A 20-year long distance love consummated in Bloemfontein
In his diary, Member of Parliament for Gaborone West-South, Botsalo Ntuane, a supporter of the Cameroon football team waxes nostalgic and takes us on a journey of mixed emotions as he sets on the road to Bloemfontein, tracking the Indomitable Lions and seeking closure on his feud with Pierre Wome. This is a journey that began 20 years ago.
Ncojane- June 8, 1990
My new friend Kaelo and I are glued to our small transistor radio trying to catch the BBC World Service commentary, cackling with static, all the way from Milan. The commentator is barely audible. But so far so good, Cameroon is keeping the mighty Argentina at bay. Maradona is under lock and key. Following the action, it is evident that the Cameroon defence is uncompromising. Then the unthinkable happens in the 67th minute. The commentator goes crazy as Omam Biyick rises high above the defence, connects with a flick from Makanaky and scores. Before the end of this historic encounter, Cameroon would play with nine men having had Kana Biyick and Benjamin Massing sent off for some overboard tackles. But they hold on for a great victory. The shock is seismic proportions.
From that day on Cameroon wins over a new generation of football romanticists who would follow the fortunes of the team for many years to come. I was one of those fans. This was a team that played with swashbuckling panache and some robust defending at the back. National Service participants could only leave their stations once a year to visit home. Back then Ncojane was a remote outback deep in the Kalahari. It was a hardship station where tearaways who didn’t always follow the rules at orientation were posted. As you can imagine there was no electricity that time. No one in Ncojane owned a television set. We killed free time at Mpapazi’s pub throwing darts.
Ncojane-June 9 1990
I have decided to go AWOL. There are consequences for anyone who leaves their station without permission. I am determined to go to Gaborone, where there is television and watch this amazing team that had just defeated Maradona and Argentina. Back then, for those travelling westwards the tarred road went only as far as Jwaneng. Kganane’s bus ran once a week, and there was no guarantee of getting a seat. Most travelers relied on open government trucks to get to ‘Botswana’.
Beginning of the love affair
AWOL, I chilled in Gaborone watching the exploits of Roger Milla, Cyril Makanaky, Stephen Tataw, Thomas Nkono, Emmanuel Kunde and the Biyick brothers among a stellar cast of stars. Collectively known as the Indomitable Lions they played with skill and unbridled joy. The goal celebrations were equally exuberant. Names, exotic and unknown in these parts like Bertin Ebwelle, Jules Onana, Emile Mbouh Mbouh and Jean Claude Pagal evoked images of fantasy football. However by the time of the quarterfinal tie against England I was back in Ncojane and followed the game on BBC. We lost a game we should have easily won. For a few fleeting moments when Eugene Ekeke put us 2-1 ahead, we thought we were in the semi finals. We were glorious in defeat. My love affair with the Indomitable Lions had begun.
13 June 2010
Twenty years on since Italia ‘90, the time has come to consummate my love affair with the Indomitable Lions. The relationship has gone through its trials and tribulations. There have been bouts of rejection and anger, but the Indomitable Lions and me have always patched up things and reconciled. Recalling the unsavoury episodes of the love affair, I am reminded of USA ‘94, which was a disastrous campaign. We suffered the ignominy of a 6-1 drubbing at the hands, or rather feet of a mediocre Russia team. There was no vibe in the team. USA ‘94 was a signal to disband the Italia ‘90 squad and get in a fresh crop of youngsters. The only notable thing about the campaign was when 19-year old Rigobert Song received his marching orders in the 3-0 defeats to Brazil. The headline in one newspaper screamed’ SONG OUT OF TUNE’! The Indomitable Lions were indeed out of tune
But by 1998 the Indomitable Lions were roaring once again, having qualified for France. Two years later we defeat Nigeria in Lagos to win AFCON. Upfront the likes of Joseph Desire Job play with swagger and arrogance. At the back in true fashion there is steel in the form Raymond Kalla. We are enjoying a purple patch. When I first saw Samuel Eto’o I told everyone within earshot that the boy was destined for stardom. He had this intense hunger and passion coursing through him. Aged 17 he played like a coiled spring just waiting to be sprung.
Ahead of Japan-Korea 2002 we won AFCON hosted by Mali. But what a World Cup campaign disaster it was. Looking back I think the team was overly confident and cocky. They saw themselves as world-beaters long before the first ball was kicked in anger. Our traditional kit suppliers Puma, intoxicated by the optimism had even come up with a snazzy outfit that was more at home on a modeling ramp. We bombed out in the first round.
