It was the summer of 1990 and the world’s best football nations had been battling for supremacy in Italy but a hitherto unknown central African state, Cameroon, had stolen the headlines.
Jingoism was at its peak in the nation that was only appearing in the World Cup for the second time. The Indomitable Lions, as the Cameroon team are known, had become the first African side to reach the quarter-finals before losing to England in Naples in the unlikeliest of manners.
A penalty from Gary Lineker in the 83rd minute levelled the game at 2-2 and another spot-kick from Lineker in extra time earned England a 3-2 win. The general consensus in Cameroon and the rest of Africa was that the Mexican referee, Edgardo Codesal, favoured the English.
Some of the players in the Cameroon team that lost to England in the Women’s World Cup in controversial circumstances on Sunday were not even born then, but the tale from Italia 90 has been passed down to the current crop of Cameroonians. And while some fans are understandably unimpressed by the Indomitable Lionesses decorum and unsportsmanlike behaviour, it is crucial to understand the context in which the coach, Alain Djeumfa, and his side were facing England.
Cameroon’s meltdown was the most glaring sign of desperation from a generation of players that have pulled up trees and risked everything in an attempt to shift the attitude towards women’s football in the country.
The state of the sport in Cameroon is a complete shambles and despite having made significant progress by hosting the 2016 Africa Women’s Cup of Nations, the game’s running leaves a lot to be desired. The domestic league has been stopped on several occasions because of a lack of finances and the players barely have any medical insurance to cover injuries. There is also still a stigma attached to the sport in that it is supposedly – on the women’s side – being played by school dropouts and delinquents.
Obviously no one in Cameroon is condoning the atrocious spitting or the late tackle on Steph Houghton, but is it so hard to understand that these players were distraught at the thought of their dream slipping away when they have worked so hard to get to where they are?
For Cameroon’s star forward Nchout Njoya Ajara and her teammates, a World Cup quarter-final and a win against England would have sparked a change in the perception and narrative around women’s football for ever. This is something fans back in Cameroon understand. They have been won over by spirited performances in recent tournaments and this partly explains the fury in the country about the VAR decisions in the game against England in Valenciennes.
The Lionesses diehards feel their team has been robbed, denied a chance of shocking England, the team ranked third in the world. There is a strong feeling that the four-times finalists of the Africa Cup of Nations would have been better without VAR being implemented and their first ever captain, Regine Mvoue, is one of them.
“Perhaps you could say that the referee was very hard on us,” the 54-year-old said. “There were some decisions that could have gone Cameroon’s way. The [Augustine] Ejangue pass to the goalkeeper that resulted in a free-kick in the build up to the first goal wasn’t deliberate in my opinion. And Ajara’s goal that was ruled offside could have changed the game completely.
“Later on the girls felt frustrated knowing they could beat England if everything had gone to plan. They panicked and faltered the rest of the game. We have to rethink our development policies for women’s football and make sure things are better in the future.”
Cameroonians are divided over the issue, though, and there are those who say that the team simply lacked the composure and grit to find a way into the final eight of the tournament. It is a football-mad country and the press was divided too. The leading government daily, Cameroon Tribune, topped its report of the game “Cameroon defeated 3-0 by England in a game headlined by VAR decisions”, and the piece focused on all the refereeing controversies.
The French-language Le Jour had “The frustration of the Lionesses” on its cover, then another write-up detailing the damaging impact of VAR on Cameroon’s fortunes. Just for context of how the women’s game is treated, it is worth noting that the country’s leading English-language newspaper, The Guardian Post, ignored Cameroon’s elimination completely and did not mention a word about it in Monday’s publication.
It will take some time before this loss has sunk in and while this will obviously be another tale to be told to future generations, it is also a wake-up call to the Cameroon authorities to start treating the women’s game seriously and give the players the support they deserve.