Hugo Broos landed the Cameroonian job against the odds, and went on to win the AFCON the same way, writes Pulse Sports' Fiifi Anaman
It was in February 2016, and a day earlier, the Belgian had been unveiled as the coach of African football powerhouse Cameroon, succeeding German Volke Finke, who had been sacked in October 2015.
The highly-expectant and unforgiving press and fans of the Indomitable Lions, then four-time African champions, had been hostile towards their new coach. And there was a reason: This was a coach who had been appointed despite not having been on the Cameroon FA (Fecafoot's) initial short list of five prospective men. This had been a surprise that many people didn't consider pleasant.
At the press conference, Broos tried to calm fears. He was an outsider, yes, but he was capable, and he wanted everyone to know. "I am not afraid to take this post," he said, confidently. "I will never accept intrusion in my job as a coach. I am the coach and I take the decisions."
Not a lot of people were convinced. Or impressed.
In an interview with World Soccer months later, Broos described the atmosphere of negativity at that conference as "unbelievable".
"I had never experienced that in my career," he said. "Everyone was negative! There was no confidence, there was nothing. I had to start from zero."
The coach had also landed the job despite having zero experience in national team coaching. A former defender who had assumed popularity at Club Brugge and Anderlecht during his playing days in the 70s and 80s, he had carved his coaching reputation across ten clubs in Belgium, Greece, Turkey, the UAE and Algeria after entering management in 1988.
And here he was, handed one of African football's most high profile roles as his first national team job. He was going to follow in the footsteps of his compatriot Henri Depireuz, the only other Belgian to coach the Cameroonian national team (1996-97).
"Everyone had told me that there is one thing that is important in Cameroon – and that’s football. The Indomitable Lions are really very important; more than I could ever imagine," Broos said.
"After the press conference I went with my assistant, who is also from Belgium (Sven Vandenbroeck), to the hotel. We said: “Wow! What are we going to do now?” I said immediately to my assistant: “Look, we will do what we think we have to do. If it turns for the worse, then maybe in three, four months we will already be home again, but if we can change the situation, then we can stay for the long run. So we worked and we worked and we worked."
The decision to start work and do it intensively proved to be a masterstroke on so many levels. According to Broos, a Cameroonian journalist came to his hotel the next day and saw him working on his laptop:
“What are you doing?” the journalist asked.
”I am working for the team,” Broos replied.
The journalist, intrigued and impressed, quickly took some pictures. The next morning, the sight had become news in the papers. The headline? "Broos is already working"
This - what Broos calls "maybe, the little detail" - helped people to see that this unknown and unloved manager wasn't such bad news after all; that he was up to something. "I had to change the perception about me," the coach said. "And I have succeeded I think."
It's been just over a year and a lot has changed: Broos is now certainly known. And loved. The 64-year-old led the Cameroonians to their fifth AFCON title in Gabon.
But this was a triumph that was not expected.
The coach's tenure had began right in the middle of qualification for the 2017 AFCON. His first two games were difficult - back to back draws against South Africa on Cameroon's third and fourth day, but a spirited performance against Euro 2016 hosts France in a friendly soon afterwards won him some praise.
"The friendly match against France - that was key," Broos told World Soccer. "I thought, well it is a friendly and it is not that important, but Cameroonians and the minister of sport really wanted to win. Everywhere I went I heard “we have to beat France”. It was important."
Cameroon, interestingly, didn't even win that friendly, played in front of 38,000 people in Nantes. After twice coming back from a goal, they conceded a 90th minute goal from Dmitry Payet to lose 3-2.
"We didn’t beat them," Broos admitted. "But everyone was delighted with the performance. That game was a boost of confidence. Afterwards the qualifiers for the African Cup of Nations became easier."
It did indeed become easy. Broos went on to win the last two AFCON 2017 qualifiers against Mauritania and Gambia to seal qualification.
Things were on the up. The team was progressing.
“If you’re asking me if my players are ready now to win the Cup of Nations, I would say that it’s too early still to talk about success," Broos told FIFAcom after qualification. "But if we continue to progress as we’ve done in the past couple of months, I think we’ll be ready to compete for the title in January.”
But this 'progress' would be cruelly halted on the eve of the tournament.
Broos was disappointed. "These players have put personal interest above those of the national team," he said in a emotional statement. "And the federation reserves the right to take action against the players in accordance with FIFA regulations."
