Cameroonian football enjoyed something of a golden era between 1990 and 2002, when the national team participated in four successive FIFA World Cups and won back-to-back Africa Cup of Nations titles in 2000 and 2002. After missing out on Germany 2006 by finishing second in their qualifying group to Côte d’Ivoire, the Indomitable Lions returned to the world stage for the 2010 and 2014 editions before sitting out Russia 2018.
Pierre Wome was a key member of that great generation. A left-back who excelled in defence and attack, he spent most of his club career in Italy and Germany. Indeed, it was in the land of calcio where he honed his defensive skills, while his time in the Bundesliga helped him master tactical discipline and the ability to transition between phases.
The former international spoke to FIFA.com about the difference between the team he played in and the current side, which seems to have some of its lustre. “There’s a huge difference between this generation and my one. Times have changed and so has everything else. Football isn’t like it used to be. Twenty years have passed, and the generations have changed a lot,” he said.
Having appeared at four consecutive editions of the World Cup – 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002 – Cameroon found themselves vying with Côte d’Ivoire for top spot in their qualifying group and a place at Germany 2006. It was the beginning of a successful era for the Elephants, featuring stars such as Didier Drogba and Gervinho.
In the penultimate fixture, Cameroon travelled to the Ivorian capital Abidjan for a make-or-break encounter. In one of the most memorable games in African football history, the Indomitable Lions, with Samuel Eto’o in their ranks, came away with three precious points after a 3-2 triumph.
That left Cameroon just needing to win their final qualifier at home to Egypt to secure their place in Germany. With the game tied at 1-1, the home side were awarded a stoppage-time penalty, sparking jubilant scenes in the stands, where a raucous crowd prepared to celebrate a fifth consecutive appearance at football’s showpiece event.
Although Samuel Eto’o was on the pitch, it was Wome who took responsibility for the kick. The left back cannoned his effort off the outside of the post and the game ended in a 1-1 draw, a result that handed Côte d’Ivoire a maiden World Cup appearance. Among the unforgettable scenes at the final whistle was one of Samuel Eto’o crying disconsolately.
Sixteen years after that infamous penalty, the memories are still vivid for Wome. “I remember very well that match as it cost us a spot at the World Cup in Germany. That’s football for you. Sometimes things go in your favour, other times they go against you,” he said.
Asked if he would do the same again if he could turn back time, Wome said: “I don’t regret taking it, and if I had to do it all again, I’d still step up and bear full responsibility.”
After the game, the home fans left the stadium dejected and angry, struggling to accept that they would not be going to the World Cup. A mob even vandalised Wome’s house, which greatly shocked him and made for a very difficult time.
“It is a bad memory,” the 42-year-old said. “Life doesn’t treat us well sometimes. There are those bad moments, but when you experience such difficult situations, you must turn the page and think about the future. That’s something we should instil in others too.”
Asked how he survived this period, the former defender said, “I kept telling myself that things like this happen and that I need to put it behind me.”
History repeats itself
Sixteen years after that painful episode, Cameroon and Côte d’Ivoire have been drawn in the same group for the Qatar 2022 qualifiers. The Elephants currently lead the section a point clear of the Indomitable Lions, who host them in Douala tomorrow in a must-win game for the home side. A draw would be enough to guarantee the visitors top spot in the group and a place in the third and final qualifying round.
Asked about his compatriots’ prospects tomorrow, Wome said: “We have every chance of going all the way to the World Cup, especially with this fixture being at home. We’ll be going all out to win it.”
“That said, we have to take this game very seriously, but nothing is impossible for us,” he added.
He also hopes the Japoma stadium will be packed for the game, saying, “Our fans will play a big part in this match, and the 12th man needs to get behind the team.”
Wome concluded with a positive message to the players: “They have to prepare very well for the Côte d’Ivoire game. The impossible does not exist for Cameroonians. They have to fight hard to qualify for the World Cup.”