From its first moment on the World Cup stage, an afternoon game against Ecuador in Vancouver, Cameroon seemed to understand what this moment was about: the future.
A future that would be determined, at least to some degree, by how well Cameroon played this month at their first World Cup. This tournament was an opportunity for Cameroon to see if they could spark interest in women’s soccer back home. After all, the nation went soccer mad when its men’s team beat Argentina in the opening game of the 1990 World Cup and advanced to the quarterfinals that year. If the women’s squad demonstrated it was capable of something similar, Cameroon would likely tune in to this World Cup and then, perhaps, tune in to women’s soccer in general, if even just a little bit more.
Well, Cameroon did what it needed to do. Even though the team lost 1-0 to China in the Round of 16 on Saturday, the Lionesses very well might be the biggest winners of this tournament.
That’s not just good news for Cameroon. It’s also good news for women’s soccer, which could use some young, upstart programs possibly contending in 2019 and 2013. That kind of underdog storyline is what makes a sport tick, and having balance in the women’s game, having an African nation capable of competing with the traditional powers would catapult the best women’s sporting event in the world to even greater heights.
Every team at this World Cup is fighting for something, in addition to the golden trophy. Even the U.S. women’s team has more on the line: The National Women’s Soccer League, the third incarnation of a women’s professional league, is in only its third season, and the previous two folded. A World Cup victory wouldn’t ensure longevity — it didn’t when the U.S. won in 1999 — but it would likely provide a boost for the league and a wave of much-needed attention.
But at least the U.S. team knows that no matter what happens over the next few weeks, its soccer federation will financially support the squad as it prepares for the 2016 Olympics and fund every other tournament before then, both major and minor. That kind of security doesn’t exist for some nations, Cameroon among them. For those nations, the performance at this World Cup would have an enormous impact on the fate of women’s soccer in their country.
Realistically, Cameroon arrived in Edmonton having already arrived. The team had advanced out of group play and knew it had its nation’s attention. In the moments after Cameroon’s opening win over Ecuador, coach Enow Ngachu spoke of how the nation was taking notice and even the smallest uptick in popularity was crucial.
Three days later, star striker Gaelle Enganamouit and the rest of the team hung around with Japan, the reigning World Cup champions, and nearly found the equalizer in the final minutes. It turned out Cameroon wasn’t just good compared to Ecuador; they were simply good. Along the way, Enganamouit seemed to become a bit of a cult hero, with her streak of golden hair perhaps the coolest in the tournament and noticeable even from the nosebleeds.
By the time Saturday’s match kicked off, the crucial work was complete.
“Just today, I received over 50 messages of young girls interested in playing soccer,” Cameroon coach Enow Ngachu told reporters Friday. “I’ve given them appointments, and when we go back home, we’re going to do something. It means many women are being interested in playing soccer. Back home, even the heads of state send messages of encouragement.”
Perhaps equally important: Cameroon earned $500,000 — $375,000 plus an extra $125,000 for advancing — from FIFA, money ostensibly earmarked to fund the continued growth of the women’s game in Cameroon. Of course, where the money will actually go is another thing entirely. But at the very least, the Cameroon soccer federation must realize they have an opportunity with women’s soccer and a chance to truly compete for a World Cup.
“We need to develop women’s football,” Ngachu said. “One day, an African nation will be able to win the World Cup. We have the talent, our players are very talented. We hope with our performance, many things will change. Not just in Cameroon but in Africa.”
Things were already changing in only two weeks. In Vancouver, only a few hundred Cameroon fans were present for kickoff for the opening match against Ecuador. On Saturday, a whole corner of the stadium was filled with people wearing green and gold; the group swayed while chanting and blowing on vuvuzelas.
When the final whistle sounded, Cameroon looked crushed. Many of the players dropped to their knees. Some, doubled-over, had to be helped off by teammates.
Yes, Cameroon lost Saturday.
But keep an eye out: They will win in the long run.