Joel Matip (Liverpool, England)
Andre Onana (Ajax Amsterdam, Netherlands)
Guy Roland Ndy Assembe (Nancy, France)
Allan Nyom (West Bromwich Albion, England)
Maxime Poundje (Girondins Bordeaux, France)
Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa (Olympique Marseille, France)
Ibrahim Amadou (Lille, France)
Eric Maxime Choupo Moting (Schalke, Germany)
Later, his preparations experienced further setback when Schalke's highly rated Eric Maxime Choupo Moting also joined the boycott.
Broos had to deal with the risk of calling the bluff of these stars; the risk of having to rely on a less-fancied team that would significantly reduce Cameroon's chances of winning the AFCON for the first time since 2002; 15 years ago.
But Broos was up to the challenge. He reposed confidence in the most experienced squad members - Lorient's Benjamin Moukandjo, who he named captain amid some controversy, Lyon's Nicholas N'Koulou and Besiktas' Vincent Aboubakar - and surrounded them with youthful players lacking in adequate caps but brimming with energy and commitment: The likes of 21-year old goalie Fabrice Ondoa, a defence of Ambroise Onyongo, Michael Ngadeu, Adolphe Teikeu and Collins Fai (all under 26), and an attack led by 21-year-old Christian Bassogog, a hitherto relatively unknown talent who Broos brought to the fore, eventually being vindicated with an AFCON 2017 Man of the Tournament Award.
In the end, Broos had assembled a squad with an average age of 25 years. Just over half of them (12) were 25 or below, and only one - Belgium based Sébastien Siani - was 30. Indeed, it was a situation that helped his own objectives, as he had already expressed a desire to phase out the old Cameroonian generation by building a new one - earlier in his tenure, he had controversially sidelined the likes of Stephane Mbia and Carlos Kameni, both veterans known in Cameroon as 'Le Cadre' (the nucleus) of the team.
“I looked for new players in the domestic league and all across Europe," Broos explained in an interview with FIFAcom. "I set some internal rules and disciplinary guidelines. We changed their mentality – the players are now highly motivated and proud to represent their country. We now have a solid group that works and acts as a team, and that’s had a positive impact on our results.”
The gaffer clearly had confidence in his charges, but to the pundits, this group of players had automatically ejected Cameroon from the elite list of favourites.
But Broos and his crew begged to differ.
Though winning only once in the Group Stage - a 2-1 win over debutants Guinea Bissau on the second match day - they still managed to qualify ahead of hosts Gabon, against whom they drew 2-2, and alongside group leaders Burkina Faso, against whom they drew 1-1.
It was in the quarter final against tournament favourites Senegal that gave everyone the indication that Broos and his men had it in them to go all the way; they played out a hard-fought 0-0 draw, impressively keeping out the likes of Sadeo Mane, Keita Balde and the Mame Biram Diouf over 120 minutes.
The athletic and commanding young goalie Ondoa - who had made terrific stops all game long - carried his form into the shootouts, saving Mane's decisive penalty to send the Cameroonians into the semis. Broos' Indomitable Lions had shown enough hunger to see off the Lions from Teranga.
In the semi-final, the team, visibly possessed by boundless energy and commitment, beat yet another favourite - Ghana, who were playing in their record sixth consecutive AFCON semi-final. The score was 2-0, with both goals coming in the second half.
Then, in the final, Cameroon - by this time the darling of the neutrals - showed endearing character to come back from a goal down to win the 2-1 against seven-time champions Egypt, who had conceded only a single goal prior to the final and hadn't lost an AFCON game since 2004, a period spanning 23 games.
Broos had delivered the title against the odds - "We came here and I think nobody thought we would go so far," he said after the final - and without the players who snubbed his call - "OK, it's their decision. But maybe they are saying now to themselves, 'S***! Why didn't I go with them?'"
To the players who did go, the boss had a touching tribute. "I don't have 23 players, I have 23 friends," he told BBC Sport.
"Over the weeks we went from being a squad to becoming a family. It's unbelievable what all the guys did. It is tremendous."
He has exceeded expectations on the first objective, and now it's time for the other.
Cameroon are in Group B of CAF's final round of qualifying, a group touted by many as the proverbial 'Group of Death', as it features former African champions Nigeria, Zambia and Algeria. After two match days featuring 1-1 draws (away to Algeria and at home to Zambia), Cameroon are in second place on two points, four points behind leaders Nigeria who they play away in Uyo when the qualifiers resume in August.
