September 30, 2000

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Cameroon takes soccer gold in shootout

The Rediff Team

90 minutes of regular time. 30 minutes of extra, sudden-death time. Then that most unfair method of deciding outcomes -- the penalty shootout.

When it was all over, the Lions of Cameroon took their first ever gold, building on a growing African presence in international soccer first highlighted by Nigeria in Atlanta 1996.

But the thought that remains with you after almost two hours of furious soccer action, is this: How does a man live a lifetime with the knowledge that he was the one who blew it for his country when it counted?

Cameroon wins its first Olympic Gold. Spain's centre-half Amaya will be able to answer that, after he lives for a few years with memories of a muffed penalty kick in the shootout, when he stood stunned as his strike hit the top of the crossbar and ricocheted out.

Rest that thought for now. Meanwhile, miffed fans expecting a Brazil-Italy showdown might have used websites and newspaper ads to sell off their tickets for the final, but the nearly 90,000 fans who packed their stadium got their money's worth, and more. It was classic soccer -- speed and skill versus dourness and determination. And though no self-respecting soccer fan likes a shootout, the result was justified by the game, in which Cameroon played in a different zone from the initially beleagured, and subsequently outnumbered, Spaniards.

In the semis, Spain had beaten the US 3-1, while Cameroon pulled off a 2-1 upset of Chile in the semis.

The venue -- Stadium Australia -- had a bit of history attached to it. Since 1988, no Olympic soccer final had ever been played in the main stadium, a fact that miffed FIFA more than somewhat. And quite right too -- not even discounting the athletics, it is soccer that, in every Olympics, packs in the largest crowds, and FIFA believed that the game deserved a place on centrestage.

This time, they got it. The paraphernalia of the track were removed overnight, the markings made, grass trimmed, posts set up -- and immediately after the game, it all had to be undone in a hurry before the evening's athletics programme got into gear.

Going in, precedent was against a Spanish win -- in five previous face offs with African sides at the Olympics, Spain had never lost a match. The 1992 gold medallists, in fact, went in as favourites to become only the fifth nation to win the title twice.

Both sides had their share of stars. For Cameroon, Gerem Njitap Fotso (21) of Real Madrid, a workhorse equally versatile in defence and the midfield; Samuel Eto'O Fils, of Real Mallorca, a brilliant striker; Pierre Wome, of Bologna, superb midfielder with a lethal left; Patrick Mboma, the stellar striker who plays for Parma in Serie A; Etame Mayer Lauren, the midfielder who keeps forgetting he is not a striker and who plays for Arsenal inthe English premier league, easily Cameroon's best known player since Roger Milla; and Idriss Carlos Kameni, all of 16 years old and a brilliant goal-keeper who came in to the playing eleven for the quarterfinals against Brazil and who kept his nerve in Cameroon's 2-1 upset of the fancied samba specialists.

The final For Spain, the lineup included Xavi of Barcelona, 20 and precociously talented in the midfield; Jose Mari, the bustling A C Milan centre-forward who was transferred from Atletico Madrid to A C Milan for a US $20 million fee at the end of last season; Toni Velamazan of Espanol, the tall, rangy midfielder who tends to join in the attack at every opportunity; and Marchena of Benefica, the 21-year-old central defender.

Almost immediatly after the kickoff, a Spanish move saw Abando bring down Tamudo, as the latter threatened after latching on to a Jose Mari pass on the edge of the box. Xavi stepped forward to take the free kick and in one stunning effort, curled it round the Cameroon wall leaving Kameni, rendered helpless by the curve, angle and speed on the kick, doing a pretty good imitation of a statue.

At that point, Cameroon hadn't yet got its first touch of the ball.

A minute later, Spain almost scored another. The Cameroon defence looked panicky after that early goal, Mari went off on a run and Nguimbat brought him down well inside the zone. Angulo stepped forward to take the penalty kick -- and Kameni came to life with a brilliant diving save to his right from point blank range.

Cameroon around this point looked completely out of the picture as Spain, playing classic European style short-pass-and-run soccer, kept the pressure up. But gradually, they began playing themselves back in, and the game changed tenor as the free-flowing Africans took complete control, throwing everything they had and more at the Spanish goal in a blistering series of assaults.

Mboma, Wome, Lauren, Fotso -- if it wasn't the one, it was a combination of the others. Dogged defence, a generous dose of luck, and the superb exertions of Aranxubia in the Spanish goal were all that stood between Spain and a goal-blitz. Ironically, after being completely outplayed for all but the first five minutes, it was the Spaniards who scored, almost on the stroke of half-time.

A desperate clearance from the Spanish deep defence, an equally desperate long ball from a Spanish midfielder intent only in geting the play out of his own half, saw Nguimbat muff an attempted offside trap on super-substitute Gabri. Gabri timed his move perfectly, ran the trap, got away with the loose ball and with only Kameni to beat from handshaking disance, slotted it perfectly on an angle.

Two-zero Spain at half-time, and you had to figure that one side played soccer and the other side scored goals.

