A second consecutive World Cup appearance, having qualified for a major tournament for the first time as recently as the 2012 Olympics, confirms the impression Cameroon made four years ago as a team on the rise. One of the surprises of the tournament in 2015, Cameroon beat Switzerland in the group phase and became just the second African team to reach the knockout round -- matching the total number of knockout games Nigeria had played in its seven World Cups prior to this year.
Where African teams like Ivory Coast and Equatorial Guinea were unable to quickly build on recent World Cup debuts, Cameroon's return strengthens its foothold in the international game (it even qualified for each of the past two U-17 World Cups, suggesting the potential for more to come).
How they got here
After qualifying with a game to spare in 2015, getting back to the World Cup went the distance this time. Cameroon first needed to get through a difficult group in the 2018 African Cup of Nations -- it trailed in both its opener against Mali and the group finale against host Ghana but won both games.
Having survived to top the group, Cameroon then lost a penalty shootout against perennial power Nigeria in a semifinal. That meant the trip to France depended on a rematch with Mali in the third-place game. Not until Gabrielle Onguéné scored after more than an hour was that victory secure.
This is a group that knows what awaits in France. Of the 13 players who spent time on the field in the knockout-round loss to China in 2015, 12 are part of the roster four years later. There are almost as many holdovers from the 2012 Olympics. With an average age beyond 27 years, it is a veteran team. It is also a team that added some fresh depth this time with American-born players Michaela Abam, Estelle Johnson and Easther Mayi Kith, all products of NCAA soccer.
Yet it might also be a rusty team. Two games in China in April and a May warm-up friendly against Spain were the only full-fledged international games played between qualifying last November and the start of the World Cup. On top of that, Cameroon dismissed coach Joseph Ndoko in January, leaving new coach Alain Djeumfa few opportunities to audition players or test anything under game conditions. Djeumfa was on the staff previously, so at least he won't have to introduce himself, but it adds a layer of complication.
Money Stat: +5
Cameroon's goal differential. Only France, Germany, Switzerland and the United States finished the 2015 World Cup with a better goal differential than Cameroon, which scored five more goals than it conceded in four games. Granted, that had a lot to do with piling up goals against Ecuador in group play, but it also says something about how competitive Cameroon was from start to finish in its World Cup debut -- a distinct improvement on its 2012 Olympics effort. Unlike then-newbie Thailand, which beat Ivory Coast in 2015 but was routed in its other games, Cameroon was competitive in every game.
Players to watch
Michaela Abam: The Houston-area product starred at West Virginia in college and spent time with U.S. youth national teams. She was then the fourth overall pick in the 2018 NWSL draft but played only a handful of games for Sky Blue before she signed with Paris FC in France's top division. It remains to be seen where she fits in, but it's not inconceivable she could become to Cameroon what Janine Beckie, another American-born player from the Big 12, is for Canada.
Gabrielle Onguéné: She scored the second-half equalizer that set Cameroon on the path to its historic win against Switzerland in the last World Cup and has been a productive goal scorer in the Russian league in the years since. More recently, coming off the bench for the only time in the team's five games in the final phase of the African Cup of Nations, she scored the eventual winner in the game against Mali that clinched World Cup qualification on a gorgeous strike from beyond 20 yards. If there are more skilled attacking players among World Cup entrants ranked outside FIFA's top 20, it's a very short list.
The group finale against New Zealand could effectively be its own knockout game. Four years ago, two of the three third-place finishers with three points advanced from the group phase. So while any point against Canada or the Netherlands would be huge, even a decent goal difference from those games might be enough with a win against the Kiwis.
"At times, we are forced to relocate matches or simply postpone them because we can't afford to play on rocky pitches in this era. The way women's football is structured in Cameroon isn't reflective of the country's reputation as a continental heavyweight." -- former Cameroon international Regine Mvoue
"The Lionesses have a good coach in Alain Djeumfa, but things aren't made easy for him. The women's league hasn't started and it's difficult for him to scout for players. We have to be pragmatic. I fear with such poor preparation we may have a poor output in France." -- Cameroonian soccer coach Victorine Fomum
Both teams that are probably vying for third place in this group are experienced. Both have also dealt with less-than-ideal conditions off the field in the months leading up to this World Cup. But New Zealand has at least had an opportunity to play games for new coach Tom Sermanni. Look for Cameroon to again be competitive but fail to replicate getting out of the group.