None of Cameroon's World Cup headlines have been positive. The largest losing margin, the most idiotic red card, even a headbutt between teammates. Ex-boss Winfried Schäfer sympathizes with coach Volker Finke.
The Indomitable Lions of Cameroon are playing for pride against Brazil on Monday. Defeat to Mexico and self-inflicted humiliation at the hands of Croatia leave them with no points and no hope of progressing, whatever the result against the hosts. Just avoiding further ignominy would be a bonus at this point for German coach Volker Finke and his team.
Winfried Schäfer has walked rather more than a mile in Finke's current shoes. The current Jamaica boss, German club Karslruhe's longest-serving head coach in history, is one of Cameroon's most successful managers.
"It's agony," Schäfer told DW when asked what it has been like to watch Cameroon self-destruct in Brazil. "And I feel so sorry for Volker Finke. He took over Cameroon at precisely the wrong time. Samuel Eto'o is out of form, and the squad's divided into two factions. That was already the case at the 2010 World Cup."
The longstanding feud between Cameroon striker Samuel Eto'o and midfield mainstay Alexandre Song has poisoned the dressing room for years. Neither player has helped their country's cause in Brazil. Song was sent off early on, and in pointless fashion, against Croatia for hitting out at Mario Mandzukic off the ball.
The coach's call?
Eto'o, meanwhile, is struggling for fitness aged 33 and has had minimal impact on the competition. Yet the country's all-time top goal-scorer has such influence at home that benching him is not an option for Finke. Eto'o told journalists before the Croatia game that "God will decide" if he was fit to play, and then he'd respond accordingly. When German journalists asked Finke whether he, as head coach, planned to play Eto'o, Finke frowned: "Samuel's said all there is to be said about that, what more can I add?" In a more typical team, those statements from player and coach might well be reversed.
"He [Finke] has never known such a situation," Schäfer says, alluding to Finke's notorious 16-year stint in charge of Freiburg - the longest in the history of German club football. A math teacher with great language skills, Finke brought Freiburg up into the Bundesliga on a meager budget, thanks in no small part to his nurturing of young, cut-price imports, many from Francophone sub-Saharan Africa.
In this regard, Finke's the perfect fit for the Indomitable Lions, but Schäfer suspects his countryman was less prepared for Cameroon's chaotic and divided football hierarchy.
"In Freiburg, he had this idyllic little world. Finke rarely faced these sorts of ego problems, because he always had young, hungry players, and because he was much, much more than just the coach in Freiburg," Schäfer said. "And now he's coming into a situation where there are all these different currents flowing against each other."
Perhaps the principle "current" impacting on Finke's plans for Cameroon is national hero Roger Milla - the "minister without portfolio" in the country's soccer hierarchy, as Schäfer puts it.
Milla didn't see Song's sending-off, or the headbutt by Benoit Assou-Ekotto on his own teammate Benjamin Moukandjo as Cameroon's problem against Croatia, he singled out Finke. "He is incompetent," was Milla's verdict. Any Freiburg supporter, and the majority of Bundesliga followers, would beg to differ, even with football royalty like Milla.
The larger-than-life striker of old has a famously loose tongue. Samuel Eto'o briefly quit international football last year after Milla said Eto'o "has brought lots to Barcelona and Inter Milan but he still hasn't brought anything to our national team." These May 2013 statements virtually coincided with Finke's appointments as manager. The 65-year-old German helped bring Eto'o back into the fold, a move he may regret with the benefit of hindsight.
A month later, on the same June day in 2013, the president of Cameroon's FECAFOOT football federation, Mohammed Iya, was both re-elected to his post and transferred to jail on charges of misappropriation of public funds. Amidst all this turmoil, Finke at least stewarded Cameroon past Tunisia in the African playoff and into the World Cup. Even that was almost for naught. The Indomitable Lions flew to Brazil later than scheduled, after Eto'o led the entire team in a threatened boycott over bonus payments from FECAFOOT. Ex-coach Winfried Schäfer knows this story from old, as well.
"I had similar problems in 2002, not with the players, but with the ministers. They did not pay the bonuses - the clearly-negotiated, pre-arranged bonuses - and the team nearly didn't fly," Schäfer said. Back then, he fought the players' corner, and won, but says these age-old disputes over money have become more complex since his departure. "Volker had the problem that the players were demanding another bonus on top. That of course is nonsense."
Discipline, still the watchword
Schäfer's thoughts on another sub-Saharan African side Ghana, and their impressive draw with Germany at the weekend, perhaps best highlight what he feels Cameroon are lacking.
"First up, Ghana have excellent discipline. So this means that they do not need a coach who…who …," Schäfer says, hesitating, "who concentrates solely on the disciplinary side."
Assou-Ekotto's headbutt on his own man Moudkandjo leaps to mind at this juncture. The Tottenham Hotspur star has since apologized and cleared the air with Moukandjo, saying the altercation was the upshot of repeated disagreements on the pitch.
"I have not been threatened with a ban from the group. I am a human being and I can get upset just like anyone," Assou-Ekotto concluded in an interview with France's "L'Equipe" sports daily.
Assou-Ekotto has the right to get upset, just like Samuel Eto'o, Roger Milla, Alexandre Song, and Cameroon's population of around 23 million people. Volker Finke's just the same. His World Cup press conferences have been curt affairs in Brazil, but he did manage a final thought after elimination against Croatia: "We are all very disappointed."
He also stressed the importance of remaining focused in the last match, and hinted that he would give the Indomitable Lions "a new face" against Brazil. Perhaps Finke meant this figuratively, or perhaps Cameroon's embattled "boss" now has the right to pick all 11 players, not merely the 10 behind Samuel Eto'o.