But, before then, there is a tournament that neither he nor anyone at Fecafoot had planned for: The Confederations Cup in Russia this summer. Cameroon are in Group B with World Champions Germany, Asian champions Australia and South American champions Chile, in a tournament that takes place in June.
The Central African nation have been to the Confederations Cup twice, first in 2001 - where they crashed out in the Group Stage of the Korea-Japan hosted event - and second in 2003, where they reached a historic final, only losing via a Thierry Henry 'Golden goal' in extra time as they fell 1-0 to hosts France.
That significance of the team's run in that 2003 edition was overshadowed by the death of 28-year-old star man Marc-Vivian Foe, who collapsed in the 73rd minute of the semi-final against Colombia, dying of cardiac arrest.
During the celebrations after the team's AFCON triumph in Gabon, the players put on jerseys labelled 'Champions' and numbered '17' - Foe's jersey number during the day of his tragic demise in Lyon.
"Seeing Cameroon at #ConfedCup reminds me of 2003... We will never forget you, Foé!," tweeted Samuel Eto'o, who was Foe's teammate in 2003 and who was also at the Stade de L'Amitie in Libreville to celebrate his country's latest AFCON success. "This team will make you proud, where ever you may be," the two-time AFCON winner added.
Cameroon return to the Confederations Cup hoping to finish what they started 14 years ago.
Will there be another fairy tale run? Broos, speaking to FIFA, remained measured. "It’s OK to dream, but we have to keep our feet on the ground and focus on our next match," he said.
"We would be very proud to represent Africa in Russia."
Fecafoot had set a December 15 deadline for the submission of applications. They wanted a coach who had knowledge of African football, had won trophies, had football coaching certificates, had experience coaching elite football teams, could speak English and French and would be willing to reside in Cameroon.
Hugo Broos reportedly applied after seeing the post's advertisement online, but when Fecafoot made an announcement on the short list, he was nowhere to be found.
Yes, the Executive Committee of Fecafoot hadn't explicitly mentioned names, but they had said that there were three Frenchmen, a native Cameroonian and a Serbian on the list.
Broos, of course, is Belgian.
What had gone wrong? He had experience in African football - having coached at Algeria's JS Kabylie and NA Hussein Dey in 2014 and 2015. He had won trophies - 10 in his close to 28-year-old coaching career. He had the certificates. He had experience coaching 'elite' clubs (Club Brugge, Anderlecht, KRC Genk, Trabzonspor amongst others). He could speak both English and French. He was willing to reside in Cameroon.
Yet he was not on the list.
It was frustrating, and even more so for a man who had had a bizarre difficulty finding a job in his own country since leaving his post at Zulte Waregem in 2011, forcing him to look for jobs abroad. "It is not normal that I couldn’t get a job in Belgium considering my career, my CV and what I won as a coach," he complained. "But you can’t change that. They want you or they don’t.
All that, though, would change. Dramatically.
"I heard nothing back," he told World Soccer of his Cameroon job application. "Until I suddenly got a phone call and they said: “You’re the leading candidate and nine chances out of 10 you will be appointed.” Three days later I got a message: “You will be the new national coach of Cameroon.”
The rest, they say, is history. Broos the outsider has gone on to become Broos the saviour. "It doesn’t matter that I was not appointed unanimously," he explained. "If you are appointed unanimously tomorrow and the results are disappointing, it’s game over still. It doesn’t make a difference."
What makes difference is the results, and a year down the line, Broos has been getting them. Out of the 16 games he has been in charge so far, he has only lost once - that friendly against France. This means that he is yet to lose a single competitive game.
And he is still not impressed, not even after ruling the African roost in Gabon. “We are still not on the highest level," he said after beating Egypt in the final. "We need to be much better, but it’s already a great beginning."
And he knows what it takes to keep the momentum going too. "You have to always be at your best level, never have a bad day – because when you have a bad day it can be catastrophic."
In that interview with World Soccer, Broos was asked if coaching Cameroon - Africa's second most successful football nation - was his crowing achievement as a coach.
"No," he said.
"I’d like to win something with Cameroon. Perhaps then I will say this was the highlight of my career. Let’s talk in a few years and see."
Make that one year.
It's safe to say that Broos, Africa's latest champion, will now consider his current job as the highlight of a coaching career which is almost three decades old.
Or at least, yet.