Rigobert Song sat holding up a 10 x 8 polaroid with five of his teammates and coach Winfried Schäfer at the press conference. Cameroon had made the Finals of the Confederations Cup, the first and so far only time an African team had done so, but the tears being shed were not that of joy or pride, they were tears of anguish and sorrow.
Cameroon qualified for the 2003 Confederations cup as Champions of Africa and were keen to impress on the World stage after being dumped out of the 2002 World Cup via very fine margins.
Drawn against powerhouses Brazil as well Turkey who finished third at the World Cup and the USA who reached the Quarterfinals, Cameroon were up against some very good teams with plenty of pedigree. They showed, however, that the name “Indomitable Lions” was not for show.
In the opening game against Brazil, Cameroon defended doggedly against Brazil as Ronaldinho, Adriano, Ricardinho, and co tried to find a way past them. In the 83rd minute, it was Cameroon who found the breakthrough against all odds and against the run of play.
Samuel Eto’o – then playing for modest Real Mallorca – found a gap between center-backs Lucio and Juan and expertly unleashed a cannon of a volley into the top corner past Dida from more than 25 yards from goal.
It was the only goal of the game and the Lions had a perfect start to the Confederations cup.
They sealed qualification for the semifinals with another hard-fought victory. Two goal-line clearances were rewarded with a late goal from the penalty spot when Geremi Njitap profited from Servet Çetin’s foul on Joseph-Désiré Job to seal a 95th-minute winner.
The last group game against the USA was a formality and Winfried Schäfer treated it as such choosing to leave some of his best players on the bench including a certain Marc-Vivien Foe. They drew 0-0 to top the group and book a semifinal tie against Colombia.
Marc-Vivien Foe, despite being just 28 at the time, was already a veteran in the squad, he made his debut for Cameroon in 1993 and had been to two world cups and four African Cup of Nations tourneys winning two of them. With two French League titles as well, he was a man of huge standing in the national team, and his 6’2” frame only added to his reputation as a giant of Cameroonian football.
Foe was adamant of his dream that Cameroon could go all the way and win the Confederations Cup to cement their status as legends so, before the game against Colombia which took place at the Lyon’s Stade de Gerland where Foe had played for two years, he woke from his post-lunch nap and reached out to roommate Lucien Mettomo to get up. It was game time. As they left the hotel, he told Mettomo something the center-back would never forget. He said to him “Lucien, today is the match of death, if someone has to die, it is today.”
Whether because of clairvoyance or just coincidence, these were words Foe really believed. He would repeat them again on the team bus.
“If someone had to die on the pitch for Cameroon to win, then so be it.”–– Marc-Vivien Foe
In the 9th minute of the semifinal, Pius Ndiefi found himself with the ball in front of an open goal, the moment had come early this time unlike previous games and Ndiefi made no mistake.
Cameroon were 1-0 up going into the break and quite remarkably, Foe repeated what he had said twice already, “If someone had to die on the pitch for Cameroon to win, then so be it.”
In the 72nd minute, Foe who had initially refused to be subbed earlier in the game turned to his friend and midfield partner, Eric Djemba Djemba, and told him he felt tired, seconds later he walked sluggishly towards the center circle and slumped, it was the last time Marc-Vivien Foe would ever walk again. Efforts were made to resuscitate him on the pitch and the stadium’s medical center, but 45 minutes later, Foe was pronounced dead, the victim of a Cardiac arrest caused by hypertrophic cardiomyopathy a genetic condition that caused the walls of his heart to thicken and which predisposed him to fatal heart attacks while performing strenuous physical activity. A condition whose first notable symptom can be, and on this occasion was, fatal.
The rest of the Cameroon team were oblivious to this and were celebrating their eventual 1-0 win over Colombia which qualified them for the final Foe believed so much they were destined to reach when captain Rigobert Song, who went to check on Foe, came in crying “Marco Marco. Marco is dead”. Schäfer ran down to the medical center, outside it was a young boy kicking a ball, in a separate room close by were two women wailing. They were Foe’s son, widowed wife, and bereaved mother. Schäfer entered the center and touched the neck of his midfielder. No pulse. Foe was gone and he cried bitterly.
Back at the hotel, Mettomo unpacked the bag that the pair shared in the room the pair shared, telling Joel Epalle who was passing by he was waiting for “Marco”.
In the second semifinal between France and Turkey, there were tears for Foe. Thierry Henry and especially former teammate of Foe’s, Gregory Coupet were inconsolable as the teams lined up for a minute of silence for the Cameroonian midfielder.
France won 3-2 with goals from Sylvian Wiltord, Robert Pires, and Henry who dedicated his goal to Foe. In doing this, they booked an emotional final with Senegal.
In light of the gravity of the events that had occurred, both sides considered not playing the final but were convinced by Foe’s widow Marie Louise to go ahead with the fixture in her husband’s honour. Goalkeeper Carlos Kameni said, “Once we had lost him, we were completely without any strength to carry on, but as we thought about it, about what a competitor he was, about the desire he always had to win, we decided that we should play the final for him as a memorial to him and only for him”.
The final started with both teams paying tribute in unison to the fallen hero with a picture of Foe held between captains of France and Cameroon. A picture much larger than the one Song had clutched tightly at the press conference before the final.
The final was played in low spirits as expected and Cameroon without the heart of their midfield gave their all but ultimately fell to an extra-time goal by Thierry Henry ending the dream that Foe had for Cameroon.
After the game, both teams went on a parade around the stadium together united in the memory of Foe with his picture hoisted in further tribute to him and his ability to bring two entire countries and cultures together. The trophy as well was hoisted by captains of both Cameroon and France and the silver medal which should have been around Foe’s neck, instead was hung on his large framed photograph.