For the Germany 2006 qualifiers the Indomitable Lions were pitted in a tough group that included an emerging force, Ivory Coast. We led by the Elephants by one point and a win was enough even if they defeated Sudan. How could we lose in Yaoundé? By the time we met Egypt on 8 October 2005 the festivities were in full swing. In a dramatic match, we were tied at a goal apiece going into stoppage time. Then Salomon Olembe took possession. Wiggling and wriggling in the area he was upended and the Lions were thrown a lifeline when the referee pointed to the spot. With the clock showing 95 minutes, up stepped defender Pierre Wome. Calm and collected he was about to send us to Germany. In a surreal moment that I vividly recall, Wome’s shot cannoned off the post and the dream was over. Wome’s miss would have repercussions. His family home was placed under police protection. He received death threats. Wome would later state that no one had wanted to take the penalty, not Eto’o, nor team captain Rigobert Song. We were plunged into mourning. But not everyone was distraught. The clergy expressed joy over the defeat because on the grounds that over the years Cameroonians had transferred the honour meant for God to the Indomitable Lions.
Journey to Bloemfontein – 13th June 2010
In the CD shuttle Bob Dylan is wailing The Times They Are Changing as we leave GC. I am tracking the Indomitable Lions. I am also on a pilgrimage of reconciliation with Pierre Wome, much maligned and vilified since that penalty miss. In our party of five is Kaelo, my friend from that BBC broadcast back in Ncojane. But he has not caught the Cameroon bug. He is avidly La Furia Roja, officially known as Spain. Our driver is Ben Raletsatsi and he is rooting for the Yanks. Finidi Kebalefetse is with Brazil. Surprise, surprise Ntoo Chilume is also a follower of the pride of Indomitable Lions.
The N18 from Mafeking is a road I have travelled before to a jazz festival in Kimberly. I am filled with fond memories and in such melancholic moments I dream about my ultimate road trip; a drive across Africa. Thinking aloud I find that Ben Raletsatsi shares the dream. Just before we hit Vryburg, agreement has been reached that next year we are embarking on the mother of all expeditions to Mali for the famous Le Festival Au Desert. In Vryburg, just like real tourists we pose for snaps against a signpost in the main town square. We are in World Cup mood and anything goes. This includes gorging ourselves on junk food.
Manhattan Tavern – 18:37 hours
We pull up at Manhattan’s Tavern in a little dorp called Boshoff. In the pub a bunch of loafers are shooting pool to the soundtrack of a girl on the fuzzy television singing the classic ‘Hamba Notsokolo’. There is still some way to go before reaching Bloem. We arrive at our destination just after 20:00hrs and have to call our hosts because we can’t find our way to the Tree House lodge. Our address for the next two days is a quaint place run by Christo and Tienie Britz. They are locals and perfect hosts. The rooms are large and clean. The man makes small talk as we offload our luggage. Clearly, and despite his best efforts he is not a football man. Most likely he is a fan of the Free State Cheetahs rugby team. He and his wife appear contented with the new South Africa. Not for them the chicken run to Perth.
Tracking the Lions – 21:50
Settled in, and swathed in warm clothing we set off to track the Lions. But where to start?
Courtesy of GPS, we pick out the President Hotel on Union Avenue. There they tell us they are not hosting any team. The only important people in residence are a group of FIFA officials. Immediately I wonder which of Sepp Blatter’s flunkies could be enjoying an all expenses trip to the World Cup. I am currently reading Andrew Jennings expose of the large-scale corruption in the body that controls world football. I almost ask the duty manager if Jack Warner of Trinidad, the chief enforcer of the Blatter faction is in residence. My better judgment reminds me that I am not Mr Jennings who earns his living exposing the crooks in FIFA.
We are losing the spoor. Next stop is Central Protea hotel. Our enquiries are met with bemusement. The ladies on duty say they have not accommodated any Indomitable Lions. But even if they did they wouldn’t tell us. Whilst trying a charm offensive to extract more information, an Oriental looking man walks into the lobby. We chat and he tells us he is from the Ogura Jiji Press in Tokyo and is following the Japan team. He doesn’t know where the Lions stay either . But he certainly knows where the Blue Samurai are bivouacked.
