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Impressive Cameroon ready to retain African title

© Reuters 2002

By Brian Homewood

SIKASSO, Mali, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Cameroon's players have endured two weeks in a dust-blown, half-built athletes' village with suffocating heat, food shortages, a bumpy pitch and the wrath of their European clubs to take part in the African Nations Cup.

But the Indomitable Lions say they are proud to represent their country, even if it means swapping European prosperity and organisation for the unpredictability of one of the world's poorest countries. And their top players, now among the best paid in Europe, are ready to put up with all the hardships as they bit to retain their African title.

"This is the national team and the national team has the right to ask me to play for them," said right-back Geremi who plays for Real Madrid.

"First I play for the national team, then my club." Midfielder Laurent was equally emphatic even though he will have to fight to regain a hard-fought first-team place at English premiership club Arsenal when the tournament ends.

"The Mister" as he refers to Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger, "The Mister, has given me his confidence and put me in the team every time so that made it difficult for me to leave to come here.

"But it's important to play in the Nations Cup. I have a lot of desire to play for Cameroon." Patrick Suffo, who plays for English first division club Sheffield United, complained that the players had been put in a Catch-22 situation with both club and country demanding their services.

"I knew months beforehand about this problem and I was thinking all the time between going or staying," he said. "But in the end I'm here. First of all I'm proud of my country, proud to be Cameroonian. Also, it's one of the best squads in Africa and everyone wants to be part of it."

He added: "The World Cup is coming up in the summer... and I don't know of any player who doesn't want to play in the World Cup. Missing the Nations Cup would be like ending my chances for the World Cup."

Cameroon, who made an immediate impression in the tournament by turning out in sleeveless shirts - a new fashion statement in soccer circles - also made an impression with their play.

They won all three games and did not concede a goal as they sailed through the first round, have been in Sikasso for nearly two weeks.

On Monday, they face either Zambia, Senegal, Egypt or Tunisia in their quarter-final and have one eye fixed already on retaining the title they won two years ago.

The athletes's village which they shared with their first round opponents still is not finished - piles of rubble lie everywhere - and, on the first day, players said they were offered only rice and water at the restaurant. A worried Sports Ministry in Yaounde quickly sent a planeload of food and a cook to the team.

But players still have to cope with the boredom and heat, as well as one of the bumpiest pitches they say they have ever played on.

All this contributed to indifferent performances in Cameroon's first two games as they overcame the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ivory Coast 1-0, with Patrick Mboma scoring both the goals.

A significant improvement followed in the 3-0 win over Togo - although poor Togolese finishing let the Indomitable Lions off the hook in the first half.

"It's not that easy to play here, because of the weather and the pitch," said Suffo. "We have found it very hard to pass the ball, the ball bounces all over the place and you cannot play the way you want."

Captain Rigobert Song added that teams made an extra effort when facing the defending champions. "We want to play well in every game but every team plays better against Cameroon and, when they play against us, they defend, it is difficult for us to play well."

"We want go keep going and win every game because we want to keep the trophy. We want to be the best in Africa."

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