Michael Ngadeu Ngadjui won the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations with Cameroon, and now hopes to defend the title. Speaking with DW, he discussed the favorites' strengths and weaknesses, and his formative years in Germany.
DW: Cameroon won the Africa Cup of Nations two years ago, and the next instalment is upon us. What does the competition mean to you?
For African people, the Africa Cup of Nations is the most important sporting event. Football is like a religion for us. During this competition, all Africans speak one language: football. Winning in 2017 was and remains indescribable for me. As a child growing up in Maroua, I couldn't have pictured bringing that trophy home even in my wildest dreams. It's an honor for me to be part of this team that put a fifth star on Cameroon's jersey. When we returned to Cameroon with the cup in 2017, the entire city of Yaounde lined the streets to welcome us and to celebrate. It was crazy, it was amazing. I'm not sure we've celebrated anything as much in Cameroon as this trophy.
How does it feel to be back for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt?
It's just a pity,as the cup really should have taken place in Cameroon. Sadly, that didn't work out... Many people do see Cameroon as one of the favorites, obviously along with other countries. We know what Cameroon's people expect of us, we're aware of the pressure. And we're going into the competition with the maximum possible motivation, for the pride of Cameroon's people and its football.
Ngadeu (wearing the No. 5 jersey in the middle of the back row) and Cameroon will be trying to defend their title in Egypt
'A team with one voice'
As defending champions there will be a particular focus on you at the competition. What are Cameroon's strengths and weaknesses?
Our strengths are our togetherness and solidarity, our fighting spirit. We will play with grit and also with all our love to defend Cameroon's jersey. We're a great team, but perhaps without any world-renowned international talents. Now, maybe that's our weakness. But the players we have form a very good unit, which speaks with one voice.
Who are the favorites this year?
The competition's been extended to include 24 teams. That gives a lot of great African football nations the chance to compete. For me, Egypt are among the favorites, just like Senegal with their armada of top players. But don't underestimate the Ivory Coast, Morocco, Tunisia and Nigeria. And Cameroon, of course!
European football also enjoys a lot of overseas attention. Do you think that African players have to play in Europe, in order to make their mark?
I don't believe that. It's true that European football gets a lot more media attention. To get truly famous nowadays, it's best to play in Europe. But there are some famous players who only ever played in Africa. Consider Mohamed Aboutrika, who played for Egypt. He never played for a European club but is one of African football's leading personalities. But that doesn't stop a lot of African footballers from looking to play in Europe, to develop, to show what they can do, and to earn their living.
The biggest problem for African footballers trying to come to Europe is securing a visa. I'm convinced by the quality of African players. With them, European clubs would have a lot of very good young players with a lot of African talent.
Ngadeu spent his formative football years in Germany, despite having come to the country to study initially
Scouring for bottles for deposits
When you came to Germany, it wasn't to play football but rather to study. What do you remember of that time?
When I think back to my time in Germany today, I think of October 2010. It was almost winter. I'd come from 35 degree Celsius (95 Fahrenheit) heat in Cameroon, and in Germany the temperature was around 3 degrees (Celcius). It wasn't easy. I remember the times I spent with friends in our nine-square-meter (97-square-foot) apartment. I remember the times when we pounded the streets looking for plastic bottles and trading them in for 25-cent deposits at Lidl, so that we could buy some food. These moments were formative for me.
And I also remember the first German team I played for: Kirchhörder SC, coached by Adrian Alipour. It's moments like these that lead me to believe that with faith, determination and hard work, anything is possible. I won't forget my past in Sandhausen and in Nuremberg, training with the U23s. It was an incredible experience. I have always said that what God does is fantastic. Everything went well. I have a wonderful life and I thank God for that.
You're part of the Cameroon squad and are now one of the big names at leading Czech club Slavia Prague, where you have played since 2016. Why didn't any top German clubs approach you beforehand?
I would say that my football career really began in Nuremberg. I spent two seasons there [editor's note: 2012-13 and 2013-14 with the U23s]. At the end, I thought that I had earned a chance to play for Nuremberg's first team, which was in the second division at the time. I'm sure that I would have developed further then. Only God knows where I might have ended up. In Germany it's not easy for academy graduates. There were almost 22 of us in the academy, and I was the oldest. Of Nuremberg's U23s back then, I believe that only three are playing professional football: Florian Ballas at Dynamo Dresden, Jann George at Regensburg and myself at Slavia Prague. I really was convinced that all of these players could have gone on to achieve great things and become Bundesliga pros. I don't know whether the problem was Nuremberg or the players but one thing's for sure: I thought these players had a future in German football.
And what about today? Could German teams hope for a second chance to sign you?
Yes, of course. Why not? It would depend on the team and the offer.
Michael Ngadeu Ngadjui is Cameroon's captain and central defender for Slavia Prague. The 28-year-old began his career in October 2010 during his time studying in Germany, joining the amateur club Kirchhörder SC in Dortmund. He later played for the U23 academies of Sandhausen and Nuremberg. He broke into Cameroon's "Indomitable Lions" in 2016, becoming part of the 2017 squad that won win the Africa Cup of Nations. Cameroon kick off their title defense against Guinea-Bissau this Tuesday.
The interview was conducted by Silja Fröhlich.