It might come as something of a surprise to the occasional followers of African football that Cameroon compete in the semifinal of the African Nations Cup this Thursday for the first time in nine years.
Their frequent World Cup trips might suggest they are a much more dominant force on the continent. Indeed, the Indomitable Lions are often held up as the pinup boys of the African game.
But despite qualifying for both South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014, the truth is the lion’s roar has not been much more than meow over the last decade.
Make no mistake, they remain consistent in their ability to qualify but few have held them up as the team to beat at any of the last five African Nations Cup tournaments.
It is fair to say their progress to Thursday’s semifinal against Ghana has been a surprise and there was an element of fortune about eliminating hot favourites Senegal in the quarterfinal on Saturday.
But although largely on the back foot in the match in Franceville, Cameroon held firm and created their own chances and then clinically slotted home five penalties in the shootout to advance.
Cameroon have been fighting their way out of their corner from before the tournament in Gabon kicked off, rocked by the revelation that seven players — including Joel Matip and Allan Nyom — had turned down call-ups and then hit even further when striker Eric Maxime Choupo Moting also pulled out the day before preparations were set to begin.
But coach Hugo Broos is nothing if not pragmatic. He has been cleaning house since the day he took on the job some 12 months ago, reinventing his team with each passing game.
“I felt there were players coming to Cameroon who felt they had to because the coach called them up. They didn’t come with their hearts, they didn’t come to play for their country,” he tells ESPN FC.
He has dropped many stalwarts and gambled on untested youngsters. Even in Gabon, nominal starters like captain Nicholas Nkoulou (Lyon), Vincent Aboubakar (Besiktas) and Clinton Njie (Marseille, on loan from Tottenham) have been banished to the bench as Broos has gone with more determined youngsters.
To the suggestion he has brought an unusual boldness to the Africa game, the Belgian adds: “But you have to be pragmatic if you are going to build a team for the future.”
Cameroon will find it hard to get to the 2018 World Cup but still have a chance if they can win against Nigeria in their next two qualifiers in August and September.
More realistically, they are building towards hosting the 2019 African Nations Cup. That process has been moved along much quicker than anticipated at the 2017 finals and on Thursday, Cameroon find themselves with a chance to go through to Sunday’s decider.
Again, they have little to lose after already exceeding expectations with what was described at the start of the tournament as a “B-team”. It no longer is.
Ghana will be the fancied team for the semifinal in Franceville but wary of an Indomitable Lion whose mane is looking far more coiffured and whose roar is taking on a more menacing tone.