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TRACKING THE INDOMITABLE LIONS!

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EXCITED: Batswana waiting for the game

A 20-year long distance love consummated in Bloemfontein
In his diary, Member of Parliament for Gaborone West-South, Botsalo Ntuane, a supporter of the Cameroon football team waxes  nostalgic and takes us on a journey of  mixed emotions  as he sets on  the road to Bloemfontein, tracking  the Indomitable Lions and  seeking  closure on his feud with Pierre Wome.  This is a journey that began 20 years ago.

Ncojane- June 8, 1990
My new friend Kaelo and I are glued to our small transistor radio trying to catch the BBC World Service commentary, cackling with static, all the way from Milan.  The commentator is barely audible.  But so far so good, Cameroon is keeping the mighty Argentina at bay. Maradona is under lock and key.  Following the action, it is evident that the Cameroon defence is uncompromising.   Then the unthinkable happens in the 67th minute.  The commentator goes crazy as Omam Biyick rises high above the defence, connects with a flick from Makanaky and scores.  Before the end of this historic encounter, Cameroon would play with nine men having had Kana Biyick and Benjamin Massing sent off for some overboard tackles. But they hold on   for a great   victory. The    shock is seismic proportions.
From that day on Cameroon wins over a new generation of football romanticists    who would follow the fortunes of the team for many years to come. I was one of those fans.  This was a team that played with swashbuckling panache and some robust defending at the back. National Service participants could only   leave their stations once a year to visit home. Back then Ncojane was a remote outback deep in the Kalahari.  It was a hardship station where tearaways   who didn’t always follow the rules at orientation were posted.  As you can imagine   there was no electricity that time. No one in Ncojane   owned a television set.  We killed free time at Mpapazi’s pub throwing darts.

Ncojane-June 9 1990
I have decided to go AWOL.  There are consequences for anyone who leaves their station without permission. I am determined to  go to Gaborone, where there is television and watch this amazing team that had just defeated Maradona and Argentina. Back then, for those travelling westwards the tarred road went only as far as Jwaneng. Kganane’s   bus ran once a week, and there was no guarantee of getting a seat. Most travelers relied on open government trucks   to get to ‘Botswana’.

Beginning of the love affair

AWOL, I chilled in Gaborone watching the exploits of Roger Milla, Cyril Makanaky, Stephen Tataw, Thomas Nkono, Emmanuel Kunde and the Biyick brothers among a stellar cast of stars. Collectively known as the Indomitable Lions they played with skill and unbridled joy.  The goal celebrations were equally exuberant.  Names, exotic and unknown in these parts like Bertin Ebwelle, Jules Onana, Emile Mbouh Mbouh and Jean Claude Pagal evoked images of fantasy football. However by the time of the quarterfinal tie against England I was back in Ncojane and followed the game on BBC.  We lost a game we should have easily won. For a few fleeting moments when Eugene Ekeke put us 2-1 ahead, we thought we were in the semi finals.  We were glorious in defeat. My love affair with the Indomitable Lions had begun.

13 June 2010
Twenty years on since Italia ‘90, the time has come to consummate my love affair with the Indomitable Lions. The relationship has gone through its trials and tribulations.  There have been bouts of rejection and anger, but   the Indomitable Lions and me have always patched up things and reconciled.  Recalling the unsavoury episodes of the love affair, I am reminded of USA  ‘94, which was a disastrous campaign.  We suffered the ignominy of a 6-1 drubbing at the hands, or rather feet of a mediocre Russia team.   There was no vibe in the team.  USA ‘94 was a signal to disband the Italia ‘90 squad and get in a fresh crop of youngsters.  The only   notable thing about the campaign was when 19-year old Rigobert Song received his marching orders in the 3-0 defeats to Brazil.  The headline in one newspaper screamed’ SONG OUT OF TUNE’! The Indomitable Lions were indeed out of tune

Makin peace with Pierre Wome before kickoff

Roaring again
But by 1998 the Indomitable Lions were roaring once again, having qualified for France. Two years later we defeat Nigeria in Lagos to win AFCON. Upfront the likes of Joseph Desire Job play with swagger and   arrogance. At the back in true fashion there is steel in the form   Raymond Kalla. We are enjoying a purple patch.  When I first saw Samuel Eto’o I told everyone within earshot that the boy was destined for stardom. He had this intense hunger and passion coursing through him.  Aged   17 he played like a coiled spring just waiting to be sprung.

Disaster
Ahead of Japan-Korea 2002 we won AFCON hosted by Mali. But what a World Cup campaign disaster it was. Looking back I think the team was overly confident and cocky. They saw themselves as world-beaters long before the first ball was kicked in anger.   Our traditional kit suppliers Puma, intoxicated by the optimism had even come up with a snazzy outfit that was more at home on a modeling ramp. We bombed out in the first round.

