Thursday, October 11, 2018

WHY SEEDORF AND KLUIVERT, CAMEROON’S NEW MANAGEMENT TEAM, ARE FACING A MAMMOTH TASK IN AFRICA


When Cameroon announced the appointment this summer of Clarence Seedorf as the new head coach of the national team, the choice of such a high-profile name grabbed the attention. It was seemingly a glamour choice, putting Cameroon firmly in the limelight, rather than a practical footballing one. That Seedorf would be assisted by his fellow former Dutch international Patrick Kluivertmerely served to enhance this impression.

At a time when Cameroon’s footballing fortunes are stuck in a bit of a rut having failed to reach the last World Cup, the appointment of the Dutch duo at first glance appears set to do little to arrest the current malaise. However, the stature of their names means that attention will be focused on Cameroon’s campaign to a far greater degree than it may otherwise have been.

If Cameroon are to recover from their recent slump, it will need to be done in the full glare of the watching world. Seedorf’s first game in charge, an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier away in the picturesque Comoros Islands, would not ordinarily have been the prompt for numerous articles and increased focus. But such is the allure of the new management that increased attention was almost assured. Just how have Cameroon ended up in this position?

The Indomitable Lions are one of Africa’s most successful nations. From numerous Cup of Nations victories and the Olympic gold medal in Sydney 2000, to their glorious perception-shattering run to the 1990 World Cup quarter-finals, the national team have frequently been at the forefront of African football.

Their most recent success came in lifting the Africa Cup of Nations once again in 2017, the fifth time they have. But since then the descent has been rapid. Cameroon won that title under the tutelage of the Belgian Hugo Broos, which at first glance appears to show the team’s fortunes on a high. But scratch the surface and the reality of the situation is that it was an isolated success.

It was preceded by three hugely disappointing World Cup campaigns and was swiftly followed by another as Cameroon failed to make it to Russia. Their qualifying campaign for the most recent global showdown saw them well off the pace set by Nigeria throughout the final stage, managing a lone victory out of their six group games.

Against this backdrop, the appointment of Seedorf is a risk. Nobody can question his playing career – he is a four times Champions League winner after all – however, as a coach, the opposite is the case. His first step on the managerial rung was a brief stint with AC Milan before equally short-lived sojourns to Shenzhen in China and Deportivo La Coruña. None of these spells were especially successful, although the period in Milan was relatively productive in terms of results.

In a troubling echo of the situation Seedorf has now joined in Cameroon, when he took over at AC Milan, in what was a massive gamble for the Italian giants, he was pitched into a club in what he described as “total chaos” under its then Chinese ownership. This period, which lasted less than five months, was probably the high point of Seedorf’s managerial career to date; he actually oversaw an improvement in Milan’s record. But he was shown the door regardless, a victim of the club’s ongoing turmoil at the time as much as anything else, before finding himself in China.

The spell in the Far East was another short one, failing to secure promotion to the top flight for Shenzhen. He was quickly replaced by Sven-Göran Eriksson. He wasn’t out of work for long, though, getting an opportunity in another of Europe’s top leagues, this time in Spain. Taking over the reins of Deportivo in spring 2018, Seedorf was essentially tasked with steering them clear of relegation from LaLiga. Sadly, it was a task in which he failed, leading to another quick dismissal. From there he has taken on one of Africa’s giants.

Seedorf’s limited managerial career was neatly summed up by former national team striker Patrick M’Boma, who noted his “scant experience as a coach” and lamented the fact that the Cameroon Football Federation had opted to “name two guys who have never worked in Africa and know nothing about African football.”

His assistant, Kluivert, has a bit more experience as an assistant, having performed this role at various clubs as well as with the Dutch national team under Louis van Gaal. He also steered Curaçao through a relatively successful period as manager, before now reverting back to being an assistant. Kluivert’s record does little, however, to negate the overall impression that this is a managerial team lacking in both experience and success. In short, they are not what you would imagine was required at Cameroon right now.

It would be challenging enough even if all was going well, but in addition to the disappointing World Cup qualifying exit on the potch, there are numerous issues off it that Seedorf has walked straight into. Going back to the World Cup of 2014, Cameroon made a greater impression for imploding on the field and off than they did for anything positive. Three straight defeats, two of them particularly heavy, were played out while the squad argued with the federation over bonus payments, an issue which caused them to arrive late in Brazil.

