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Personal Penalties

Anne Mireille Nzouankeu / Twenty Ten

Location: Yaoundé, Cameroon

The reaction of fans to players’ failures.

Associated features on women in soccer: A female football fan, Ghana (Photo feature), Old is gold, Kenya (Photo feature), Girlfriends (Photo feature), La Femme en Noir, Congo (Photo feature), Football Iron Lady, Liberia (Photo feature), Hijabs for soccer boots, Egypt (Audio feature), Femme et foot, Burkina Faso (Audio feature), Women supporters, Ghana (Audio feature), Sudan female football (Audio feature), Women in Egypt (Audio feature), Femme arbitre, Congo (Audio feature), Femme de footballeur (French translation), Passion de femme (Text feature) and War on women (Text feature)

On October 7, 2005, Cameroon played against Egypt, in their last qualifying match for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. At the end of the game, the score was one-all and a penalty shoot-out was necessary.

The shot by Pierre Womé, the Cameroonian defender, hit the post and missed the opponent's nets. Through that missed shot, Cameroon lost the game and failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup.

When he returned to Cameroon, Pierre Womé received numerous threats and criticisms. Infuriated fans set his girlfriend's hair salon on fire and the player's house, as well as one of his cars, were vandalised.

The anger did not stop there. It also reared its ugly head in the highest echelons of Cameroonian football management. Pierre Womé was systematically dropped from the squad and did not take part in the 2006 African Cup of Nations.

Everyone had quickly forgotten that, at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Pierre Womé had scored the last penalty kick which gave Cameroon the Olympic title.

Further afield, supporters are rather more understanding. In the final of the 2006 African Cup of Nations, Didier Drogba, the Ivorian striker, missed a crucial penalty kick against Egypt. Côte d'Ivoire lost the African Champion title contest, but Didier Drogba remains, to this day, adulated by his countrymen. In the 1994 soccer World Cup final, in the United States, Roberto Baggio, the then captain of the Italian national squad, failed to convert his penalty kick against Brazil, thus giving the world championship title to the Brazilians. However, Roberto Baggio continued to be loved by the Italian population, until his retirement from international football.

Unfortunately, in Cameroon, the same grace is not extended to players. After the coach, the goalkeeper is the usual scapegoat of Cameroonian fans, who quickly forget his good games and choose to dwell on the balls he misses.

M.N., a young Cameroonian woman, dated a national goalkeeper for a year. Shortly after the beginning of the relationship, Cameroon played and lost an international game.

“Three supporters came to my residence and told me: you must tell your sieve (boyfriend) to leave our goals. He must give make way for someone else. A little while later, another group of supporters passing in front of my house, shouted that my boyfriend was a poor player,” M.N. recounts.

On the morning following the game, she could hear provocative comments being made whenever people recognised her. M.N. adds that when she told her boyfriend about what had happened, he replied: “It is always like that. For the next games, you should not be home alone or open to anyone. Or you rather watch the game elsewhere.”

Other supporters, instead of showing up to the player's, or his girlfriend's home, prefer to vent during interactive radio shows. They call in to insult the guilty player and demand his replacement. Similarly, when supporters are pleased with a footballer's performance, they come from across the city to greet him and talk with him, sometimes for hours.

In Cameroon, every supporter is a potential coach, who insists on having his opinion taken into account by the official manager. Supporters watch the players during practice, so to share, after the session, their opinion with the coach. For the 1990 World Cup, the Russian manager of Cameroon's national team, Valeri Nepomniachi, didn’t select Roger Milla, on the ground that he was too old. Then aged 39, the striker had been, for a long time, a favourite choice in the national squad, before being progressively sidelined in favour of younger players. Valeri Nepomniachi's decision was strongly criticised, almost leading to a popular uprising by supporters. The country's president, Paul Biya, intervened personally so that the manager included Roger Milla in the squad taking part in that World Cup.

Cameroon's defeat against Japan last June 14, was perceived to be the result of Paul Le Guen's risky decision to play Samuel Eto'o on the right wing. Following this, supporters expressed harsh criticism, but, this time around, the coach deserved it. Indeed, the defeat on June 14 is painful, especially knowing that Cameroon hadn’t lost any of their first matches in all five appearances in the World Cup, and given that Japan appeared to be the easiest tem to beat in group E.

For once, the criticisms of supporters, from which no one is spared, were fully justified.

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