FRANCEVILLE, Gabon, Feb 3 – A leftfield appointment 12 months ago, Belgian Hugo Broos has overcome numerous obstacles and transformed Cameroon into a team just one match away from winning the Africa Cup of Nations.
Before going to Gabon, Cameroon were dismissed as no-hopers, their squad arguably the weakest they had ever sent to a Cup of Nations.
But after coming through their group at the expense of the hosts and beating Senegal on penalties in the last eight, the Indomitable Lions beat Ghana 2-0 in Franceville on Thursday to set up a completely unexpected final date against Egypt on Sunday.
“This team came here and nobody believed in them. If you told someone before the tournament we would get to the final they would have laughed, but this for us was a big motivation,” said Broos on Thursday.
The 64-year-old Belgian has turned around the fortunes of a country that had been a disgrace at the 2014 World Cup and were knocked out of the 2015 Cup of Nations in the first round.
Those poor performances eventually led to the sacking of German Volker Finke, and Broos was named as his replacement in February last year.
A former Belgian international who had enjoyed much success as a coach in his homeland, Broos had then worked in Greece, Turkey, the Gulf and Algeria, but had never managed a national team.
Yet he applied for the vacancy when it was advertised by the Cameroonian federation, convinced that he met the numerous demands, including having an extensive list of honours won as a player or coach, not to mention a good knowledge of powerpoint.
Under his stewardship, the Indomitable Lions, for so long the leading force on the continent, have lost just once.
That defeat was a 3-2 friendly loss away to France last May, when Dimitri Payet scored the winner in the final minute.
His players are glowing in their praise of Broos, citing improved discipline and a feeling of squad unity that had not been there previously. He has even spoken out in their defence amid a row over bonus payments.
“I think he has brought a bit more discipline because before, I won’t say there was no discipline, but it is something he has really focused on. In football, if you have discipline everything else follows,” Edgar Salli told AFP.
The full-back Fai Collins added: “The coach has given us something extra, given the youngsters confidence to show what we can do.
“He talks about showing determination, about sticking together as a group because there were problems before but I think he has tried to overcome them.”
– ’23 friends’ –
The biggest problem for Broos was the raft of refusals from established players to accept call-ups for the Cup of Nations.
The list is a long one, but among the well-known names absent in Gabon are Schalke striker Eric Choupo-Moting, Liverpool defender Joel Matip and Allan Nyom of West Bromwich Albion.
A lack of experience was expected to hinder Cameroon, and Broos is eager to point out now that 14 of his squad had never previously been to the Cup of Nations.
Of the team that started against Ghana, only skipper Benjamin Moukandjo plays in one of Europe’s big five leagues. His club Lorient are bottom of France’s Ligue 1.
“Maybe you will be surprised but in 29 years as a coach I have never had a group like this. They are 23 friends. I have never seen this,” Broos said.
“They are just 23 friends who like to play football and do everything to win the game so for me it’s very easy.”
Meanwhile Broos insists that “the door is always open” for those who refused to come to Gabon.
But for now his focus is on Sunday’s final as Cameroon, with a likely huge support behind them given the number of Cameroonian expats in Gabon, look to win a fifth Cup of Nations and first since 2002.