Off-field troubles conquer Indomitable Lions

June 25, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- The game was over, a rout, Brazil over Cameroon, 3-0. The tens of thousands of Brazilian fans who had filled Stanford Stadium were celebrating as they headed for their cars in the late-afternoon sunshine, relentlessly beating their samba drums.

Underneath the stands, where reporters and players and coaches and interpreters were hashing it all out in Portuguese and French and English and Spanish, the Cameroon players were painting a portrait of sporting despair.

"It is a sad story," said Samuel Ndibe, a reserve defender. "With all of the things going on, it is hard for the players to concentrate on playing the game."

Four years ago in Italy, Cameroon was the revelation of the World Cup, sending jolt after jolt through an otherwise lackluster event with attacking play and surprising wins. England needed a late goal in a fast break-filled quarterfinal to eliminate the Indomitable Lions, as they are nicknamed.

Their success was a seminal moment for African soccer. Suddenly, it was for real, a legitimate threat to the Europeans and South Americans who had long dominated the game. All of Africa rejoiced at their success.

Four years later, Nigeria has the best team in Africa, one so talented it is considered a threat to win the Cup. The Indomitable Lions? They're reduced to standing around talking about the money they're owed and the possibility of a player strike and all sorts of other folderol.

"The players are not OK in the mind," defender Stephen Tataw said after yesterday's loss.

It is no wonder. American coaches and athletes talk constantly about overcoming adversity, but their version usually is an outfielder going into drug rehab, NCAA sanctions (for crimes they committed) or a wiseacre newspaper column. They should compare notes with the Indomitable Lions. They wouldn't complain so much.

The Lions would be fine if only their national soccer federation wasn't broke, if only they were paid occasionally, if only the lights and water hadn't been cut off at their training facility, if only the bigwigs in their federation weren't telling the coach whom to play.

"Sometimes you get dizzy thinking of all the things," Ndibe said. "The players have a great spirit. We are accustomed to problems, living in Cameroon. But it is a hard time for the team."

The Lions' success merited a $500,000 check for their federation four years ago from FIFA, soccer's worldwide governing body, but where the money went is a mystery. The team's training was interrupted by the loss of lights and water, bills that the federation pays. Some players say they haven't been paid for national team play in months. FIFA, smelling corruption, threatened to ban the Lions from the Cup, but nothing came of it.

"We have received no money since we began preparing for the World Cup," defender David Embe said.

Despite all of the problems, the Lions still qualified for the Cup. Two hours before their opening match against Sweden last weekend, they were on the phone with officials of their federation, talking about how they would get paid. They hung up, went out and tied Sweden, 2-2.

Earlier this week, the French-speaking players on the team voted not to play against Brazil unless they were paid. The English-speaking players overruled them. One day, starting goalie Joseph-Antoine Bell said a strike was possible. The next day, Tataw said that was bunk. Obviously, the team was in disarray.

Ndibe said yesterday that a government official had come to the players and told them some money was coming. In other words, the check was in the mail. It hadn't arrived by game time.

Yesterday, the coach, a Frenchman named Henri Michel, decided in the morning to bench Bell under pressure from federation officials, according to Ndibe. But the players met before leaving for the stadium, went to Michel and told him they wanted Bell to play. Michel relented, went against the federation's wishes and played Bell.

The mini-revolt hade no difference. The Lions were lifeless from the first kick, bearing little resemblance to the joyful team of four years ago. They never threatened to score. Brazil sank to their level for a while, but eventually scored in the 39th, 65th and 72nd minutes.

Afterward, the Cameroon players wandered out of their locker room to talk to reporters, their moods ranging from angry to frank to melancholy. None was happy.

"Our money problems have not gone away," Tataw said.

They need to beat Russia in their final round-robin game to avoid elimination, and even that may not be enough if several other teams in other groups also win.

"The people at home will be disappointed," Ndibe said, "but it wouldn't be a disaster. They know soccer. They know our problems."

L He smiled, then showed why the Lions are indeed indomitable.

"We have not given up," he said. "We can still qualify [for the second round] with a good game against Russia. The money doesn't matter to us right now. We are playing for our country."

And if they lose?

"Why," he said, "we will cheer for Nigeria, of course."

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