FRANCEVILLE, Gabon (AP) — Cameroon didn’t need its big-name players to make the African Cup of Nations final.
Instead, Cameroon’s youngsters — described by their coach as a bunch of friends who just like to play football — knocked out mighty Ghana on Thursday and set up a title decider against record seven-time champion Egypt.
Cameroon beat Ghana 2-0 in the second semifinal to return to the final for the first time since 2008, and did it with most of the top stars still in Europe with their clubs. You wonder if they were watching, and regretting their decisions to turn down call-ups to the squad.
With the stars unavailable, tired maybe of Cameroon’s recent struggles, coach Hugo Broos brought 14 players who had never been to a major tournament.
They responded by knocking out Senegal in the quarterfinals and Ghana in the semis, two strong contenders for the trophy. They played with a free spirit.
Ghana was the more dangerous team throughout the second half, and probably for most of the semi, but the Cameroonians hung in and struck first through defender Michael Ngadeu’s goal in the 72nd minute.
Christian Bassogog rounded off a counterattack in injury time, running through on Ghana’s goal unchallenged to seal Cameroon’s place in the final as a desperate Ghana threw everyone forward in search of an equalizer.
Bassogog’s goal prompted every member of Cameroon’s squad to race off the bench and celebrate on the field at Stade de Franceville. One of them booted the ball high into the stands in delight.
“This is a group of 23 friends. I’ve never seen this before in a football team,” said Broos, himself a fairly low-key manager who had never been in charge of a national team before.
Cameroon has won the African Cup four times but not since 2002, and its recent record at major tournaments has been terrible. It lost all of its games at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, and failed to win a game at the last African Cup in 2015.
There have also been regular disagreements between players and their bosses over payments and bonuses. Maybe the big-name players believed they couldn’t be bothered with all the problems anymore.
In Gabon, Cameroon’s new squad turned it around by just enjoying their soccer and each other’s company — that simple, Broos said.
“I can count on them and that’s because we are a group of friends,” the Belgian coach said.
For Ghana, it was another miserable experience at the African championship.
Coach Avram Grant’s team threw everything at Cameroon in the last 20 minutes after Ngadeu’s goal but just couldn’t break through.
Even the introduction from the bench of captain Asamoah Gyan, who wasn’t fully recovered from injury to start, didn’t work.
Ghana hasn’t won the African Cup for 35 years and has lost two finals and four semifinals in the last six tournaments.
“We wanted so much to be in the final,” said Grant, who was likely to leave with his contract up. “We did everything to be in the final. We dominated the game, especially the second half … The first attack, they scored. It is very annoying.
“I am not happy because we were the better side.”
Cameroon goes on to Libreville to face Egypt, itself a surprise finalist after failing to qualify for the last three tournaments. Egypt coach Hector Cuper made the trip to Franceville on Thursday to watch the Cameroon-Ghana semifinal.
He has created an ultra-solid Egypt team which has conceded just one goal, and has worn each of its opponents down by giving away nothing at the back.
Broos said his young Cameroon players, full of natural enthusiasm, had to avoid falling into the Egyptian trap in the final.
“How we do that,” Broos said, “I cannot tell you.”
– Gerald Imray I AP