Over the history of the Olympic Games a number of teams have reached such heights that they can only be described as incredible. Tokyo 2020 revisits the stories of these unforgettable teams and the star players that helped them light up the Olympic Games. In the latest part of our series, we look back at the Cameroon men's football team that triumphed at Sydney 2000.
"We hadn't necessarily gone to Sydney to win. We'd gone for an adventure." – Cameroon striker Patrick Suffo talking to ESPN.
How it started
Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Looking back at the Cameroon team that made history at Sydney 2000, it's easy now to see that they had the makings of one of the greatest football teams to ever emerge from Africa. It's easy to point to the goalkeeping brilliance of Carlos Kameni or the accomplishments of Lauren, a key member of Arsenal's 'invincibles' who went through the entire 2003-2004 Premier League season unbeaten. And it only takes a swift glance at the illustrious resume of three-time Champions League winner Samuel Eto'o – arguably the greatest African player of them all – to know that there was something undoubtedly special about this group of players.
But in the year 2000, all of those achievements were yet to come. At the time, the greatest thing this Cameroon team had was promise.
Exactly 10 years earlier, Cameroon had announced themselves on the international stage, as a team led by Roger Milla lit up the Italia '90 World Cup, beating world champions Argentina on their way to the quarter-finals.
Then four years prior to Sydney, the Nigerian Super Eagles – led by the irrepressible Jay-Jay Okocha and Nwankwo Kanu – had become the first-ever African nation to win Olympic football gold.
But on 13 February of the first Olympic year of the new century, Cameroon's Indomitable Lions had taken the title of Africa's best team after beating Nigeria on penalties in the final of the African Cup of Nations.
On that occasion, Cameroon had blown a two-goal lead in regulation time before Rigobert Song scored the all-important spot-kick that would seal victory after the match ended 2-2.
Little did they know how close history would come to repeating itself as their Olympic adventure came to its conclusion mere months later in Sydney.
The biggest wins
“Cameroon players like to attack. My policy is that if we are attacking the other team can’t attack us." – Cameroon Coach Jean-Paul Akono talking to the Los Angeles Times.
Perhaps the first great hurdle standing in Cameroon's way en route to the Olympic final was their last-eight matchup against Brazil. A crowd of 37,332 watched on in the repurposed Brisbane Cricket Ground, as the Lions lined up against a Brazil squad that included future Chelsea star Alex, defender Lucio – who went on to star for Inter Milan and Juventus, and one of the greatest players to ever grace a field of football: Ronaldinho.
A game that began with Patrick M'Boma firing home a 25m free-kick to give Cameroon the lead in the 25th minute, descended into chaos as the Lions' Geremi and Aaron Nguimbat were shown red cards before the final whistle. And when Ronaldinho showed his own dead-ball mastery with a stunning 94th-minute free-kick from the edge of the box to change the momentum of the game, it looked as if there would be only one winner.
But as extra time began, Cameroon continued to attack and in the 113th minute of the game, Modeste M'Bami found the corner of the net from 18 yards to seal a golden goal victory.
The Lions were on their way.
Having negotiated a 1-2 comeback victory against Chile in the semi-finals, Cameroon faced their toughest test of the tournament in the Olympic final against Spain.
At Sydney's Olympic Stadium, 104,000 spectators watched the men in green take on Xavi, Carles Puyol et al, as Spain's La Roja staked their own claim for the title of Olympic champions.
And history was waiting patiently to rear its head.
Just seven months earlier in Nigeria, Cameroon had squandered a 2-0 lead before winning a penalty shoot-out to secure the African Cup of Nations title. This time, it was Cameroon who found themselves two goals down – the first after only 78 seconds.
But as their nickname suggests, the Indomitable Lions would not be beaten. Led by the imperious Eto'o, Cameroon came out swinging in the second half, as a 53rd minute Amaya own goal was followed five minutes later by an Eto'o strike that levelled the scores.
As the final whistle blew and penalties loomed, five touches of the ball separated Cameroon from glory.
M'Boma, Eto'o, Geremi, Lauren, Womé. Those are the names of the Cameroonian heroes whose penalty kicks brought home their country's first-ever Olympic football gold medal.
In the end, all it took was a strike from Spain's Amaya to bounce against the bar for Cameroon to triumph by the finest of margins. But what was a cruel end to Spain's Olympic journey remains – to this day – the greatest footballing triumph for the nation of Cameroon.
Gold Medal Match
The key players
Olympic Football is essentially an under 23s tournament with only three overage players allowed per squad. As such, it often gives people their first glimpse of the stars that will go on to light up world football in years to come.
Carlos Kameni was only 16-years-old when he took part in Sydney 2000, but his heroics – particularly against Brazil – would prove integral to his country's Olympic victory. Patrick M'Boma, who played for Barcelona B at the time, scored four goals on his way to the final, making him Cameroon's top scorer in the tournament. He would later go on to have a stellar international career, with 33 goals from 57 appearances.
But it was Eto'o who would make the greatest statement of intent, with his second-half strike sealing the comeback against Spain.
As he burst through the last line of Spain's defence before dinking the ball past the goalkeeper, it's easy – in hindsight – to see that you were witnessing the blueprint of a career that would make him one of Africa's most successful players.
What happened next?
The Sydney 2000 Olympic gold medal was followed by an African Cup of Nations victory in 2002. But the country that triumphed in Australia failed to win another major international tournament for another 15 years, when they once again won the continental crown with a 2-1 victory over Egypt.
However, many of the players who starred at Sydney 2000 did go on to enjoy impressive careers at some of Europe's greatest clubs.
Kameni, now 37, played for Espanyol and Malaga, before representing Turkey's Fenerbahçe until as recently as 2019. Left-back Pierre Wome won a 2006 Serie A title with Inter Milan, having previously enjoyed successful spells in England, Spain and Germany. Goalscoring hero M'Boma played for Paris Saint-Germain and Parma, before turning out for a number of clubs in Japan, including Gamba Osaka, Tokyo Verdy and Vissel Kobe.
And then there is Eto'o.
Three Champions League titles, two AFCON titles, three La Liga titles, four African Player of the Year awards and an Olympic gold medal. The star of Sydney remains arguably the most influential African athlete to have ever laced up a pair of football boots.