Author: Walter Nkiwi; work in progress
There is no gainsaying that the most popular sport in Cameroon is football which is like opium to fans. The male national team, which was baptised as the Indomitable Lions in the 1980s, is traditionally one of the strongest and most consistently performing teams on the African continent. They’ve participated in the World Cup 8 times to date, more than any other African side. In Italia 1990 the team reached the quarter finals of the competition in spectacular fashion. The outstanding performance at Milan’s San Siro stadium against Argentina, a football powerhouse, in the opener by a goal to nil sent chills down the spines of other favourites of the tournament. It took an England team that was one of the favourites to win the World Cup extra time to eliminate a scintillating Indomitable Lions team by a 3-2 margin.
Football has become the ‘opium’ of people the world over. What is very striking about this collective team sport is that for a very long time it was gender biased, as only men were involved in it. In Cameroon, a country located in the West/Central African region, football was introduced in the 1940s by the French administration, during the second half of the colonial era. After simmering in football terms for a long time, Cameroon made great strides in the international game across the 1980s by dwarfing almost all the teams/countries she played against. It was through such remarkable success that the team was rechristened as the Indomitable Lions, a show of its invincibility against seeming football powerhouses in Africa and elsewhere. The team shot into greater fame at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, where it was booted out in the first round of this sublime football fiesta, but remained unbeaten by Italy, Spain and Peru. It took this team eight years to resurface in Italy, this time to roar like the real kings of the forest and intimidate great footballing nations like Argentina to submission and humiliation. Interestingly, here she became the first African country to reach the quarter finals of the competition. It made Africa proud and the world governing football body FIFA could not resist awarding Africa five places, up from two, in the World Cup bonanza. While the Cameroon football players were clad in green, red and yellow, the country’s national colours, and winning match after match, women’s football went unnoticed. In fact women’s football was at the fringes of attention in the country.
In spite of this prevalent feeling about women making it in football, some of them were already playing in Cameroon. In the 1970s Cameroon was one of very few countries in Africa to have a woman play for a men’s team in the top division. Emilienne Mbango was a starter for Leopard of Douala, a legendary football club based in Douala, between 1970 and 1973. It was in this club that she formed a sensational strike duo with a talented and mesmerising teenager called Roger Milla, who later became a football icon of international repute and roving ambassador of Cameroon.
The success of Mbango was an isolated exploit of a woman in a male dominated game in Cameroon. It took the authorities until the late 1980s to set up a female national football team, the Indomitable Lionesses of Cameroon. Its emblematic captain was Regine Mvoue. She led the squad to a maiden final at the Africa Women Cup of Nations (AWCON) in 1991, which was an eye opener to the exploits that women could make in the game of football in the country. Originally the competition was meant for 12 teams, but 8 withdrew and only 4 teams finally participated in the competition. The four fought for the right to represent Africa in the World Cup. As a matter of fact, the Cameroonian female team reached the final by default. This determined the CAF’s single qualifier for the FIFA Women’s World Cup 1991. The Women’s Green Eagles of Nigeria won the tournament by beating the Lionesses of Cameroon in the final and thereby lifting the trophy.
The defeat in 1991 did not end women’s football in Cameroon. However, its creeping and snail-like pace kept the spirit of a national team from developing. Therefore, it would take time, but women’s football began to properly blossom and flower. This was shown when Cameroon qualified for the 2012 Olympics in London. The Indomitable Lionesses were also hailed for finishing second at the 2014 Africa Cup of Nations, qualifying for their maiden Women’s World Cup in Canada in 2015. They would exit the event in the last 16 after a 1–0 loss to China. In 2016, Cameroon hosted the country’s first Women’s Africa Cup of Nations amid great fanfare. The tournament was staged in Yaounde and Limbe and boasted record crowds at the stadiums, hitherto unknown in women soccer in Africa. The hosts lost 1–0 against Nigeria in the final. However, the success of the national team has yet to make an impact on the domestic scene, with an underfunded championship staged in appalling conditions.
This paper is predicated on tracing the historicity of women football in Cameroon, first by looking at the birth, structure and organisation of the women football team; secondly by examining the national championship. The third part of the paper will focus on Cameroon’s women on the African and world stage.
