His touch and vision were those of a master and African football has lost one of its most skilful midfielders
Some time towards the end of January, Théophile Abega stopped replying to my calls. I was in Equatorial Guinea, heading on to Cameroon, and was keen to meet him, partly to talk about the rivalry between Thomas N'kono and Joseph-Antoine Bell for my book on goalkeeping but mainly because, well, because he was Théophile Abega, one of the most skilful African midfielders of all time, the man who led Cameroon in 1984 to their first Cup of Nations triumph, scoring a brilliant goal in the final.
He'd initially seemed enthusiastic about the interview so I was baffled by his sudden silence. In Yaoundé and with a few hours to spare, I decided to try to track him down. Until his death earlier this month, Abega was the mayor of the sixth arrondissement of Yaoundé, so I headed for the town hall, a long, low building forming three sides of a rectangle around a car-park of packed mud.
Through the main door was a vast gloomy room in which rows upon row of women sat typing, some at computers and some at typewriters. Fans lazily circulated the humid air. Everywhere there were groups of people, talking, arguing, waving pieces of paper. Asking for the mayor, I was directed to a small office in the far corner. Squeezing through the door, which would not open fully, I saw a desk piled high with papers. Behind it, an enormous cream-coloured Stetson on his head, sat a powerful, slightly rotund man in his 50s, sweat beading on his forehead, rolling down his neck. This, it took me a few moments to realise, was Abega, a footballer of such intelligence he was nicknamed "Doctor", turned into a bureaucratic Boss Hogg, wearily reading papers and signing them, shuffling documents from one teetering column to another.
Around him, seemingly waiting anxiously, sat three men, whether petitioners or lackeys it was impossible to say. One of them, leaning forward as though imparting a great secret, murmured: "Abega wore the number 14 shirt at Italia 90, and it was the 14th World Cup. That's not coincidence."
Maybe not but neither was it true: Abega retired in 1987 from the after-effects of an injury suffered in a collision with the Zambian goalkeeper Efford Chabala at the Cup of Nations a year earlier.
I waited my turn. He was profoundly apologetic. He had changed networks, he explained, and that was why he had not responded to my calls. Yes, he was still keen to do the interview: would I like to go to his house for dinner that night?
He lived in a huge compound, his house at one side of a courtyard, a bar standing diagonally opposite it. "An investment," he explained.
Before heading inside for dinner, we had a beer, sitting on wicker chairs that seemed more in keeping with a Caribbean beach than the interior of Cameroon, surrounded by election posters promoting Paul Biya, who came to power in 1982 – and, notoriously, insisted on Roger Milla's inclusion in the squad for the 1990 World Cup. Abega was a committed supporter of the president and clearly hoped being mayor of the largest district of Yaoundé was a stepping stone to even greater things.
His views on football, though, remain trenchant. "African football is on a downturn because teams like Equatorial Guinea and Gabon are beating sides like Morocco and Senegal," he said. "Something is fundamentally wrong. In my day we went and beat these countries 7-0 or 9-0."
Abega was speaking shortly after a Cup of Nations for which Cameroon had failed to qualify. A few months later they failed to qualify for next year's competition, the first time in 33 years that Cameroon had missed out on successive tournaments. Abega had been key in making Cameroon a power. After missing four tournaments in a row they qualified in 1982, the year when they attracted global attention at the World Cup finals by drawing against Peru, Poland and Italy, being eliminated by Italy only on goals scored.
"Cameroon had great fighting spirit," he said. "That was our modus operandi in our heyday. Cameroonian players were once big and strong but now they are like the Gabonese. We used to play a strong game with towering players but now it doesn't look like Cameroon. I don't know why but nowadays they are not physical any more. Sometimes we won games before they had started with our size. We intimidated the Italians in '82 even though they were notorious for the rugged game they played. We could feel that they were scared to death. Now when we play Gabon or even Equatorial Guinea they think they can win because they're capitalising on the sizes of the players. They realise that Cameroon doesn't have impressive footballers any more."
His theory as to why that should be was rooted in the regional and religious politics that bubble under the surface in Cameroon – a not entirely plausible claim that northern (Muslim) players were selected less for ability than to fulfil some sort of quota. He even saw in the lengthy ban that Samuel Eto'o has now served – imposed for the de facto strike he led in protest at unpaid bonuses – a conspiracy to create discontent to try to bring people out on to the streets to demonstrate against Biya's 30-year reign.
It wasn't just with the national team that Abega explored new heights. He spent a decade at Canon in which they won four Cameroonian championships, five Cameroonian Cups, two African Champions Cups and appeared in three Cup-Winners' Cups finals, winning one. He joined them in 1974 but it was after his performance in the 1977 Cup final, when he scored the winner despite still being a student at the Obala Lycée, that made him a star. He became the inspiration for the golden age of Cameroonian football. He saw in those successes the blueprint for Cameroon's future.
"Canon had a sand pitch," he said, "just mud, where we trained, but that didn't stop us winning African Champions Cups. A lot of teams try to play in the European way but they'd be better off sticking to the African game. Unlike in Europe, where people play for results and if you win the match 1-0 you're happy, in Africa people want the pleasure of watching a good match. When I look at the players I see fear in their eyes."
Abega never played with fear. Modern coaches might quibble about his lack of positional sense or his inconsistent tracking but he was a player of his time. His touch and vision were those of a master; he was a leader who could transform games. In February he seemed robust, optimistically mapping out his political career as a Biya loyalist.
There was nothing to suggest ill health, which is why the news that he had suffered a heart attack earlier this month came as such a shock.
Another part of Cameroon's footballing history has been lost. He was only 58 but Abega will not be replying to anybody's calls again.