Pierre Wome
For the Germany 2006 qualifiers   the Indomitable Lions were pitted in a tough group that included an emerging force, Ivory Coast.  We led by the Elephants by one point and a win was enough even if they defeated Sudan. How could we lose in Yaoundé? By the time we met Egypt on 8 October 2005 the festivities were in full swing. In a dramatic match, we were tied at a goal apiece going into stoppage time. Then Salomon Olembe took possession. Wiggling and wriggling in the area he was upended and the Lions were thrown a lifeline when the referee pointed to the spot. With the clock showing 95 minutes, up stepped defender Pierre Wome. Calm and collected he was about to send us to Germany.  In a surreal moment that I vividly recall, Wome’s shot cannoned off the post and the dream was over. Wome’s miss would have repercussions. His family home was placed under police protection. He received death threats.  Wome would later state that no one had wanted to take the penalty, not Eto’o, nor team captain Rigobert Song. We were plunged into mourning.  But not everyone was distraught. The clergy expressed joy over the defeat because on the grounds that over the years Cameroonians had transferred the honour meant for God to the Indomitable Lions.

Journey to Bloemfontein – 13th June 2010
In the CD shuttle Bob Dylan is wailing The Times They Are Changing as we leave GC.  I am tracking the Indomitable Lions. I am also on a pilgrimage of reconciliation with Pierre Wome, much maligned and vilified since that penalty miss. In our party of five is Kaelo, my friend from that BBC broadcast back in Ncojane. But he has not caught the Cameroon bug. He is avidly La Furia Roja, officially known as Spain.  Our driver is Ben Raletsatsi and he is rooting for the Yanks. Finidi Kebalefetse is with Brazil. Surprise, surprise Ntoo Chilume   is also a follower of the pride of Indomitable Lions.
The N18 from Mafeking is a road I have travelled before to a jazz festival in Kimberly.  I am filled with fond memories and in such melancholic moments I dream about my ultimate road trip; a drive across Africa. Thinking aloud I find that Ben Raletsatsi shares the dream. Just before we hit Vryburg,  agreement has been reached that  next year we  are embarking on the mother of all expeditions to  Mali for the famous  Le Festival Au Desert. In Vryburg, just like real tourists we pose for  snaps against  a  signpost  in the main town square. We are  in World Cup mood and anything goes. This includes  gorging ourselves on junk food.

TRAVELLING GROUP: Kaelo Radira, Ben Raletsatsi and Finidi Kebaletetse minus Ntoo Chilume who had vanished

Manhattan Tavern – 18:37 hours
We pull up at Manhattan’s Tavern  in  a little dorp called Boshoff.  In the pub a bunch of loafers are shooting pool  to the soundtrack of  a  girl  on the fuzzy television  singing the classic ‘Hamba Notsokolo’. There is still some way to go before  reaching Bloem. We arrive at our destination just after  20:00hrs and have to call our hosts  because  we can’t find  our way to  the Tree House lodge. Our address for the  next two days  is  a quaint place  run by  Christo  and  Tienie Britz.  They are  locals and   perfect hosts.  The  rooms are large and  clean. The  man  makes small talk as  we  offload  our luggage. Clearly, and despite his best efforts  he is  not a football  man. Most likely  he  is  a fan of  the Free State Cheetahs  rugby team.  He and his wife appear contented  with the new South Africa. Not for them the chicken run  to Perth.

Tracking the Lions – 21:50
Settled in, and swathed  in warm  clothing we set off  to track the Lions. But where to start?
Courtesy of GPS, we pick out the President Hotel on Union Avenue. There they tell us they are not hosting any team. The only important people in residence are a group of FIFA officials. Immediately I wonder which of Sepp Blatter’s flunkies could be enjoying an all expenses trip to the World Cup. I am currently reading Andrew Jennings expose of the large-scale  corruption  in the body that controls world football. I almost  ask the  duty manager if Jack Warner of Trinidad,  the chief enforcer  of  the  Blatter faction  is in residence. My  better judgment  reminds me  that  I am not  Mr Jennings who  earns  his living  exposing the crooks  in FIFA.

