Akono has already achieved one glorious success with Cameroon; leading them to qualification for the Africa Cup of Nations might be an even greater achievement
In the worst crises emerge the greatest heroes – or at least that's what Cameroon are hoping. On Sunday, they face Cape Verde in their play-off for Africa Cup of Nations qualification, trailing 2-0 from the first leg. The Ahmadou Ahidjo in Yaounde will be packed. It'll be tense but, remarkably given the situation a month ago, it will be optimistic.
Denis Lavagne has been removed as national coach and replaced by the former centre-back Jean-Paul Akono, the man who led them to Olympic gold in 2000. He has persuaded Samuel Eto'o to return from his exile and, for once, all the talk is of unity – even if, in the case of the Cameroonian federation (Fecafoot), that is grudging.
"When Fifa learnt that the Cameroon government had appointed a coach without involving the federation, it asked questions," it said in a statement read by its by vice-president John B Ndeh. It had earlier revealed the decision to appoint Akono had been taken by the Cameroon sports minister Adoum Garoua while Fecafoot was meeting in the northern town of Garoua to discuss candidates for the national job.
"Cameroon could be sanctioned if the federation is not in support [of the appointment]. The executive committee drums support for the coach Jean Paul Akono and the technical staff. We invite Cameroonians to turn out massively to egg on the Indomitable Lions to victory and qualification."
The dismissal of Lavagne, who had replaced Javier Clemente following the failure to qualify for last year's Cup of Nations, was always likely after the defeat in Praia, particularly given the 2-1 reverse in Libya in June that has complicated World Cup qualification. The appointment of Akono is more of a surprise and is indicative of the increasing influence of the former African Footballer of the Year, Jean Manga-Onguene, who was appointed as the federation's technical director last year with Akono as his deputy.
I was in Yaounde last February, researching the rivalry between Thomas Nkono and Joseph-Antoine Bell, who are probably the two greatest goalkeepers in African history but had the misfortune to be born in the same country at almost the same time. I arranged to interview Manga-Onguene and Akono, both of whom had played with Nkono at club level at Canon Yaounde and with both keepers at international level. We met at the headquarters of Fecafoot and went to a restaurant where lunch lasted most of the afternoon.
"For some time even when we were unable to win trophies, we were still performing," Akono said. "That was the time when we needed to be vigilant, when we should have been looking at the talent in the junior teams. The other thing is there was too much ego, each player trying to justify their role in the team and make money.
"The players are not to blame alone for our problems. The issue of ego was not restricted to players at all, but also to team officials, the federation. They have to take part of the blame for thinking the achievements of previous years were a natural phenomenon that would be hard to take away. The writing was on the wall from the bad run of results. We didn't look behind us to see others were making progress. Now they have caught up with us and we have only our eyes to cry with."
I ended up having dinner with the pair at Manga-Onguene's house a couple of days later, watching Sunderland beat Arsenal in the FA Cup on his television, and the next day had lunch there before heading off with Akono to Canon against Tiko United in the Cameroonian league.
Visitors kept arriving, documents were handed over, drinks were exchanged. The talk, constantly, was of football; of games they'd played, of players they rated and didn't rate, of how the Cameroonian game could be resurrected. When I left for the stadium on the Sunday afternoon, Manga-Onguene and two others were sat round a table on his veranda, huddled over a chart. Maybe he was just outlining his plan for a nationwide scouting network, but it did occur to me at the time that there seemed an unusual urgency about the discussions, a strangely conspiratorial air. I wonder now if what I was seeing was Manga-Onguene establishing his base, mobilising to take charge when crisis came.
In differing ways, both Akono and Manga-Onguene are excellent company. Manga-Onguene, a forward who was African Footballer of the Year in 1980, is slim and dapper, careful with his words and blessed with a wry humour. Akono, in his day a fearsome centre-back, has filled out since his playing career ended. The tight curls that flank his broad forehead are still there, but are grey these days – meaning that from certain angles he bears an odd resemblance to Frasier Crane, although he is mystifyingly nicknamed "Magnusson" after the former Marseille winger; he eats, drinks and laughs heartily, his conversation a torrent of anecdote and opinion.
As lunch came to an end that first day, Akono asked what I was doing that evening. I said I had an appointment with Roger Milla to which he insisted on driving me. With the windows down and James Brown blaring, we hurtled through the town to the house at the top of a hill where Milla lives. We were about half an hour early and Milla wasn't there, but he has an entourage that stays with him and they let us into a lounge. Akono promptly lay down on the sofa and went to sleep. He was still asleep when Milla arrived but we carried on with the interview regardless, the occasional snore clearly audible on the Dictaphone.
About halfway through, Akono woke and leapt from the sofa. He stamped on a cockroach, flicked it with the outside of his right foot and then, with a mighty swing, belted it through a small gap in the patio doors, before trotting back to the sofa and falling asleep again. "Even now," said Milla, "nothing ever gets past Magnusson."
Cameroon will be desperately hoping that's true. Akono, though, has made an impressive start by persuading Eto'o to return. The forward had been banned for eight months after leading what was effectively a strike over the non-payment of bonuses before a friendly against Algeria in 2011 and then refused a call-up when the suspension was lifted, citing the disorganised administration in Cameroon.
Whether Benoît Assou-Ekotto would have responded to Akono's appeals had he not been injured is unclear, but the former PSG and Marseille midfielder Modeste Mbami is back after a three-year absence and there are recalls for the forwards Mohamadou Idrissou and Pierre Webo. That has led to some criticism that the squad is too old (despite the inclusion of the 16-year-old Málaga forward Fabrice Olinga), but Akono is unconcerned. "Age does not count as long as the players are physically fit," he said. "Once they train and are competitive there is no problem."
Akono has spoken already of a short-term contract and of the difficulty of his position. Realistically, trying to overturn a two-goal deficit, no matter if Eto'o is back, no matter the atmosphere, is hugely difficult, particularly against a Cape Verde side that has improved steadily over the past few years. If the new mood of optimism is to endure, he must be allowed to oversee the World Cup qualifiers come what may. But if Cameroon could win on Sunday, if they could reassert themselves against all logic, suddenly all things would seem possible.
Akono has already achieved one glorious success with Cameroon; extricating them from the present mess might be an even greater achievement.