Chaos. Two teams historically wedded to chaos. A Serbia team in chaos because of injury. A Cameroon team plunged into chaos by the expulsion of the Internazionale goalkeeper André Onana. The result, inevitably, was a match of high chaos. But what chaos! It was chaos that yielded drama, remarkable goals, an implausible fightback, a truly exceptional finish that will be remembered long after the match is forgotten and, in the end, a thrilling draw that didn’t really suit either side.
Nothing that happened at Al Janoub on Monday was without complication, not the traffic, not the security and certainly not the buildup. In an echo of the golden age of the Indomitable Lions, Onana was kicked out of the Cameroon squad on the morning of the game, seemingly because he objected to the coach Rigobert Song’s instruction that he should stop passing out from the back; in Cameroon’s opener, a 1-0 defeat by Switzerland, Onana had recorded more touches outside the box than any other keeper in World Cup history.
“The goalkeeping position is a very important one and he is an important player as well,” said Song, “but you know that we are in a difficult tournament and I know what I have to do and that is to ensure that the team takes precedence over any individual. André wanted to step out and we accepted that. We had [Devis] Epassy in goal today and he showed that he is also a very competent goalkeeper and a rival to André.”
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Later, though Song made it clear that this was not a case of Onana going voluntarily. “In a squad you need to see discipline,” he said. “If you can’t fit in with that discipline, with what’s required to be part of a squad, then I do think that you need to accept responsibility because the squad is more important than the interests of any individual. For the time being we have to deal with the players who do want to be part of the squad and are proud to pull on the shirt. I am like a father to these boys and I am responsible.”
Cameroon is all too familiar with this sort of issue. On the opening day of Italia 90, Joseph-Antoine Bell was dropped as punishment for an indiscreet interview – so late that the wife of his replacement Thomas N’Kono, having gone shopping in Milan rather than watch her husband sit on the bench, discovered only that evening he had played in Cameroon’s greatest victory. Then in 1994, at Song’s first World Cup, there were so many goalkeeping bust-ups that N’Kono, Bell and the third choice, Jacques Songo’o, played a game each in the group stage.
Yet before all the chaos this had begun all the hallmarks of a classic Serbian collapse. Having begun well, Aleksandr Mitrovic hitting the post and flashing another shot just wide, they fell behind after 29 minutes, Jean-Charles Castelletto touching in Nicolas N’Koulou’s near-post flick-on. But two goals in first-half injury-time, the first a powerful header from Strahinja Pavlovic, the second a shot from the edge of the box by Sergej Milinkovic-Savic that scuttled over Epassy’s hand, turned the game Serbia’s way, and when Mitrovic, having missed another chance, got his goal, it seemed there may be some truth to the claims that, under Dragan Stojkovic, this is a new, mentally resilient Serbia.
It is not. Song had been reluctant to deploy two strikers but the arrival of Vincent Aboubakar, top scorer at the Cup of Nations this year, to partner Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, turned the game again. “We realised that they were very tall but tiring,” Aboubakar said. “When I came on to the pitch I tried to make the runs off the last defender and they found it hard to follow me.”
First he ran on to Castelletto’s ball over the top and beat Vanja Milinkovic-Savic, the 6ft 9in Serbia keeper, with an audacious scooped finish, a moment of remarkable skill that recalled Karel Poborsky’s goal against Portugal at Euro 96. Then, leading another counter down the right, Aboubakar squared for Choupo-Moting to equalise.
Stojkovic, having lamented the injuries, most notably to Dusan Vlahovic and Mirko Jovic, that have disrupted his preparation, blamed “two huge mistakes” for letting the lead slip. “It is very dangerous to push high when the opponent has the ball,” he said. “Completely unnecessary.”
Song, meanwhile, suggested that expelling Onana had concentrated minds and galvanised his squad, providing the impetus for a comeback that ended a run of eight straight defeats at World Cups. There was much talk of a draw that felt like a victory, but the truth is that a draw makes it hard for either side to make it through, however optimistically Stojkovic spoke of beating Switzerland in Serbia’s final game.
Glorious chaos, in the end, is still chaos.