Protea Hotel
We are losing the spoor.  Next stop is Central Protea hotel.  Our enquiries are met with bemusement. The ladies on duty  say  they  have not   accommodated any  Indomitable Lions. But even if they did they wouldn’t tell us.  Whilst trying  a charm  offensive to  extract  more information, an Oriental  looking man  walks into  the lobby.   We  chat  and he  tells   us   he is  from  the Ogura Jiji Press  in Tokyo  and  is following the Japan team.  He  doesn’t   know   where the Lions stay either . But  he certainly  knows  where  the Blue Samurai are bivouacked.
To the Lions Den
We pick up the spoor  and  head to  the public viewing area in Hofmyer Square. It is a grand location with  statues of mounted Boer  generals  from  time  yonder.  I am mildly  surprised. I thought  after liberation,  as is  the case with all  revolutions, the masses would  topple  the statues of the old  order  in a triumphant  gesture.  There  is a large  police presence here. It seems  the police are everywhere in Mzansi.
Bloemfontein is bitterly cold. We  chat to  the  friendly  police  and  they  direct us to their squad leader.  Without  any problems he informs  us the Lions  are  camped at Bloem Spa,  some 10 kilometers in the city outskirts. Graciously he offers that since  a squad car  is going the same direction, we could follow  them.
Having deposited  us  the entrance of Bloem Spa the cops  cheerily wave  and drive off. Security is  tight. The  camp is set  against  a hill in a sprawling complex. Constable Taole  confirms that  this is indeed the  den of the Indomitable Lions. But  they  are quarantined for the night and in any case  without accreditation we are persona non grata. He however throws us a morsel  and  says in the morning we can  check out the pride   in training  at  Central University  of Technology.

Monday, 14 June 2010
By the time we get up, 7 am is long past.  The hosts  inform us breakfast will be ready at  9am. But where is  the training  ground? We decide to head straight to the  den at Bloem Spa. At the entrance we encounter the  ring of security. They tell us,  in very friendly tones for that matter that the Indomitable Lions went  training at 5am  and  are now  back  in camp. Same story as last night. We cannot  go in because  we don’t have accreditation. Our plea  that  we have  driven  hundreds of  kilometres  from Botswana falls on  very friendly, but deaf ears. After some banter  we return for breakfast. We must  be at the stadium two hours before kick off.
Smoking the peace pipe
I am here to make my peace with Pierre Wome, the penalty  taker with whom I have had  beef since 8 October 2005. In between I  have had my epiphany. We were too harsh on Wome. His life has never been the same since  that fateful evening. As I followed  the march of the Indomitable Lions to South Africa I  held out the faint hope that  Pierre Wome would  return to the squad  in a final act of reconciliation. In town, I buy my green  replica  shirt, complete with  the crest  of the  roaring  king of the  jungle on the breast. I leave the  shop   resplendent  in my  green  jersey,  printed in  gold the number 3 and Pierre Wome in full. For today  I am Pierre Wome, the player we  hounded  into international  retirement.

13:50 hrs
At the stadium the vuvuzela is  blasting away and  as only a big football match can do, everyone  is heady with anticipation of the action ahead. A full two hours before kick off we  go through the security checkpoint and  finally  enter  the Free State  stadium for  my first  live  match of the World Cup, and  of course my first sighting of the kings of the jungle. There isn’t much pre-match entertainment except for the  Budweiser selling points doing a roaring trade.  I draw many quizzical looks from  people draped in Cameroon colours. Those with printed jerseys  are wearing  the latest   star names. Alone, among them I  am wearing  yesterday’s forgotten man, Pierre Wome.   I walk around, soaking  the atmosphere and the  puzzled  stares. Nobody   ventures   why I am wearing  Pierre Wome’s number 3.

Swapping Nakawaza and Wome with Japanese fan after the game

Pussy Cats
The  game is a damp squib. I cannot  understand the  starting eleven. Just a group of disjointed new comers  with no clue what they are doing.   This is team of pussycats. The Blue Samurai  grabs a one nil  lead and  hold  on  to the end.  Even the great Eto’o fails to  rise to the occasion.

Wome and Nakazawa
As we  make  our way out of the arena a Japanese couple approach us and  offer to swap shirts. I gladly oblige  and the lady gives me Yuji Nakazawa number 22 in exchange  for  Pierre Wome number 3. I have made my peace with Pierre Wome.  And his name  will soon be walking   the streets of Tokyo.

Rogersauraus Milla!
In  his multiple award-winning  book on African football, titled Feet of the Chameleon, Ian Hawkey recalls how President Biya  of Cameroon  would issue a decree  to summon Roger Milla  out of retirement  whenever the Indomitable Lions  qualified for  the World Cup. This happened   both in 1990 and 1994. Biya’s attitude was that if Milla  was  alive and breathing then  he must play. Such  was the dreary display against Japan I  wished Monsieur Le Presidente   had issued another  decree. Who knows, against Japan the old dinosaur   would probably  have grabbed  us a precious  goal in  a final cameo appearance at the age  of 58!

POSTSCRIPT:
After losing to Japan,  the  Indomitable Lions slumped to a 2-1 defeat against Denmark. We  became the first team to be knocked out of the 2010 World Cup. In other words  we finished last. Truth  be told, in  our African record of  six appearances at  the  World Cup  we have   made it past  the first round on one solitary occasion. We still bask in the  glory of Italia ‘90. We promise so much and deliver so little in our flattery to deceive.  Except for  our four AFCON victories,  the Indomitable Lions   fall far  short of becoming kings of  world football.