Cameroon Coach Enow Ngachu said his team's surprising run through group play and into the second round of the World Cup is having a profound impact back home, where opportunities for women in sports have remained limited by societal and cultural traditions.
"Africa is not like the European countries. It's very complicated in Africa," Ngachu said Friday before his team's final training session for Saturday's elimination game with China. "At times they don't allow women in football. But with the results we're having, just today I received about 50 messages of young girls interested to play soccer."
That was exactly the kind of message World Cup organizers were hoping to deliver when they expanded the tournament field to 24 teams this year, allowing emerging teams such as Cameroon to qualify for the first time. But Ngachu's team is hardly a charity case. In the last four years Cameroon made its debut in the Olympic soccer tournament and finished in the top three at the last two African Championships.
In this tournament Ngachu said his players have been taking inspiration from the 1990 men's team, which upset Argentina in its World Cup opener and went on to become the first African team to reach the quarterfinals, a performance Cameroon can match with a win over China.
"We said to the players, in 1990 Cameroon succeeded against Argentina in the opening game of the World Cup. Why not you?" Ngachu said. "In 1990, Cameroon qualified for the quarterfinals. Why not you?
"So history can repeat itself tomorrow."
China, meanwhile, in rebuilding after failing to qualify for the last World Cup, has just six players who were born before 1990. The team will be at a further disadvantage Saturday since Coach Hao Wei will be serving a one-game suspension after being sent off in the final minutes of the last group-play game for interfering with a New Zealand player who was attempting a throw in.
The Chinese coach can accompany the team to the stadium bus but can't interact with his players after that. One reporter jokingly asked whether the Chinese coach had thought about borrowing a tactic from Chelsea Coach Jose Mourinho who, while suspended, allegedly hid in a laundry cart that was wheeled into his team's dressing room at halftime.
"I'm not sure about that," the Chinese coach answered with a smile.
You've got a friend
Although the U.S. got through group play unbeaten, it was hardly an easy ride. And some of the biggest challenges the women faced came off the field, where new details emerged about
That could have crushed younger teams. But defender Christine Rampone, at 39 the oldest player in World Cup history, said the U.S. was uniquely prepared to weather those storms.
"We've had something special over the years," said Rampone, one of 13 U.S. players who has spent at least eight years with the national team. "Our team has gone through a lot together. And we get stronger, from marriages to death to kids.
"We have a special bond."
Rampone said that unity makes the U.S. a difficult team to beat.
"We realize it's a team sport, and we have each other's back," she said. "So we score a lot of goals in pressure situations. And we keep fighting because we still have that belief, even at the last second, that we're not done and that we're going to get a goal."