- Cameroon won gold at the Sydney Olympics 20 years ago
- Geremi was captain of the Indomitable Lions at the time
- Former player shares his memories with FIFA.com
Twenty years ago to the day, the Indomitable Lions achieved one of the greatest feats in the history of Cameroonian sport by beating Spain in the final of the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Sydney 2000 (2-2, 5-3 PSO) to secure the country’s first Olympic gold medal.
This priceless accolade has a special place in Geremi’s trophy cabinet, where it sits alongside a host of other impressive silverware. Among the Cameroonian’s medals are those of two CAF Africa Cup of Nations triumphs (2000 and 2002), Spain’s La Liga and England’s Premiership (with Real Madrid and Chelsea respectively), as well as two UEFA Champions League titles with the former.
In conversation with FIFA.com, the former midfielder and Cameroon captain, who is now a FIFA Legend, looks back with nostalgia on that historic Olympic title.
FIFA.com: Geremi, what images spring to mind when you think about your country’s triumph at the Olympic Football Tournament Sydney 2000?
Geremi: It awakens wonderful memories for me, the reminiscence of a magnificent surprise! We were just a bunch of carefree young guys who went to Australia to compete in a competition with no real ambition. As the tournament progressed, the idea that we could possibly achieve something slowly formulated, culminating in that joyful outcome. The first images that spring to mind are those of the medal ceremony. That’s the moment you realise you’re making history!
In Cameroon, is it considered the country’s greatest sporting achievement?
One of the greatest. The excitement around it built to a crescendo. There was a big time difference between Australia and Cameroon, which didn’t make things any easier. To watch our games live on TV, people had to wake up very early in Cameroon. With each passing match, more and more people started following us and supporting us. So much so that, at one point, it seemed as if the entire country had changed their daily routine: people went to work very early, went to bed early, and got up at dawn to follow our exploits!
Among Cameroon’s all-time great performances must be the Indomitable Lions’ run to the quarter-finals of the 1990 FIFA World Cup™. If you had to choose, would you prefer to have been part of that historic adventure?
It was indeed a great performance, not just for Cameroon, but for the whole of Africa. It was the first time that a country from our continent had reached that stage of the competition. I even cried in front of my TV as a kid. But there was no title at the end of that campaign, even if we’d given a very honourable account of ourselves. And history remembers winners above all else.
Although you’re among your country’s most successful players, does that Olympic medal have a special place in your heart?
Every one of my titles has its own story. They all helped shape the player I was – from the smallest trophy I won as a kid, to the most prestigious ones that came at the peak of my career. They’re all equally important, as they’re a measure of the work I put in on the pitch and the rewards that came from it. They’re like my children… and you don’t love one child more than another, do you? No! It’s the same with titles.
Do you remember the atmosphere on 30 September 2000 generated by that crowd of more than 100,000 spectators at Sydney’s Olympic Stadium?
Of course, it was awesome! I remember it all the more because those 100,000 people played a major role in our victory. We were 2-0 down at the break but when we began our comeback, the crowd really got behind us. And it wasn’t just the Cameroonian fans that we were used to seeing whenever the national team played, the crowd in general had an affection for us and were cheering us on despite the stifling heat. I said to myself, “Wow, they must really appreciate what we’re doing”.
Why is participating in the Olympic Games such a special moment in a footballer’s career?
It’s one of the biggest sporting competitions. There’s nothing else that brings together so many different athletes from all walks of life at the same time. And it’s precisely this which makes the event magical when you’re involved – the possibility to be among all the other athletes in the Olympic Village, to be able to share experiences together, to be able to have lunch next to a famous judoka, basketball star, fencing champion or whoever. It’s a unique experience.
Were there any particular encounters that stayed with you?
Yes, one with Serena Williams. She’d become passionate about our team and even played wearing our colours! She wanted to meet us, and I, as captain, got to play the role of ambassador. I also met the long-distance runner Haile Gebrselassie and basketball player Yao Ming. When I first saw him, he was playing pool and bent over double trying to take a shot. When he stood up after it, I thought I was seeing things! I’d never seen anyone so tall before! I had admiration for all those athletes, and I think we won theirs by winning the gold medal.
Especially given the anguish you all went through in order to win that medal. Almost all of your games were really hard fought, and there were several comebacks with victories snatched in extra time or on penalties.
We really didn’t go there with the ambition of winning gold. That’s what’s curious! In a sense, that may also have helped us. There was no pressure on us or complexes to deal with; we played with freedom. We were a group of carefree young guys who supported each other and got along really well. And in a competition like this, the quality of the group atmosphere is fundamental. We got along very well off the pitch, so we then had an intuitive understanding on it. We won this gold medal on the pitch, but the foundations of those victories were built elsewhere. We were a family, a real team.
That said, there were some big personalities in this team: Samuel Eto’o, Pierre Wome, Lauren, Carlos Kameni…
At that time, they didn’t have those strong personalities! It was only later that they grew in stature, as was the case with me. At that time, we were just kids who wanted to play together and have fun without any other obligations. We just wanted to enjoy the moment. We had a united group and that was reflected on the pitch.
Which was the hardest game?
All the matches were hard-fought. Almost every time we had to come from behind and draw on our reserves. From Kuwait to Spain via Brazil and Chile, our whole journey was arduous… We were teenagers, but we fought like grown men. We showed guts in our quest for that medal.
You scored one of the penalties during the shootout in the final. Do you remember that moment?
I’ve always taken responsibility for penalties during my career. Before a spot kick, especially one like that, every player will tell you there’s pressure: if you score, your whole country celebrates victory, and vice versa! You have to fill that void and control your emotions. And I had this ability to concentrate – I was mentally strong. A penalty is all in the head, not in the legs! You don’t have to be that technically good to score one.
How did you celebrate winning gold?
You can imagine the party we had when we came home! Huge crowds were waiting for us at the airport, and the streets were crammed with supporters. We were received by the head of state in person. We were heroes.
There’ll be no Indomitable Lions at the next Olympic Tournament on the men’s side, however the women’s side still have a chance to qualify. Are you going to watch the competition?
Obviously! You watch the tournament and say, “I’ve been through this too”. There’s always emotion but, more than nostalgia, it’s joy. I love seeing the medals being awarded as it takes me hopelessly back a few years. Twenty years to be precise!