Meet the Nelson Mandela of African footballThomas Kwenaite
In a glittering career that spanned almost three decades, Joseph Antoine-Bell earned the respect of his peers across the globe as one of the finest shot-stoppers during his time largely due to his safe keeping and the agility to spin acrobatically into the air and bring off a save many considered almost impossible, in the process earned a professional contract in Europe when he was 29-years old, a ripe old age when most Europeans considers you a spent force. But Jojo became such a colossal figure that even Barcelona at one stage came knocking for his services. He represented Cameroon at countless African Cup of Nations tournament and three successive World Cup finals in an international career where he earned over 50-caps in 20 years. In this revealing interview with Thomas Kwenaite, JoJo reveals how he was dropped from the national team at the World Cup finals through a political directive and also reveals why, he used to be known as the “Nelson Mandela” of African football. Although painting a gloomy picture about Cameroonian football, he is nonetheless confident that the home of the Indomitable Lions will be ready to host the 2019 African Nations Cup tournament, despite growing doubts that the Central African country will not be ready.
Thomas Kwenaite: What brings you to South Africa?
Joseph Antoine-Bell: I am one of the Morocco 2026 World Cup Bid Ambassador and together with Senegalese El Hadji Diouf; we have come to visit the South African Football Association (SAFA) President Dr Danny Jordaan to lobby his support in terms of seeking the country’s endorsement for their support.
TK: Did you and Diouf fly directly from Cameroon and Senegal respectively?
JAB: No, we flew together from Rabat where we received the Moroccan brief and then flew to Luanda. After meeting the Angolans, the Namibians hosted us and we then departed for Gaborone where MacLean Letshwiti and his federation in Botswana hosted us. Then we flew to South Africa where we rounded up our Southern African mission.
TK: The stakes seems highly stacked against the Morocco bid with FIFA seeming to shift the goalposts regarding the bidding process.
JAB: For an African country, Morocco has put together a beautiful bid and has left no stone unturned in an attempt to bring the Mundial to Africa for the second time after South Africa in 2010. We are confident that with its infrastructure and the country’s proximity to Europe and Asia, the Moroccans have a better than average chance of winning the bid.
TK: Tell us about Cameroon’s own preparations for the 2019 African Cup of Nations tournament.
JAB: Cameroon is doing fine. I hope and trust that we would be ready. In fact, I think we are going to be ready as scheduled by December. Now that the tournament has been shifted from January/February to June, it has given us more breathing space. But that does not alter the initial plans to complete the construction of new stadiums by December.
TK: We understand two venues are ready but three are behind schedule.
JAB: That is correct. You must remember Cameroon had initially prepared to host a 16-team tournament. But the tournament has since been increased to 24 teams. Nevertheless, Cameroon is far advanced in terms of preparations.
TK: Let us focus on the Indomitable Lions, how ready is the team following their implosion in qualifying attempts for Russia 2018?
JAB: Failing to qualify for the World Cup hurt us deeply. It was very painful and disappointing for Cameroon football, especially because we went into the qualifiers as African champions. But I blame the administrators because we just do not seem to have a tangible and cohesive plan in place. It seems like our administrators dropped the ball by focusing on building stadiums rather than building a competent team.
TK: What happened because even prior to the tournament in Gabon, several players withdrew from the squad and refused to represent their country.
JAB: A message was falsely spread to the world that players refused to represent the country. That is a lie. To represent your country is the highest honor and I do not believe there is a player that would refuse to represent his country. It cannot be that in this age and time, we should still have players fighting over bonuses? It’s a sign of a weak administration. If I was part of officialdom, I would have asked the players why they “refused” to honor a national call-up instead of sanctioning them. It is not true that players refused to represent their country; it is the administrators who lied to the public in order to hide their own deficiencies.
TK: There is a dispute regarding FECAFOOT executive committee members as the rightful people that should be running football in Cameroon.
JAB: The Federation of Cameroon Football (FECAFOOT) elections that brought Tombi A Roko into power was a farce and that is why it is disputed because there was a decision by the Court of Arbitration in Sport (CAS) that annulled the elections and instead ruled in favor of Abdouram Hamadou. FIFA has in the meantime established a Normalization Committee that is currently running the affairs of Cameroon football. Sadly, the incumbent president is not abiding by the court order and in his defiance; the Minister of Sport is supporting him.
TK: During the disputed elections, your candidature was rejected, what were the reasons given?
