Yaounde — It is almost 6pm. A group of kids are plying their craft in a dusty, dirty courtyard in a poor neighbourhood in Yaounde, Cameroon’s capital. That craft is football. They kick the once-white-but-now-brown, aged football around.
One child is barefoot, the other wears worn shoes and is dressed in the kit of the national team. “I want to play like [Lionel] Messi,” one of kids called Jack tells IPS as his voice rises above the rest of the excited crowd. “I am Eto’o… I am Ronaldo… Pepe… Rooney… ,” the kids start shouting, each one of them giving the name of his dream football star.
Samuel Eto’o is Cameroon’s football star, he plays forward for English club Chelsea, and will be leading the national team, known worldwide as the Indomitable Lions, in this year’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
Cristiano Ronaldo, is the famous Portuguese footballer who plays as a forward for Spanish club Real Madrid, and Pepe is the nickname for his fellow club member, Képler Laveran Lima Ferreira. Wayne Rooney is an English football star who punters predict will take the upcoming football world cup by storm.
With just a day to go before the proposed start of the world cup from the Jun. 12 – Jul. 13, Brazilians have begun protests and strikes in demand of higher wages. There have been numerous reports ofcorruption and rights violations during the public works to prepare for the event.
But here in this Central African nation, the kids are oblivious to this and have big dreams and big ambitions. And this reflects the deeper passions that drive football in Cameroon – a country that will be participating in this year’s World Cup for a record seven times – more than any other African team.
Football is more than just a game here “it is a religion,” sports journalist Fon Echeckiye tells IPS.
Cameroon for all its football glory has only two standard football stadiums, one in Yaounde and the other in Garoua in the country’s Far North Region. Despite the poor infrastructure here, the love for football runs really deep in Cameroon.
According to the African Economic Outlook, although Cameroon has abundant natural resources “revenues obtained from the exploitation of these resources, and from oil in particular, have not been sufficiently channelled into structural investments in infrastructure and the productive sectors.”
“In our day, each time we were faced with an opponent, we thought about nothing else than the national flag,” Thomas Nkono, the retired ace Cameroon keeper who was once nick-named “the Black Spider,” because of his acrobatic saves, tells IPS.
“It was always a good feeling to know that millions of Cameroonians – poor and wretched alike – could abandon their daily bread and butter concerns to support the team. It always gave us an added motivation,” he muses.
Of Cameroon’s estimated 20 million people, some 39.9 percent areaffected by poverty.
That feeling amongst players hasn’t changed much. On the sidelines of the Lions’ last preparatory match for the 2014 FIFA World Cup against Moldova on Saturday, Jun. 7, striker, Achille Webo told IPS “it’s true some of us who play professional football earn a lot of money, but to see crowds like this is not something money can buy. It is highly motivating.”
Ngando Picket, a Lions’ supporter who accompanies the team everywhere, says over the years he’s composed more than three hundred songs in support of the team.
He speaks breathlessly as he strains to sing and dance. Ngando tells IPS: “The boys always need to know that the nation, the people stand behind them and I work daily to fulfil that role. I believe the singing and dancing we put on from the stands fires the boys up and that alone keeps them up to steam.
“We are travelling to Brazil to do so, and I believe Cameroon will create a lot of surprises.”
Across the board, supporters, initially sceptical about the team’s form ahead of the tournament, now seem to have gained in hope, after the tie with Germany in a warm up game.
“That match reminds me of 1990 when the Lions stunned the world with a 1-0 win over Argentina [then holders of the World Cup title] in the opening match of that year’s world cup,” says Benjamin Ngah, a taxi driver in Yaounde. The team eventually became the first African nation to qualify for the quarter final of a world cup tournament.
“I believe we have got the quality to accomplish the same exploit this year, or perhaps go further,” he tells IPS.