The pattern for the second half was set in the first 30 seconds. Cameroon had indicated its intentions before the session began, replacing hapless defender Nguimbat with striker Daniel Kome, beefing up an attack that didn't even seem to need the extra muscle. In the very first move, Branco got possession and fired off an amazing shot from outside the box, only for Aranzubia to just -- just -- get there in time to tip over the bar.

Luck, capricious as ever, then deserted Spain when Koma put Mboma through with another lovely parallel pass. Even as Amaya came across to cover the angle, Mboma shot, the ball glanced off Amaya before he could control it, slid past the unsighted Aranzubia, and slid into goal. Lucky, butt then, Cameroon by that point had more than deserved a slice of that particular cake.

A melee erupted immediately, with Abanda clonking Mari in the back of the head with his forearm, Mari reacting, players from both sides rushing in and after the referee had restored sanity with some frantic whistle-blowing, it was Mari who got the yellow card while the aggressor, Abanda, escaped.

Annoyed, Cameroon came at the Spaniards in tempestuous fashion, and the best goal of the game, and one of the best in the tournament, was registered when Mboma found space on the right, near the half-line, took the ball all the way to the box, and crossed to Eto'o. The move was classical in its beauty -- the use of space, the body-work and ball control Mboma put on show, the inventiveness of the pass that went through a legion of Spanish legs -- it would have been a travesty of justice if Eto'o had muffed. He didn't, controlling nicely and guiding it gently home.

From then on, the game became a dazzling display by one side, and a desperate struggle for survival by the other. And if the word 'gratitude' exists in the Spanish dictionary, that nation had cause to express it by erecting a statue to Aranzubia, who on the day had a blinder of a game.

Mboma headed. Aranzubia saved. Eto'o took hold of a long ball and smashed a volley. Aranzubia managed to get a fingertip to it, and deflect onto the post.

Spain began losing it. Gabri produced a deliberate, studs-on tackle on Alnoudji. The Cameroonian was stretchered off, and Gabri was packed off by the referee with an immediate red card.

Lauren raced through and crossed to Eto'o -- the shot just missed. Mboma almost danced his way through the entire defence (and by now, all ten Spaniards were in defence), and kicked perfectly only to be foiled by a wonderful slide by Puyol. Kome produced an electrifying run, and was brought down by Albelda -- the resulting free kick went screaming over the crossbar.

The only time Spain made something of a move was when a desperate clearance saw Jose Mari run away with the loose ball and get into the box at the other end. He was outnumbered, though, as two Cameroon defenders chased him down. As he lost the ball, Mari dived -- a sympathy ploy aimed at winning a penalty. The referee rewarded him with his second yellow card of the game, resulting in his sending off and reducing Spain to nine men for a cynical attempt at street theatre.

Almost immediately thereafter, the final whistle went and the game went into extra time. No point to be served by chronicling every Cameroon move, every Spanish save -- suffices to say that the next 30 minutes produced as many gasps from a crowd now wildly cheering Cameroon on, as try after try missed the mark.

Aranzubia earned his keep. Luck had something to do with it, too. Eto'o got a forward pass and went through what looked like all of Spain packed into the box, racing from the centre to the left flank, then reversing in mid stride to swivel and shoot. In -- but the linesman's flag went up in a blatantly wrong decision. At the time the ball was played to Eto'o, another Cameroon player was way 'offside'-- but he was out on the left corner, near the flag and in no way within the course of play. The letter of the law had been implemented, the spirit had been killed.

Spain, with nine men on the field to Cameroon's 11, survived 30 minutes. Don't ask how. And then the penalty kicks got under way.

Mboma kicked first for Cameroon, and sent Aranzubia diving the wrong way. 1-0

Xavi stepped up for Spain, and mirrored Mboma's kick. 1-1

Eto'o took his own time on the next one. Did a nifty little stagger step. And slammed the ball into the roof of the net. 2-1.

Capdevila stepped forward for Spain -- and for the fourth time in a row, the keeper went right and the ball went left.

Fotso, the Cameroonian skipper came up. And sidefooted the ball into the left of the net. Cameroon 3-2.

missed!! Amaya stepped forward -- and missed, with a vicious kick that lifted the ball a touch too much, and sent it crashing into the crossbar.

Lauren for Cameroon, another dainty little sidefoot this time to the right, and Cameroon up 4-2.

Albelda for Spain, a no-nonsense shot taken at a dead run, 4-3 Spain.

Wome up for Cameroon, to take the pressure shot. Racing in very fast off a ten metre run, Wome blasted one that, had Aranzubia even got there -- he didn't -- would have carried the goalkeeper into the net.

The goal got the gold. And the shirt-swapping and celebrations began.

Everyone's eyes, inevitably, were on the victors. No one noticed a solitary figure, just behind the Spanish goal, prone on the ground and sobbing his heart out.

Aranzubia had performed prodigies on the day.

And for his exertions, learnt the bitter lesson that in team sports, you could well be the best performer, on the day, of 22 men in the field -- and end up a lonely, unnoticed figure sobbing your heart out in a corner.

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