JAB: It makes me sad to announce that after serving my country loyally for over 20 years as a player during a period that I earned 50-caps, it was claimed that I am not a Cameroonian national; that I should bring documents proving that I am Cameroonian. I mean everybody knows I am Cameroonian but to go through a humiliating process in which people questioned my nationality and eligibility was not just ridiculous but plain simply insane. It is not that I failed an ethics or credibility test; they just announced that they doubted my claims of Cameroonian nationality and thus ruled me ineligible.
TK: How did you react when they questioned your nationality?
JAB: How can you label someone that represented the country for over 20 years as a foreigner, adding you do not know him? Corruption and lies are the order of the day. I find it an insult that someone can say something like that (Denying they knew him). It is all due to people refusing to relinquish power and yet have failed to deliver in more than 10 years that they have been running the game.
TK: Let us assume you get elected as president of FECAFOOT, what is it that you would implement without delay?
JAB: First get rid of incompetent people. There are people that are toxic to the whole organization and they survive by lying to the nation. I would then consider hiring a national coach on the basis of his capabilities and not because I have been promised a commission out of the transaction. The third element would be to ensure the establishment of a domestic league championship that would reach the level of South Africa. I would improve the standard of refereeing. Then I’m sure people will start flocking back to stadiums and the game will inevitably grow.
TK: You used to be called “Mandela” during your playing days, few people are aware of the fact that you used to be likened to Madiba.
JAB: We used to have never-ending problems regarding incentives. It would be either at a major tournament like the AFCON or the World Cup. But authorities never really wanted to discuss anything that had to do with the disbursement of bonuses. At one stage, the people of Cameroon were implored to donate anything they could afford in order to assist the national team to honor the World Cup finals in the United States (1994) allegedly because there was no money to send the team!
TK: How did this impact on you being labeled Madiba?
JAB: The problem is that in spite of the fact that FIFA gave every federation that had qualified for the World Cup a certain amount (€3-million) and despite the fact that for every match in which they participated at the Mundial they received (€1-million) in the group stages, and the whole country, including prisoners, street vendors, business-men, households, donated money to the team. But the said donations simply vanished. To this day nobody knows who pocketed those donations. The players hardly smelt a whiff of the money. The whole team appointed me to negotiate with FECAFOOT how much we would be paid at the Mundial. The authorities hated me and started calling me “Mandela.” I was prepared to stand up for the rights of all players and I suppose that is how the nickname Madiba came up.
TK: Did you and the players win your battles with officialdom?
JAB: The problems we faced 30 years ago are still prevalent today? I still remember at the 1994 World Cup, we were camping in Europe, yet a week before the start of the tournament, there was no talk of bonuses and on the eve of our first match against Belgium at the finals, I was once again mandated to go and negotiate. Sadly authorities viewed me as the “troublemaker” and I was heavily victimized. Although I had a brilliant game, which we drew, the coach was instructed by politicians back home to prevent me from playing in subsequent games.
TK: How so?
JAB: Henri Michel (Coach) found me with Jacques S’ongo and Thomas N’kono and informed us that he wanted to field me in the next game against Brazil, but that he had received instructions to withdraw me from the team. I had heard through my own impeccable sources about the political decision to drop me from the squad. The players had earlier taken a decision to boycott the Brazil game. Roger Milla questioned the decision to drop me, threatening that the team would boycott the game if I were dropped. Michel took the hint from the mood of the players and reinstated me in the team and thus a strike was averted.
TK: Little wonder Cameroon had such a disastrous tournament in the USA.
JAB: After the game, I called all the players and informed them that I appeared to have been the target of officialdom but the whole team was suffering as a consequence. I volunteered to withdraw so that they should not be victimized. Cameroon lost the next match to Russia 6-0 and we bowed out of the tournament. And the same problems that were prevalent those many years ago exist to this day.
TK: Finally Madiba, any advice to the five countries that would be representing Africa at Russia 2018?
JAB: They must go there with the aim of progressing beyond the quarterfinals. How long ago have we said an African team would reach the semi-finals? I think it is time we went beyond the semi-finals and reached the final. I think the five teams have qualified on merit and although in the past North African teams have flattered to deceive, this time around Morocco look solid, Egypt is buzzing again with Mo Salah on fire and Tunisia is always dependable, although I hope this time they can put up an aggressive fight. The two West Africans – Senegal and Nigeria – can always deliver and I hope they will combine with the North Africans to make Africa proud.
TK: Thanks Jojo, hope you enjoy the rest of your time in South Africa.
JAB: It is always a pleasure.