The fact that Paul Le Guen is still Cameroon coach going into Monday's World Cup Group E opener against Japan is already something of a success for him. After all, he survived a wretched African Cup of Nations campaign in January, when defeat in the quarterfinals to eventual winner Egypt was overshadowed by a succession of poor performances, squad unrest and allegations of players picking the team. Ivory Coast lost at the same stage of the tournament and sacked its coach, Vahid Halilhodzic.
Le Guen came under more pressure last week, after Cameroon failed to win any of its warm-up matches, against Georgia (0-0), Slovakia (1-1), Portugal (3-1) and Serbia (4-3). His selections were criticized at a press conference at which he explained that key players like Carlos Kameni, Alex Song, Jean Makoun and Samuel Eto'o had been deliberately rested for some of the friendlies.
"They have all had long seasons and they are tired," Le Guen said. "My job is to get them in good shape for the Japan game, and not before." He has also had to temper expectations that the team should reach the semifinals, reminding the press that Cameroon was at the bottom of its World Cup qualifying group when he took over. "And we have not got past the first round of a World Cup for 20 years," he said.
Cameroon has never come into a World Cup with so much European experience among its players. For them, this is a chance to end comparisons with those heroes from 1990, who beat holders Argentina in the opening game before losing to England in a thrilling quarterfinal. The 1990 side that beat Argentina had five starters who played for teams in Yaoundé, Cameroon's capital. In comparison, all 23 members of Le Guen's squad play in Europe and his starting XI will include a French title winner, Stephane M'Bia (Marseille), a Champions League semifinalist, Makoun (Lyon), and a Champions League and Italian league and Cup treble winner, Eto'o (Inter).
The role of Eto'o will be crucial to Cameroon's World Cup. He is a tricky customer, as his recent threat to quit the squad after a public feud with 1990 hero Roger Milla proved, but he has this team's best interests at heart. At Inter, he spent much of the Champions League semifinal as an auxiliary fullback helping his teammates repel Barcelona's attacks, and for Cameroon, his frustration often stems from the lack of a strike partner on his wavelength. That might change with the emergence of German-born Eric Choupo-Moting, 21, who received his naturalization papers last month, scored in his Cameroon debut and could be a breakout star.
Le Guen's biggest decision since taking the job was to make Eto'o his captain. "Eto'o is a very important player but he wasn't given the platform he desired and we weren't getting best out of him," Le Guen told SI.com. "He had more to offer and giving him responsibility has helped him express himself and commit himself to the cause."
Appointing Eto'o as captain was a clear move to keep Le Guen's most influential player onside. But given that the coach's contract runs out after the World Cup, it could be his last effort at diplomacy. Le Guen has no intention of staying on after the tournament, and so, unburdened by fear of the sack, he finally has the freedom to carry through his ideas.
His key decision will be where to play M'Bia, whose preferred position is in defensive midfield. He excelled at center back for Marseille this season and filled in at right back for Cameroon during qualifying. "I don't mind where I play, I just want to be here to help my team," he told reporters. With Alex Song coming off an outstanding season with Arsenal, M'Bia will more likely fill one of the defensive positions.
Eto'o has spoken in the past about the role of a national coach being just "to take care of a few organizational details and make sure there's a good atmosphere," but that might be easier said than done. One player told SI.com that there were already factions in the camp, with some players pro-Eto'o and others resistant to his influence and his ego. Le Guen tried to defuse tensions in the squad by taking Franco-Cameroonian stand-up comic Thomas Ngijol on their training-camp in Serbia.
"This generation of players is too great for us not to aim high," Eto'o said. "When I look at the other teams, I don't envy anyone. My job is to convince my teammates that this is possible, that it is not just one of Samuel's daydreams. Why should the World Cup just be for Europeans or South Americans?"
How Cameroon gets on against Japan, the lowest-ranked of its opponents in Group E, could define the rest of its tournament.
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.