’s therefore quite hard to predict a winner. Senegal have played really well so far and even thrilled their fans at certain points. We’re going to prepare as best we can so that we can reach the semi-finals.”
When you see teams like Algeria and Côte d'Ivoire get knocked out, predicting the future becomes quite difficult.
Cameroon head coach Hugo Broos
In order to steer the central African nation to this stage of the competition, Broos revamped the side and brought discipline to their training sessions. The team now appears completely united, proof that the wide-ranging work put in by the coaching staff has paid dividends.
“When I arrived, I brought in some new players, as ten had just left the squad,” said the Belgian tactician. “I looked for new players in the domestic league and all across Europe. I set some internal rules and disciplinary guidelines. We changed their mentality – the players are now highly motivated and proud to represent their country. We now have a solid group that works and acts as a team, and that’s had a positive impact on our results.”
All of the teams that have qualified for the quarter-finals of Gabon 2017 will harbour legitimate aspirations of emerging victorious from the tournament. Does Broos believe Cameroon can add to their four continental crowns?
“When you see teams like Algeria and Côte d'Ivoire get knocked out, predicting the future becomes quite difficult,” he said. “The favourites don’t always win, and that’s especially true here. There are still some very strong teams left in, but who knows what might happen?
“At the start of the tournament, I was asked during a press conference who was going to win the Cup of Nations, and I replied that all of the competing teams were capable of winning it. At the European Championships last year, no-one ever thought that Portugal would lift the trophy.”
As the interview drew to a close, Broos could not hide his desire for his team to triumph in Gabon and then go on to play at the FIFA Confederations Cup 2017, but he was also keen to not get too carried away: “All coaches want to play in major tournaments, especially the FIFA World Cup, Confederations Cup and Cup of Nations. The winners of this tournament will qualify automatically for the 2017 Confederations Cup. And if it ends up being us, we would be very proud to represent Africa in Russia.
“But before talking about winning the Cup of Nations and playing at the Confederations Cup, we first need to take care of this quarter-final, as well as a semi-final and the final. It’s OK to dream, but we have to keep our feet on the ground and focus on our next match.”