The President’s Footballers

Star players in Cameroon's national soccer team have always doubled as PR pawns for the protracted rule of the country's aging and hard-line head of state.

Samuel Eto'o taking a penalty during a match for Cameroon in 2010. Image credit Jason Bagley via Flickr.

Earlier this year, French language pan-African monthly Jeune Afrique published an April Fool’s joke in the form of an imaginary interview with Samuel Eto’o entitled “Why I am contesting Cameroon’s presidential elections,” in which the striker claimed of dreaming of Cameroon’s Etoudi presidential palace like Caesar dreamed of Rome.

In what turned out to be a parody, the veteran striker imagined himself in the third person: “Samuel Eto’o can be the striker or provide assists to the striker. Samuel Eto’o can play both left and right wings. When I was with Inter Milan and we played Bayern Munich in the Champions League finals I played arrière lateral and we won. So I don’t see why I can’t be president of my country.”

Despite a preemptive disclaimer meant to underscore the interview’s mimicry, hours after it was published, Eto’o released a terse droit de réponse in which he castigated the authors for their bad humor, but also for its ill-timing, which undermines Cameroon’s political discourse during a presidential election year.

Like any Cameroonian familiar with the Paul Biya regime, Eto’o knows that expressing presidential ambitions—context notwithstanding—is no laughing matter, and if the authors thought they could make a joke (and go viral) at the expense of the highest office in Cameroon, the striker made it known that he wasn’t laughing along, but regarded the joke as an attempt to tarnish his reputation during a sensitive time in his country’s history.

In his response to the publication, Eto’o argued

as a Cameroonian who respects the institutions of his country and those who embody them, it is unquestionable that anyone will treat crucial issues like our supreme office and upcoming presidential elections in jest. Even more appalling is the authors’ insensitive attempt to ridicule the ‘Anglophone crisis,’ an issue that has caused both strife and grief in my home country.

In the parody, when the interviewer pressed the fictive striker on what steps his presidency will undertake to address the two-year old crisis that has gripped the English-speaking regions Cameroon, he invoked his brief spell with English Premier League club Chelsea as proof of his familiarity with the English mindset: “they [Anglophones] can be rough and edgy, but my trajectory has afforded me the ability to adapt to different circumstances. When one has played with John Terry, it will take more than a handful of secessionists to scare me.”

Two months after Eto’o’s indignant response to Jeune Afrique and French news channel, France 24, which had broadcast the parody interview as part of April Fool’s Day, it was reported in Cameroon that Eto’o had been summoned by the country’s authorities to embark on a goodwill trip to secondary schools in the Anglophone regions, which have been the targets of arson attacks by secessionist fighters. As of June 2018, Amnesty International reports that at least 42 schools have been torched in the affected areas since the fighting began.

“We cannot build Cameroon if we do not have peace,” Eto’o said.

Notwithstanding the striker’s intentions, the response from Anglophone Cameroonians on social medial platforms and WhatsApp forums ranged from casual indifference to outright hostility. Some critics hurled outrage at the striker after reports and images of his meeting with Minister of Secondary Education, Dr. Pauline Nalova Lyonga, a native of the English speaking South West region and prominent figure in President Paul Biya’s ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM), about the planned tour, which they argued was, at best insensitive and at worst an underhanded endorsement of the regime’s scorched earth approach to the crisis. Meanwhile, those on the radical fringe, who viewed the planned visit as an act of provocation, all but called for bodily harm against the striker as a way to bring attention to their plight.

In the end, Eto’o did not make the trip across the Mungo River to the English-speaking regions, yet it is difficult to discern whether his decision was a result of better judgement on his part, or in response to the threats of violence against his person. Nonetheless, beyond the symbolism of goodwill and photo-ops it might have elicited, it is unlikely his peace mission would have had any significant impact on the Anglophone crisis given the complexity of its causes, and the trauma of the past two years.

When one considers the affinity Eto’o has shown for the ruling family over the years it is easy to see why his peace mission engendered allegations from segments of the critical mass—Francophones and Anglophones—that he was merely a pawn in a self-serving PR stunt by a cynical regime. They recall how leading up to the last presidential elections in 2011, the striker was among local celebrity guests at the presidential residence in Mvomeka’a dancing alongside the presidential couple.

