For a country that ranks 153rd out of 180 countries in the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report, Cameroon tends to be the unknown country on the African continent. Its population isn’t wealthy by any means, but it’s not the poorest country on the continent either. The country is not in the news due to a civil war or a coup d’etat, but it’s not an African “success” story either. It’s just another western/central African country struggling to get by. That’s why le football is such a lifeline. It’s a way for this country to feel proud about itself and get its name out onto the world stage.
When Cameroon lost today 0 – 1 to Japan in the biggest upset yet in the World Cup, Cameroonians lost a little bit of hope and self-esteem as well. Le Football is the great equalizer. Anyone and everyone plays no matter their gender, religion, tribal affiliation, or poverty level.
Kids play with bare feet or flip flops on packed dirt fields. Mothers play in local villages and at half-time, nurse their children. Muslims, Christians and animists play together on the same team, with an entire village watching breathlessly on the sidelines. I’ve seen kids, who have barely eaten all day and who have one t-shirt to their name, quite happily dribble a wad of paper around an impromptu field.
Aside from these feel-good moments, the reality is that soccer is a way out for the best male players. They invariably leave Cameroon to make millions playing for European clubs – in fact, the highest paid soccer player in Italy isn’t Italian or German or Brazilian, it’s Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o. Yet, all Cameroonian players come home to play for their country’s team, Les Lions Indomptables.
After the loss today, I knew the country would be in a collective funk – no, more than a funk, a mourning. I tried to call some friends in Cameroon and due to the very fickle phone service, was only able to talk to one. She watched the game on a neighbor’s television (I suspect there are only a few hundred TVs in her village of 7,000 people). She explained the reaction after the loss with these sentences in French:
Nous sommes tous malades. We are all sick.
La ville est morte. The city is dead.
Les voitures ne marchent pas. Cars are broken down/aren’t on the road.
Nous sommes ensemble aux funérailles. We’re together at a funeral.
However, there’s always a dash of optimism in Cameroon. She then said:
Mais on va gagner la prochaine fois! But we’ll win the next time!