Theophile Abega: Cameroon’s first true genius

In his homeland Theophile Abega is rightly regarded as a footballing legend yet further afield his name is barely known. Here we take a look back at the career of a man who lit up both the domestic and international stage.

Who is Theophile Abega?

Abega was born on July 9th 1954 and grew up in Cameroon’s capital city, Yaounde. He penned a deal with the main club in the city, Canon Yaounde, in 1974. It was there where he started to display the qualities he became known for. His influence on the team was phenomenal as they won five league cups, four league titles, an African Cup Winners Cup and two African Champion Cups, which is the African Champions League equivalent, in his decade long stay in his homeland. His style of play earned him the nickname of ‘the Doctor’ such was his ability to manipulate play and surgically pick apart a defence.

In July 1984, Abega changed clubs for the first time. It was a dramatic shift too with the creative midfielder moving to Toulouse in France. His time in southern France was relatively short lived. A move to Swiss side Vevey United came just two years – and 22 league appearances – later. Again, his spell only lasted 24 months. This time it was curtains to his career at the age of just 33. A year prior to his retirement was perhaps the telling moment. Abega clashed with goalkeeper Efford Chabala during an African Cup on Nations tie with Zambia and, although it wasn’t instant, the trickster never fully recovered and opted to call it a day.

Setting the standards for Cameroon 

It’s hard to imagine Cameroon not being one of the more dominant sides of African football nowadays with their status in world football elevated courtesy of a Roger Milla inspired 1990 World Cup quarter-final appearance with the likes of global star Samuel Eto’o keeping that momentum going strong through the 2000’s. It hasn’t always been that way though.

For starters, the nation didn’t exist in a footballing sense until 1956. That’s two years after Abega was born. Their first African Cup of Nations appearance came in 1970 when they were knocked out in the group stage. Their first major tournament in Abega’s career came in 1982 when they suffered another group stage elimination. Then came the World Cup in 1982.

They were paired with Italy, Poland and Peru in the opening stage. Although they went unbeaten – drawing all three games – they were edged out on the goals scored rule by Italy who pipped them to second place before going on to sensationally win the tournament. It was far from the journey Cameroon and Abega wanted. It did, however, represent a first World Cup appearance for the Indomitable Lions. Abega had played in every match. The exit might have been early but they were by no means disgraced and the experience would prove invaluable.

Kicking on

Two years passed with Abega helping Yaounde to league and cup success before another Cup of Nations rolled around. This time, Abega was skipper and, boy oh boy, did the Doctor deliver. Things didn’t get off to a flying start with Egypt beating Cameroon in the opener but game two saw Abega star in a 4-1 win over Togo with a goal in each half the icing on an impressive performance before a 2-0 defeat of hosts Ivory Coast secured qualification to the knockout phases. That put the Indomitable Lions into a semi-final with Algeria, which ended 0-0. Cameroon prevailed 5-4 on penalties. Then came the final.

Abega led his team out at the Stade Felix Houphouet-Boigny in front of 40,000 fans. Nigeria, though, were heavy favourites to lift the trophy. Things looked to be playing out that way too when the Super Eagles took an early lead. Rene N’Djeya levelled things up on 32 before Abega stepped up to the plate to give Cameroon the lead with just 13 minutes left. It was a goal that epitomised him too.

He picked the ball up just inside the Nigeria half, carried it past the opposing defenders before exchanging passes with Milla on the edge of the area and coolly slotted home. Just five minutes later Ernest Ebongue wrapped things up. Abega, who was named player of the tournament, held aloft the first African Cup of Nations trophy in his country’s history. The award for African player of the Year deservedly came his way later that year.

Why was Abega admired so much?

Although Abega spent a few years in Europe, he wasn’t a fan of the tactical discipline that was often demanded. The Doctor played a central midfield position. He wasn’t a huge fan of tracking runners with his preference to express himself on the ball through jinking runs, clever flicks and audacious passing. In many ways, he played the game how the African fans watched it – with passion, flamboyance and, most importantly, with a smile on his face.

There you have it, the footballing career of one of Africa’s lesser known gems, Theophile Abega. A true legend of Cameroon and always fondly remembered after his tragic passing in 2014 at the age of just 58.

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