By Zecharias Zelalem
2017 has barely commenced, but if there is one man in the sporting world who wishes already that he could redo the year all over again, it’s Liverpool (not Cameroon) defender Joel Matip. The 25 year old of Cameroonian parentage provoked the ire of African football fans when he led a merry band of eight professional footballers in rejecting call ups to the Indomitable Lions set up ahead of the 2017 African Cup of Nations in Gabon. Cameroon of course, went on to win the tournament.
Joel Matip was severely criticized by former teammates, fans as well as African football pundits who blasted his decision to prioritize his club career at Liverpool over wearing the national team jersey. “I don’t understand people turning down their country,” former Senegal striker El Hadji Diouf later told the BBC. “And like the legend Bob Marley always said ‘if you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where to go.”
Since Cameroon’s unlikely triumph in Gabon, the eight players have been the butt of endless jokes, mockery and a source of ridicule on social media. Rejecting their country has immediately come back to haunt them. For the most part, the players missed out on winning one of the biggest honours in football for a sequence of league/cup games whose importance cannot be compared to the showcase event in Gabon that was watched by over six billion viewers. The team they saw as downtrodden and unworthy of their presence went on to great heights, completing a fairytale ending to the tournament a task made more difficult by the refusal of so many players to pull on a Cameroon jersey.
On the day his team were crowned African champions, Cameroon’s jubilant head coach Hugo Broos could not resist taunting Matip. “OK, it’s their decision,” the Belgian national told reporters at a press conference. “But maybe they are saying now to themselves, “S***! Why didn’t I go with them!?”
What makes Matip’s case different from the other seven is the course of events surrounding his snub of the national team. Up until a week before the start of the tournament, The Cameroonian FA (FECAFOOT) were still keen on convincing Joel Matip to end his self initiated exile from the national team. And why not? After having spent his entire career at Schalke in the Bundesliga, he had adjusted to life in the English Premiership quite well, quickly becoming an integral part of Jurgen Klopp’s new look Liverpool side. Besides his recent form, he had always performed well in the colours of Cameroon, scoring the nation’s only goal at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in a 4-1 to the hosts Brazil, a bright point in what was otherwise a disastrous showing for Cameroon at that tournament. His presence would have greatly improved the depth of talent in the Cameroonian squad without a doubt.
But Joel Matip stubbornly refused to reconsider. Liverpool FC fan websites published articles in which he reiterated a desire to remain focused on ensuring Liverpool’s maintain pace with the league leaders, at the expense of playing for his country. Liverpool fans celebrated the decision, especially as they would already have to deal with the departure of Senegalese international Sadio Mane and praised Matip for his loyalty to the club.
Cameroon FA officials were reportedly furious, and attempted to legally block Matip from playing for Liverpool via a clause that would have obligated Liverpool to obtain a letter of permission from the Cameroonian FA before fielding their former player. Liverpool brought the case up with FIFA. Unsure of what the consequences of fielding Matip would be, Liverpool opted not to play him in the club’s third round FA Cup tie against Plymouth, fearing legal repercussions. Eventually, FIFA sided with Liverpool.
“Playing for the national team, in my opinion it’s the biggest thing for a player, if you want it,” an exasperated Klopp told the Liverpool official website. “But if you don’t want to, because of different reasons, you shouldn’t have to!”
Klopp also made it clear that Matip himself was raring to go for Liverpool and was unhappy with the Cameroon FA’s pursuit of him. But Matip himself spoke not a word on the case to media, shying away from the media. African media would have hounded him to justify his staunch refusal to travel to Gabon. The only public statements Matip gave were to Liverpool FC oriented websites, and they were on the team’s chances this season. Throughout the saga, he remained hidden from reach. Matip isn’t the first player in African history to refuse a national team call up. But after spending five years in the national team and travelling to two world cup, one would at least expect he’d put on his big boy pants and directly address the millions of Cameroonian football fans who had supported him since his debut as a teenager and explain to them why he didn’t see their favourite football side as a worthy platform for his efforts anymore. His cowardly refusal to communicate directly with fans is an insult in itself.
