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World Cup ’94 : WORLD CUP USA ’94 / GROUP B PREVIEW : A Roar No More? : Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions Seemingly Have Too Many Obstacles to Repeat 1990 Success

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

After Cameroon’s extraordinarily entertaining and successful adventure at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, where it became the first African team to advance to the quarterfinals, the Indomitable Lions went through four coaches in the next three years. That should have served as a warning to Coach No. 5.

But Henri Michel decided to find out for himself if the environment was as toxic as had been reported for a coach in the economically and politically unstable West African nation.

No, he soon discovered. It was worse.

When he arrived for his first training session in April, there was no bottled water for the players. Although that might be considered a luxury for the U.S. players ensconced in Mission Viejo, it is not in Cameroon, where tap water is undrinkable.

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If that had been Michel’s low point as Cameroon’s coach, then perhaps the 48-year-old Frenchman would not feel as if he has aged three decades in the last three months.

Instead, reaching into his own wallet to pay for mineral water and other necessities has been the least of his problems, because he and his team have had to overcome infighting among national soccer federation officials, governmental interference and a dearth of resources--especially money.

Here is a brief summary of one day in Michel’s life:

In late April, Cameroon was scheduled to play against Zambia, the first match since qualifying for the 1994 World Cup. Because the 80,000-seat stadium in the capital city, Yaounde, has deteriorated to the extent that the international soccer federation, FIFA, condemned it, the game was supposed to be played in Douala. The stadium there is in no better condition, but it has not undergone a FIFA inspection.

Moments before Michel and the team were to board a bus for the three-hour drive to Douala, however, they were informed that the game had been canceled. Zambia decided not to play after receiving mixed messages from Cameroon’s multi-headed federation about the details of the contract for the game.

So Michel decided that the team would remain in Yaounde for an evening practice that would be open to the public. But, upon arriving at the stadium at the appointed hour, he could find no one available to turn on the lights. He could not have called ahead to ask soccer officials to make someone available because the federation’s phones had been cut off because of unpaid bills.

Indomitable Lions? Try Impossible.

Although this might seem like an unusual approach to the soccer business for Michel, who coached France to the gold medal in the 1984 Olympics and to third place in the 1986 World Cup, it is business as usual for most of Cameroon’s players.

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Their most persistent complaint is that the federation is invariably behind in fulfilling its commitments to pay them salaries and bonuses and compensate them for expenses, which was their same complaint before the 1990 World Cup. When their captain, goalkeeper Joseph-Antoine Bell, took their case to the federation shortly before the team left for Italy, he was ordered to the bench for the entire tournament.

The conflict apparently did not negatively impact the play of his teammates. Nor did the fact that they were playing for a Russian coach who spoke neither of Cameroon’s official languages, French and English.

The Lions stunned defending champion Argentina, 1-0, in the tournament opener and advanced through Colombia, 2-1, in the second round before falling, 3-2, in a quarterfinal loss to England that was the tournament’s most engaging game. They were such a positive force in the tournament that FIFA, hoping there were more teams back home like them, increased African representation in the World Cup from two countries to three.

“We Cameroonians are not incredibly talented,” former national team defender Ayakan Yombi told the New York Times. “Our force is our strength and our faith. We can have all the problems in the world, but every time we put on the colors and play, we know that, if it goes well, the whole country will be happy. That pushes us to go to the wall, beyond our limits.”

It is the Lions’ capacity to lift the country’s spirit that has caused controversial President Paul Biya to adopt them. The lion even became the symbol of his 1992 candidacy. When political opponents called for a general strike on the one-year anniversary of his election, he responded by calling for a national holiday to celebrate the previous day’s victory over Zimbabwe that clinched Cameroon’s third World Cup berth since 1982. The strike never materialized.

When Michel goes to federation officials to seek money, they often respond by sending him to the government. On May 31, Biya announced that he had contributed $185,000.

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Because Michel accepts Biya’s money, he also must accept his counsel. That is why Roger Milla, 42, will become the oldest man to play in the World Cup. Milla left the field in 1991 to become a federation official, but he decided to come out of retirement earlier this year in hopes that he would be selected for the team. Michel really had no choice.

But, in Biya’s defense, it must be pointed out that he also insisted that Milla, who already was known as “The Old Lion,” be selected for the team in 1990. All he did was score four goals in the World Cup. If the team has no success this year under Michel, perhaps Biya can coach. Perhaps he is the only one who would take the job.

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