ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert took the long walk back to the dressing room, heads down, their thoughts almost certainly drowned out by the celebrations around them.
If either had looked up and to the left, they would have seen a bundle of Nigeria players huddled around Nwankwo Kanu and Daniel Amokachi, taking selfie after selfie as they celebrated a 3-2 win. Those two former playing legends looked prepared for a party long into the night; Seedorf and Kluivert, by contrast, were left to reflect upon how their Cameroon side had fallen short.
There will be a new Africa Cup of Nations champion this year and that is because Seedorf, who became the Indomitable Lions’ coach in August, could not repeat the unexpected 2017 success of his predecessor, Hugo Broos.
The recriminations will inevitably be bitter; Cameroon expects nothing but the best from its football team, but here at the last-16 stage, the best match of the tournament ended with them narrowly beaten by a better Nigeria side.
“I feel disappointment, obviously,” Seedorf said. “Also some anger, because I felt we were a little tense at a few moments. But I have to appreciate the fighting spirit of my team; the players have done everything they could today.”
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A game in which the defining characteristic was negligent defending at both ends saw Cameroon produce an inversion of everything they had produced in the group stage. Before this clash with their old rivals, Seedorf had praised a defence that did not concede in those first three games, while pointing out that extra composure and incision were needed in attack.
On Saturday, they caused havoc down the flanks at times and scored twice in a purple patch before half-time, but from the opening 30 seconds when Ambroise Oyongo conceded a sloppy corner, their back line leaked like a sieve.
“We made some mistakes today where we paid a high price,” Seedorf said. “Offensively we produced more so in that sense I’m satisfied.”
It was not enough even if Christian Bassogog, the star of that 2017 triumph, looked back to his best and put in a delicious ball for Stephane Bahoken’s 41st-minute equaliser. When Clinton N’Jie showed Nigeria’s defenders a clean pair of heels shortly afterwards, Cameroon looked likely to upset the odds again.
However, they never got to grips with Odion Ighalo up front or the movement of Alex Iwobi behind him. Both men excelled in the second half and, eventually, the disparity in quality told. It all means Seedorf’s future will come under scrutiny. He signed a four-year deal but, in Africa, that does not tend to mean a lot.
“Maybe you want to give us a few days,” he said when asked what would happen next. “I’ve enjoyed every minute that I’ve worked with this group. Being in Africa is special and, for the future, we’ll see what comes.”
This is already Seedorf’s longest stint in a management position, so it would not be a good look for the 43-year-old if, following brief spells with Milan, Shenzhen and Deportivo La Coruna, he and Kluivert, his assistant, were obliged to move on. Equally, Cameroon might not be wise to chop and change after a near miss against stronger opponents.
“We have improved in many aspects on and off the pitch,” Seedorf said. “Obviously the disappointment in the country will be huge but this is a moment where we need to stay united for the future. We must not throw away all the work done over the past month.”
Another reason to stick with Seedorf is because this is hardly a golden generation of Cameroonian talent, and a sensible stance would be to judge him in 2021, when they will be the host nation after losing the rights this time. His demeanour, though, was that of a man who did not necessarily consider his future to be safe.
Nigeria’s Gernot Rohr embraced Seedorf at the end of the managers’ joint postmatch news conference and noted that “to have a good football match you need two good teams.” This fixture has been an AFCON final three times and, although you would not take bets on when that will happen again, it was a contest worthy of two continental giants.
Perhaps the ill luck for Seedorf and Cameroon was that they faced Nigeria so early in the competition, but in the end, they never quite managed to combine defensive stability and attacking guile in the same game.
“Details made the difference today,” Seedorf concluded. He must now wait to see if he gets the chance to level out those fine margins.