Cameroon, meanwhile got off to a rather slow start in Gabon, but progressed as the tournament wore on. They survived the group stage rather unconvincingly, and were pitted against favourites Senegal in the quarterfinal. Despite Cameroon’s feat, none of the eight players publicly expressed support for their country’s team. Probably upon realizing the amount of rhetorical egg they’d have to wipe off their faces in the event of a Cameroonian title win, it isn’t farfetched to say the likes of Matip were rooting for the Senegal, Ghana and even Egypt in the final to win it all ahead of Cameroon.
As Cameroon clinched a semi final berth defeating Senegal in a penalty shootout, Liverpool suffered elimination from both domestic cup tournaments in a matter of days. A ten game run without a win put them out of the English Premier League title race. In the time it took Cameroon’s rather lackluster 23 man national selection to turn into a well oiled machine capable of challenging for big honours, Liverpool’s AND Joel Matip’s season had collapsed.
Matip was quoted as earlier saying his refusal to play for Cameroon was due to a desire to maintain his place in the Liverpool lineup while the team challenges for honours. Cameroon was on the brink of glory and Matip was on the verge of becoming the biggest laughingstock in the football world. To add insult to injury, Sadio Mane, who had left to play for Senegal at the AFCON, returned and after a single game, promptly regained his spot in the starting lineup. He didn’t skip a beat, which also served to make Matip look quite bad. Around this time, Matip deactivated all of his social media accounts. His Instagram, Facebook and Twitter pages went offline as he was clearly unable to deal with the heavy backlash from his regrettable decision.
And then, Cameroon was crowned African champions. In an amazing Cinderella-esque finish, the demoralized Cameroonian national team camp, completed with reserve and standby call-ups, came from behind to defeat Egypt in Libreville 2-1. Vincent Aboubakar scored a fantastic half volley to send his country into dreamland, and to turn February 6th 2017 into an unforgettable nightmare for eight young men.
It has been nearly three weeks since that unforgettable day in Cameroonian football history. The likes of former national team heroes Samuel Etoo and Roger Milla were seen celebrating the achievement, as the newest national team heroes paraded the stadium with their trophy. They arrived in Yaoundé to a hero’s’ welcome. All the while, the eight miserable men who turned down the opportunity to join the ranks of these Indomitable Lions turned legends, remained muted.
Except for one man, that is.
West Bromwich Albion defender Allan Nyom. He claimed to have “no regrets” over snubbing Cameroon head coach Hugo Broos’ call up. “If before the tournament they had told me ‘Cameroon is going to win and you are not part of the squad’, I don’t mind because I’m happy I’m playing for my club,” he told British media. “It’s much more important for me.”
In a sign that Nyom was clearly irritated with the endless probing and prodding that he and the others are receiving in the aftermath of Cameroon’s becoming African champions, he had to be coaxed by a BBC journalist to send a message to his victorious compatriots. “Congratulations,” was all he could muster.
Three weeks later, Joel Matip has still remained silent on the whole affair. All of his social media accounts remain offline. Perhaps wisely, as to avoid looking rather sheepish like Allan Nyom did in his BBC interview. But principally, it is most likely due to the fact that he wouldn’t be able to deny the fact that he going to go down in history as one of the biggest losers in African football. Rare are cases of a player’s scoffing at his own national team’s advances backfiring this spectacularly. When young aspiring African footballers are lectured by their wiser older counterparts, they will be told of the prestige of national team duty. No matter how many goals he scores at the “Kop,” no matter where in Europe his career takes him, 25 year old Joel Matip has set his legacy in stone. The player traded a shot at African glory for a mundane run of fixtures in England, only to ruefully see everything crumble all around him while the ex teammates he had turned his back on sailed to glory in Gabon. This is the reality he cannot escape from, no matter how long he keeps his social media accounts offline, no matter how long he remains sheltered by the Liverpool city media.
If there is a silver lining in all this, it’s that young African starlets will think twice about refusing the honour of donning the national team kit, at the risk of being branded the next Joel Matip.
Zecharias Zelalem is a regular contributor to Ethiosports. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the view of Ethiosports.