The Ship from Cameroon

The fate of Cameroon's women's national football team, like much else in the country, is a reflection of the sorry state of its politics.

Image by Phil Hilfiker. Via Flickr CC.

Even months later, the battle of Cameroon’s Lionesses during the knockout stage of this year’s Women’s World Cup in France still has people talking. First, there was the back pass to the Cameroon goalkeeper that resulted in the opening goal for England in a fateful Round of 16 clash. Next, was England’s second goal against Cameroon that was initially ruled as offside before VAR overturned the decision and resulted in an on-field protest by the Lionesses that continued in the tunnel during half-time. Then, minutes after half-time, there was Gabrielle Aboudi Onguéné’s left cross that landed in Ajara Nchout Njoya’s right foot for a goal that was also overturned after VAR determined a Cameroon player’s offside position in its lead up. And, finally, there was Alexandra Takounda Engolo’s aggressive tackle of Steph Houghton, England’s captain, earning the former a yellow card. Meanwhile Houghton, who scored the first goal, was awarded player of the match.

If Phil Neville, The England coach, was delighted after his team’s 3-0 victory over their Cameroonian counterparts, then he did not make it obvious to reporters who talked to him after the final whistle was blown. Instead, in a widely circulated post-game interview, the smugly indignant Neville fixated his vitriol on his opponents; “I sat through 90 minutes today and felt ashamed. I’m completely and utterly ashamed of the opposition and their behavior. I’ve never seen circumstances like that on a football pitch and I think that kind of behavior is pretty sad. Think of all those young girls and boys watching.”

The England women’s football team coach, in vest and tie, was referring to his opponents’ on-field protest that required the cajoling intervention of the equally frustrated Cameroon coach, Alain Djeumfa to resume the game. For the former Manchester United defender, his opponent’s behavior was infantile, akin to a kid going home crying with the ball after losing a game; “I didn’t enjoy the 90 minutes, I just felt sad. I can’t gloss over it and fudge it, I have to tell the truth.”

The truth is, had Neville taken a moment to reflect on the less obvious factors that likely contributed to the Cameroon Lionesses behavior, as their dream of advancing to the knockout stages dimmed with every additional goal, perhaps the former player would have been less patronizing and callous. Perhaps it is asking too much to expect an Englishman to express empathy and restraint towards an opponent.

Neville, who is no stranger to the trenches of high-stakes matches, knows fully well the range of sentiments that can be unleashed from the emotional trove from which the game derives its beauty. In the 2002-2003 season, he was amongst the cast of players cited by the English FA after the contentious Manchester United versus Arsenal match referred to as the “Battle of Old Trafford,” which resulted in charges of improper conduct against Arsenal, six of its players, and two Manchester United players. Neville received a warning for his role in the post-game melee.

But this is really not about Neville, it is about the Cameroonian team robbing itself of a dignified exit from the competition, and inadvertently undermining the endearing performance of its previous match against New Zealand. Ajara Nchoua Njoya’s goal in that game not only introduced her to the world, it earned her a nomination in the 2019 Fifa Puskas Award for best goal.

Three months after their pursuit of football glory ended in disarray, the country the team was representing is still in the midst of the most volatile socio-political crisis it has experienced in over two generations. It’s outlines are: a fratricidal dirty war in the English-speaking regions, frequent Boko Haram attacks in its northernmost region, and heightened socio-political tension resulting from last year’s presidential elections. So, who knows what other burdens—besides facing a formidable opponent—this group of young women carried with them as they walked, heads up, into the sea of white adversity in Stade du Hainaut?

It is not far-fetched to suggest that the Indomitable Lionesses’ entire trajectory in this year’s Women’s World Cup competition was emblematic of the fight Cameroon’s political opposition has waged over the past three decades. Its crash almost mirrors the disarray Cameroon’s political parties found themselves in leading up to last year’s presidential elections. One might be tempted to blame the “re-election” of de facto life president, 85 year-old President Paul Biya, by “seventy-one percent of the electorate” on the opposition’s unwillingness to find common ground against the regime. One must consider how challenging it is to mobilize and organize within a system that was conceived to be unequivocally hostile towards alternative visions, dissidents, and political opponents.

The Lionesses’ unconvincing performances at the onset of the group stage, losing 1-0 to Canada and receiving a 3-0 trashing from Holland, was somewhat reminiscent of the initial setbacks the country’s dissident and progressive forces experienced during the mid- to late-1980s. Perhaps the cohesion, focus, and tenacity exhibited during the New Zealand game embodied the early- to mid-1990s when their efforts forced the regime of Paul Biya to liberalize the media, political, and social landscape, and in the process almost toppling it in the 1992 presidential elections. The opposition coalition’s inability to topple the regime during what is commonly referred to as les années de braise provided the latter with enough time to regroup, which in turn enabled it to co-opt, disempower, and disrupt the former. The fragmented social and political landscape that emerged in the aftermath of the government’s offensive, not only hampered its chances of contesting last year’s consequential presidential elections, but also revealed its limits.

Just like Cameroon’s opposition has found it difficult to reignite the mass movement that drove it during the early nineteen-nineties, the lionesses never recovered from the back pass that led to the goal that disrupted their focus and revealed their vulnerabilities, meanwhile providing fodder for the likes of Neville to pontificate. Yet, had England’s coach not spoken as forcefully as he did, one wouldn’t be privy to the off-field antics within the delegation that accompanied the team. Antics which highlighted the depth of dysfunction that stifled the team’s potential to flourish.

“We’ve seen Cameroon people fighting in the VIP area. We’ve seen Cameroon people fighting in our hotel. I’d say to the Cameroon people ‘get your ship in order.’ I don’t want to talk about what happened at the hotel,” Neville said

Neville might have seen more than he bargained for, but rather than exhibit a tight-lipped reticence, instead he invoked the image of a “ship” to surmise that the Cameroon people didn’t have their vessel in order. But had the England coach seen the proverbial ship’s blueprint, he would have seen that the ship in question wasn’t built to sail, it was merely an artifice left to the whims of fate.

The tone-deafness displayed by the England coach, albeit subtler, echoed now-UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s 2002 Spectator article titled “Africa is a mess, but we can’t blame colonialism,” in which the current British Prime Minister trumpets the virtues and benevolence of imperial England in its African colonies. Then again, perhaps it is asking too much of Neville, an Englishman, to engage his country’s archives, where he’ll find ample snapshots of the host nation, France, and his native England’s handprints splayed prominently in the ship’s foremast. He might just learn that the flames engulfing the ship today were stoked by architects of yore, who did not have the interests of its occupants in mind, in distant places like Berlin, Versailles, and New York where the fumes from the harbor dare not venture.

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