The Birth of the Cameroonian Women Championship
After several years in development the Cameroon women’s football league was finally given official approval by the government. The Cameroonian Women’s Championship, which was renamed Guinness Super League for sponsorship reasons since the 2020–21 season, has become the top flight of women’s association football in Cameroon. The competition is run by the Cameroonian Football Federation and is currently made up of twelve teams. These teams compete for and play the Cameroon Women’s Cup finals. Additionally, the Cameroonian Women’s Cup is a women’s association football competition pitting regional teams against each other. It was founded in 1986 and it is the counterpart of the men’s edition. Between 1990 and 2007 only regional leagues were played, with regional champions meeting in Yaounde, the political capital of Cameroon, for the national title. It was not until 2008 that the first national league in its new format was played. Meanwhile, in the old format, many teams had competed and lifted the trophy. Between 1990 and 2000, a graphic perusal shows the champions and runners-up as follows:
National Champions in Women Football between 1990 and 2000
|1992-93||Cosmos de Douala||Nufi Forestiere|
|1993-94||Canon Yaounde||Lorema FC Yaounde|
|1995-96||?||Lorema FC Yaounde|
|1997-98||Lorema FC Yaounde||/|
In the ten years of its organisation, Canon Yaounde won the cup three times. No other team won the cup more than once. With the national championship Cameroonian women’s football took its place in continental and global football. The attention of this paper will now turn to the African and World Cup football championships.
Cameroon Indomitable Lionesses at Continental Level
From 2nd to 23rd July 2022, the Kingdom of Morocco hosted the 2022 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations which is also referred to as WAFCON 2022. It was officially known as the 2022 Total Energies Women’s Africa Cup of Nations for sponsorship purposes. This was the 14th edition of the biennial African international women’s football tournament organised by the Confederation of African Football (CAF). The tournament also doubled as the African qualifiers to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup scheduled for Australia and New Zealand. The top four teams in the WAFCON qualified for the World Cup, and two more teams advanced to the inter-confederation play-offs. Nigeria, who were the three-time defending champions, having won the previous three editions in 2014, 2016 and 2018, had their journey ended in the semi-finals. Here they lost to the hosts Morocco on penalties, making it the first time that neither Nigeria nor Equatorial Guinea would feature in the final. The hosts went on to lose to South Africa, who claimed their first ever continental trophy after five previous attempts. With this triumph, South Africa joined Nigeria as the only countries to have won both the men’s and women’s competition. Remarkably, the Morocco vs Nigeria semi-final broke the WAFCON attendance records with 45,562 spectators.
In the group stages Cameroon’s performance was, at best, average. Playing their opening match on 3 July 2022 at Stade Mohammed V in Casablanca, they drew 0-0 with their Zambian counterparts. Three days later (6 July 2022) they repeated the same feat but with a new twist, drawing with Togo 1-1. The difference was glaring on 9 July when, barely three minutes into the match between Cameroon and Tunisia, Abam netted the curtain raiser for Cameroon. At the 90th minute Nchout Njoya Ajara sealed the fate of Tunisian team by bulleting in the second goal. At the 93rd minute, referee Lidya Tafesse from Ethiopia blew the final whistle. Cameroon picked up a lone victory at the group stages and thus sailed through to the knock out stages of the competition, that is, the quarter finals. On 14 July during the quarter finals, Cameroon was bundled out of the 2022 WAFCON by her arch rival, Nigeria on a score margin of 1-0 scored by Ajibade at the 56th minute.
The dream of lifting the trophy by Cameroon Lionesses was again dashed and this remains a pipe dream. Reasons behind the dismal performance of the Women’s football team are not far-fetched. These are complex and multifaceted and rooted in the political gimmicks of Cameroon as a whole. Cameroon is reputed for bad management especially when it comes to football and this has been done by firing coaches time and again. Not so much because the coaches are not good but more because of where they come from. Financial incentives to players are an added headache to the predicaments of the team. These and several other reasons have been at the forefront of the women’s team performance to date.