Did Cameroon’s police really quiz national soccer team captain Samuel Eto’o and seize his passport in connection with a government investigation into the terrible performance of the Indomitable Lions at the World Cup? After brouhaha of claims and denials in recent days, the answer seems to be another question: who knows? But far less ambiguous are the raging frictions, bags of cash and political considerations that define the outlines of national soccer in Cameroon, and elsewhere in Africa for that matter.
The idea that the General Delegation for National Security (DGSN), a branch of the Cameroonian police, questioned Samuel Eto’o on June 27th and confiscated his passport does sound like a fitting Kafkaesque twist to the decision by Cameroon’s ruler of 32 years, Paul Biya, to order a government inquiry into the poor performance of the Indomitable Lions at the World Cup. The report first appeared on the front page of the June 30th edition of leading independent daily Le Jour before spreading to international news outlets and eventually social media. Eto’o’s lawyers immediately denied the allegations in a press release, criticizing Le Jour’s reporting as “the fruit of the fertile imagination” of political desk editor Jean-Bruno Tagne, the author of the article, “and his masterminds hidden in the shade.” In response, Tagne’s editor, Haman Mana, issued a press release of his own defending his journalist and standing by the reports: the information was crosschecked by four sources, he said. On July 3, Tagne appeared on leading independent station Spectrum TV as the guest of broadcast journalist Thierry Ngogang’s evening program “Entretien” (Interview). Tagne firmly defended his reporting and his integrity.
Thankfully, the discussion on the Eto’o sideshow was the shortest segment in the program. More interestingly, the program offered a TV moment for Tagne to very publicly hang the dirty laundry of Cameroonian national soccer out. Tagne is a respected authority on Cameroonian soccer based on his years of intimate access to the team. He covered the national team in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the African Nations Cup in Angola that same year and most recently the World Cup in Brazil. In 2010, he published a book about the Lions entitled Programmés Pour Échouer (“Programmed to Fail”).
Tagne spread his criticism evenly among every stakeholder in Cameroon national soccer: from the players’ egos to the Cameroon soccer federation’s interference with training schedules, to officials’ use of public funds to enjoy personal time at the World Cup, to the government’s failure to invest in stadium. “You cannot handle honey without licking your fingers,” he said, citing a local proverb to criticize the attitude of soccer federation officials tasked with distributing bags of cash payment to the players. He talked about the imposition of political considerations over training schedules, and the clashes of egos among the players tearing the team.
These practices will not surprise anyone familiar with the business of African soccer. After all, one of the iconic images of the World Cup remains that of Ghanaian defender John Boye kissing a stack of cash distributed to national team players. The players refused to play over unpaid bonuses. The Ghanaian government has defended the practice of airlifting cash to players and Ghana President John Mahama has also called for an investigation into the circumstances of the Black Stars dramatic elimination from the World Cup amid a pay dispute and infighting. What is remarkable is how these embarrassing patterns are becoming banal, with African teams more entertaining off the field than on the field at the World Cup.