Can Cameroon discover their roar at the World Cup qualifiers?
CACERES (Spain) - In recent years, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon have found themselves falling short or luck eluding them on the international basketball scene.
As Cameroon ready themselves for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 African Qualifiers in Dakar, Senegal, later this week (25-27 February), they will hope good fortune befalls them.
"WE NEED TO BE SELFLESS. WE HAVE TO PLACE THE NEEDS OF THE TEAM AHEAD OF THE INDIVIDUAL."
Before delving into the World Cup Qualifiers, a look back at some of Cameroon's previous excursions during the FIBA calendar indicate they are team with potential, but for different reasons they have failed to crack the ceiling.
Can Cameroon discover their roar at the World Cup Qualifiers?
After hosting and enjoying a good AfroBasket qualifying campaign in February last year, the actual tournament in Rwanda in August proved a disastrous one for Cameroon.
During the AfroBasket, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc in the Central African team's camp. A couple of players tested positive for the virus, which derailed the campaign of the Lions, who lost their three group games.
One of the players who had to sit out in that tournament after contracting COVID was forward Benoit Mbala, who expressed his disappointment of missing out on the action in Rwanda.
"As soon as I landed in Kigali, they informed me that I tested positive. I was in quarantine for a week. At that point, it was the end of the competition for me. I could not do anything about it because the rules are the rules," said Mbala, who plays in the Spanish LEB Oro (second division) for Caceres Ciudad del Baloncesto.
The 26-year-old Mbala points out how the loss of three other players ruined Cameroon's chances of advancing in that tournament.
"I could not go to the shoot around. I could not touch a basketball because I had to isolate myself. That was very hard mentally and emotionally. Also, having four players out of the tournament was difficult for us, but it happened. Given the current climate (of COVID), it can happen to any team," said Mbala, who has played for clubs in Mexico, France and South Korea.
Benoit Mbala is seen in action against Angola during the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup African Qualifiers in Luanda
Another event that bothers Mbala in his international career is missing out on qualifying for the 2019 FIBA World Cup by a whisker. After a marathon qualifying process, Cameroon, who were level on points with the Cote d'Ivoire, would eventually lose out on points differential to their fellow West Africans during the 2017-2019 window period.
"It was painful because, as basketball players, you look forward to participating in those kinds of tournaments. We were almost there, but we missed out because of a couple of points. I'm not going to lie. It was a hard pill to swallow," said Mbala, who chose to take the positives from that qualifying process. "It proved we were good enough. We have to do better in how we take care of our business. We lost games that we should have won, and we found ourselves in that situation."
He added: "If we don't go, it must be because the other team deserved it and not because of a points differential. Losing that way is painful."
Benoit Mbala made his debut for Cameroon senior team at 2017 AfroBasket in Tunisia
Mbala and his teammates will have to put those miserable campaigns behind them and focus on finding their roar ahead of the World Cup African Qualifiers in Dakar.
Cameroon are in Group B alongside Rwanda, South Sudan and African champions Tunisia.
Mbala is confident they will give a better display as they try to book their ticket for the global event in Indonesia, Japan and the Philippines next year.
"We are in a great group, but I believe in my teammates. Last year's AfroBasket was not a good representation of our capabilities. This time I think we can do great things. All we have to do is give our best and win two out of our three games. Then, who knows!" said Mbala, who emphasized Cameroon needing to play as a team. "Things will be different this time around. We have new guys coming in that will bring a different energy to the team. We also need to be selfless. We have to place the needs of the team ahead of the individual."
Cameroon and Mbala know all about hitting rock bottom, but hopefully, from being in the pits, they picked up a few nuggets that will help them spring a surprise or two in Dakar.