Cameroon’s enigmatic manager Rigobert Song is no stranger to a World Cup finals. His country’s record-caps holder, he played at four World Cups from 1994-2010 and shares a feat with Zinedine Zidane of being the only players to be sent-off in two different World Cups. With that tournament know-how, perhaps Song’s stubbornness came to the fore in a decision which will likely define his country’s time in Qatar. That is, whatever’s left of it.
Star goalkeeper Andre Onana’s removal from the Cameroon squad prior to their second match against Serbia on Monday was a stunning piece of news. Not just dropped from the starting XI but nowhere to be seen on the bench, the Inter Milan shot-stopper did not appear on the list of substitutes and has reportedly been sent home.
The fallout stems over a disagreement regarding playing style. Onana – educated in the Barcelona and subsequently Ajax school of goalkeeping – is well-versed in the modern form of composed, on-the-deck passing out from the back. Yet Song provoked a shouting match when he insisted Onana was taking too many risks with his feet. An argument brewed, and despite apparent attempts in mediation from Cameroon legend and Football Federation president Samuel Eto’o, the 26-year-old has left the national team setup in Qatar.
For the keeper himself, it is something of a peculiar hill to die on. Having missed nine months of football last year for failing a drugs test, representing his country at a World Cup for the first time should be one of the highlights of his young career. He performed admirably against Switzerland in Cameroon’s 1-0 opening defeat and is undoubtedly one of the stars – if not the star – of this Cameroonian generation of footballers.
But for Song ahead of a must-win clash against Serbia in Group G – would the decision be justified? The proof would be in the pudding.
In stepped Devis Epassy of Saudi Pro League club Abha. The 29-year-old was making only his sixth appearance for his country and his first at a World Cup in a match Cameroon really had to win – and dare not lose.
With pressure at its peak, Epassy did not have a day to forget. Nor was there any clangers in between the sticks. Yet in a tournament and game of fine margins, Cameroon did miss Onana not for his ability with his feet but - who’d have thought it - his hands.
Unable to do anything about his defence’s dismal defending for Serbia’s equaliser in first-half stoppage-time, Epassy was left floundering at Serbia’s second. Stretching low to his left in a desperate attempt to get across to Sergej Milinkovic-Savic’s effort on goal, the backup keeper could not get there, only managing a tame touch as the ball rolled into the bottom-corner.
It meant Cameroon, from a point of strength, were suddenly behind at the break and although they recovered from a two-goal deficit to salvage a point – with Epassy standing firm late on in the face of an Aleksandar Mitrovic strike on goal – it in all probability won’t be enough, having registered just one point from two games.
More than the technical gap in quality of the goalkeepers though, Song’s fallout with Onana points to a history of tournament bust-ups which never ends well. Think France in South Africa 12 years ago. There is no bigger self-defeating point of contention than disharmony in camp and, now needing the most unlikely of victories against Brazil and other results to go their way to qualify, it’s safe to assume that Song and his team won’t be far behind Onana on the way home.