But politics aside, it is difficult to contest that the bulk of really good strikers will have to reincarnate themselves several times to accomplish a fraction of what Eto’o has accomplished in one lifetime. At this point, Eto’o’s legend has assumed mythological status in both the African football cannon and beyond. A generation of strikers is coming of age with his image adorning their walls. In the New Bell neighborhood of his hometown of Douala, the grounds where he played have acquired landmark status on slum tours.

This distinction is deserving of someone who has been named CAF African player of the year more than any other player in the category’s history; a player who at the age of 19 was part of the Cameroon squad that won gold at the 2000 Olympic Tournament in Sydney, Australia. Though his descent in recent years from European football club royalty to second tier leagues is ill-fitting of an otherwise glorious legend, Eto’o can always brag that before his 30th birthday, he was the first player to ever win two European trebles during spells with Barcelona and Inter-Milan.

In 2014 Eto’o retired from international football after an ill-fated tenure as captain of the indomitable lions of Cameroon, but his likeness still graces massive billboards on the streets of cities like Douala and Yaoundé where his brand remains unblemished, and still possesses the kind capital relished by apparatchiks of the Paul Biya regime.

Thus, it would be a mistake to assume that the striker’s failure to accomplish his peace mission was a result of a fading appeal rather than Cameroonian authorities’ continued unwillingness to address the root causes of the crisis. The spectacle of the striker’s “mission unaccomplished” follows a pattern of denial that the authorities have often employed to placate against its political shortcomings.

In his 36th year at the helm, 85-year-old President Biya announced in October his candidacy for another seven-year term. Given the deteriorating security situation in the English speaking regions, the war against Boko Haram in the northern regions, and the country’s hosting duties for next year’s African Cup of Nations tournament slated for March, it is not surprising that Eto’o would distance himself from any attempt—whether done in jest—to insert him in the midst of his country’s unravelling tragedy.

Football stars have not been spared being deployed as bait by Cameroonian authorities in their populist charm offenses. Therefore it is no mystery why legendary striker, Roger Milla, who serves as a roving goodwill ambassador, has never been shy about his unrelenting support of the political status quo.

But perhaps most illuminating is the story of Joseph Antoine Bell, the former Marseille goalkeeper. In the late 1980s, while Bell was solidifying his position as Cameroon’s leading goalkeeper, he also established himself as a reliable straight-talker unafraid to confront the federation hierarchy, which never seemed short of excuses when it came to organization and bonuses. He also became a critic of Cameroon’s political class, who did double duty at the country’s football federation. His reputation for candor not only made him a regular and fan-favorite of sports page headlines, but also a splinter in the soles of football authorities; which in itself was a difficult balancing act to sustain in a country where politics and sports often intersect at the nexus of backdoor power deals.

This all came to a head in 1990, leading up to Cameroon’s historic run at the Italy hosted world cup, when during an interview with France Football, Bell criticized the team’s preparedness for the competition while predicting their annihilation by cup holders Argentina, and their other rivals. His frankness was too untimely and defeatist for a team that did not have a shortage of alternatives. Five hours before the opening match against the Diego Maradona led team, the equally competent Thomas N’kono, then playing in goal in La Liga for Espanol, was announced as Bell’s replacement.

Upon his retirement and return to Cameroon, Bell joined the ranks of Biya’s ruling CPDM, which he justified in these terms; “whether Cameroonians belong to the CPDM or not, unfortunately, so far we have proven that they are somewhat incapable of managing their own affairs.”

These days, even though he is preoccupied with his role as traditional ruler of his ancestral village of Mouandé, age doesn’t seem to have stifled his flippancy. Last year, not only was the 63-year-old nominated to world football controlling body FIFA’s Dispute Resolution Chamber for a four-year term, he has taken a forceful role in defending Cameroon’s preparedness for next year’s African Nations Cup tournament.

Decrying the pessimism of Cameroonians about next year’s competition in a recent interview, the former keeper said, “Cameroon is the only country I know which has agreed to host the CAN against the doubts of its own citizens. I have never seen that anywhere.”

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