To the Lions Den
We pick up the spoor and head to the public viewing area in Hofmyer Square. It is a grand location with statues of mounted Boer generals from time yonder. I am mildly surprised. I thought after liberation, as is the case with all revolutions, the masses would topple the statues of the old order in a triumphant gesture. There is a large police presence here. It seems the police are everywhere in Mzansi.
Bloemfontein is bitterly cold. We chat to the friendly police and they direct us to their squad leader. Without any problems he informs us the Lions are camped at Bloem Spa, some 10 kilometers in the city outskirts. Graciously he offers that since a squad car is going the same direction, we could follow them.
Having deposited us the entrance of Bloem Spa the cops cheerily wave and drive off. Security is tight. The camp is set against a hill in a sprawling complex. Constable Taole confirms that this is indeed the den of the Indomitable Lions. But they are quarantined for the night and in any case without accreditation we are persona non grata. He however throws us a morsel and says in the morning we can check out the pride in training at Central University of Technology.
Monday, 14 June 2010
By the time we get up, 7 am is long past. The hosts inform us breakfast will be ready at 9am. But where is the training ground? We decide to head straight to the den at Bloem Spa. At the entrance we encounter the ring of security. They tell us, in very friendly tones for that matter that the Indomitable Lions went training at 5am and are now back in camp. Same story as last night. We cannot go in because we don’t have accreditation. Our plea that we have driven hundreds of kilometres from Botswana falls on very friendly, but deaf ears. After some banter we return for breakfast. We must be at the stadium two hours before kick off.
Smoking the peace pipe
I am here to make my peace with Pierre Wome, the penalty taker with whom I have had beef since 8 October 2005. In between I have had my epiphany. We were too harsh on Wome. His life has never been the same since that fateful evening. As I followed the march of the Indomitable Lions to South Africa I held out the faint hope that Pierre Wome would return to the squad in a final act of reconciliation. In town, I buy my green replica shirt, complete with the crest of the roaring king of the jungle on the breast. I leave the shop resplendent in my green jersey, printed in gold the number 3 and Pierre Wome in full. For today I am Pierre Wome, the player we hounded into international retirement.
At the stadium the vuvuzela is blasting away and as only a big football match can do, everyone is heady with anticipation of the action ahead. A full two hours before kick off we go through the security checkpoint and finally enter the Free State stadium for my first live match of the World Cup, and of course my first sighting of the kings of the jungle. There isn’t much pre-match entertainment except for the Budweiser selling points doing a roaring trade. I draw many quizzical looks from people draped in Cameroon colours. Those with printed jerseys are wearing the latest star names. Alone, among them I am wearing yesterday’s forgotten man, Pierre Wome. I walk around, soaking the atmosphere and the puzzled stares. Nobody ventures why I am wearing Pierre Wome’s number 3.
The game is a damp squib. I cannot understand the starting eleven. Just a group of disjointed new comers with no clue what they are doing. This is team of pussycats. The Blue Samurai grabs a one nil lead and hold on to the end. Even the great Eto’o fails to rise to the occasion.
Wome and Nakazawa
As we make our way out of the arena a Japanese couple approach us and offer to swap shirts. I gladly oblige and the lady gives me Yuji Nakazawa number 22 in exchange for Pierre Wome number 3. I have made my peace with Pierre Wome. And his name will soon be walking the streets of Tokyo.
In his multiple award-winning book on African football, titled Feet of the Chameleon, Ian Hawkey recalls how President Biya of Cameroon would issue a decree to summon Roger Milla out of retirement whenever the Indomitable Lions qualified for the World Cup. This happened both in 1990 and 1994. Biya’s attitude was that if Milla was alive and breathing then he must play. Such was the dreary display against Japan I wished Monsieur Le Presidente had issued another decree. Who knows, against Japan the old dinosaur would probably have grabbed us a precious goal in a final cameo appearance at the age of 58!
POSTSCRIPT: After losing to Japan, the Indomitable Lions slumped to a 2-1 defeat against Denmark. We became the first team to be knocked out of the 2010 World Cup. In other words we finished last. Truth be told, in our African record of six appearances at the World Cup we have made it past the first round on one solitary occasion. We still bask in the glory of Italia ‘90. We promise so much and deliver so little in our flattery to deceive. Except for our four AFCON victories, the Indomitable Lions fall far short of becoming kings of world football.