There was also the small matter of a match-fixing scandal, where convicted fixer Wilson Raj Perumal correctly “predicted” a 4-0 win for Croatia over the Indomitable Lions. In a regime and federation where corruption is rife, it wasn’t a stretch to believe this could be true, even though nothing has been proven on this front.

On the playing front, there were further internal squad ructions, which were made painfully evident in that same match when Benoît Assou-Ekotto planted a headbutt on his teammate Benjamin Moukandjo. It was not a happy camp. Bringing it all together again to win the 2017 AFCON was a remarkable achievement, but the same issues remained bubbling away under the surface.  The cracks had merely been papered over.

A few months further down the line, the Confederations Cup saw another disappointing showing, and when the World Cup qualifiers ended in failure, Broos was gone, as was any semblance of harmony and progress as the outgoing coach left amid fallings out with both players and the federation.

There are political concerns too, as domestic feuds between the federation and the national Ministry of Sport caused FIFA to step in last year, appointing a “normalisation committee” tasked with ensuring the legitimate election of new officials. However, none of that could take place until after the country’s presidential elections had been carried out.

Then there is the imminent pressure of hosting the next Africa Cup of Nations as defending champions. It is clear that Seedorf has stepped into a pressure cooker environment where things could rapidly escalate out of his control. Is this the right environment for a managerial novice? Even the federation hadn’t initially thought so, as they’d attempted to install Sven-Göran Eriksson, who would have brought some experience, although his only venture into African football to date was also a disappointing one with Ivory Coast in 2010.

Fortunately for Seedorf, his first match with Cameroon was expected to be a relatively benign one, a chance to cut his teeth and start things off in a gentle way with a trip to the 149th-ranked nation in world football – the Comoros. Officially part of the AFCON qualifying stage, Cameroon were playing in a group despite qualifying as hosts, along the same lines as France’s participation in a Euro 2016 qualifying group. But when it came to match day in the idyllic setting of Grande Comore island in the Indian Ocean, playing in a cosy national stadium ringed with palm trees, things didn’t go smoothly at all.

Ahead of the game, Seedorf had made a controversial move by excluding several Cameroonian players from consideration because they played in what he saw as the uncompetitive and lower level Chinese leagues. That policy saw the exclusion of Benjamin Moukandjo and Christian Bassogog, who had both been key players in the AFCON triumph. “Good young players don’t compete in China or in Asia,” stated Seedorf. He did appear to backtrack a little later after this initial policy caused an outcry in Cameroon, but it was a stance that immediately put Seedorf in something of a no-win situation, barracked from all sides before he’d even begun.

Even so, securing a win against Comoros was considered a formality. Here was an opponent surely ideal for Seedorf and Kluivert to get off to a positive start, to get their feet under the door with a good performance and ensure that the focus returned to the football rather than the seemingly endless off-pitch shenanigans. Sadly for the new managerial team, the match didn’t pan out that way – far from it. Amid a manic, raucous atmosphere, the hosts took the game to their more illustrious opponents from the off and took a deserved lead in just the 15th minute.

Cameroon seemed to be stifled by a lethargy that appeared to be caused by more than just their opponents not allowing them to settle. It seemed at times endemic and all-consuming. Whether it was it borne of complacency in facing a lowly opponent, a lack of preparation, or yet more internal feuds is not clear. But the Indomitable Lions were anything but as they struggled to get back into the game, with panic spreading at a rapid rate, rather than an increase in focus and intensity that their superior credentials ought to have meant. It was only 10 minutes from the end when they finally drew level, Stéphane Bahoken scoring to snatch a draw from what was so nearly a momentous loss.

In light of such a near disaster for the continental champions, the lack of experience of the management team has become a rod to beat them with. Their famous names are doing nothing to shield them from the intense glare of Cameroons footballing press, merely serving to add fuel to the already raging fire against their appointment.

For his part, Seedorf batted away any concerns by declaring himself happy with the spirit his team had shown in the face of adversity. But there is no denying that having entered a situation where he was negatively perceived from the start, making things harder for himself by excluding some of the better players at his disposal and then failing to get the remaining players to look like a coherent team for the most part, leaves this high-profile management duo struggling to make a positive impact.

With the expectations of one of Africa’s foremost footballing nations firmly focused on hosting and successfully defending the African Cup of Nations next summer, the pressure is on.