It was naturally frustrating to Olivier Mbaizo that he didn’t get on the field at the Africa Cup of Nations as much as he wanted to, or as Union fans hoped he would.
But on the whole, the Cameroonian right back would much rather savor the simple fact that he had the opportunity to play for his country on African soccer’s most famous stage.
“It’s true that I didn’t play much, but the experience I had to play what I did was very good,” he told The Inquirer this week, as he turned his focus toward the Union’s season opener Saturday against Minnesota United at Subaru Park (1 p.m., PHL17). But he also took a few minutes to reflect on his first time playing in the national team championship that countless African players dream of.
“I was so proud to play in one of Africa’s great competitions, and to play in it in my country,” Mbaizo said. “To be so close to my family and the people of Cameroon, it was wonderful. Even though we didn’t achieve our goal, which was to win the tournament and bring the trophy to the people of Cameroon, we did the most we could in finishing third.”
Mbaizo played in three of Cameroon’s seven tournament games, two as a late substitute and a full-game run in the third-place game — a penalty-kick shootout win after a wild comeback from 3-0 down to force a 3-3 tie.
There was also the added bonus of sharing a stadium with his now-former teammate, Jamiro Monteiro, when Cameroon played Cape Verde in the teams’ group stage finale.
“He’s like a brother for me,” Mbaizo said. “Even though we were in Cameroon, we called each other every day, to see how he was doing, if he was feeling good.”
Back with the Union
When Mbaizo arrived at the Union’s preseason camp in mid-February, Monteiro wasn’t there — first because of visa issues, then because the midfielder was traded to San Jose. But there was a new face to get to know, Julían Carranza, and so far Mbaizo has enjoyed getting to know him.
“He’s got a lot of talent,” Mbaizo said. “He’s a guy with a lot of skill. He’s quick; he gets to goal. I think he’s going to bring something more to the team, and I hope it all goes well for him this season and he scores a lot of goals, because we need that.”
Mbaizo’s goals for this year are on two tracks: getting to the World Cup with Cameroon, and helping the Union to another strong season.
The first item will be dealt with in March, when the Indomitable Lions face fellow African power Algeria — led by Manchester City star Riyad Mahrez and AC Milan’s Ismaël Bennacer — in a home-and-away playoff in late March. (It’s the same FIFA window in which the U.S. men play their final World Cup qualifiers.)
The second item will take much longer, and Mbaizo isn’t rushing it. Though he’s only 24 years old, he has the perspective of being one of the Union’s veterans now, not just the starting right back.
This will be his fifth year with the organization, having joined the Union’s reserve team in 2018. Last year was his first season atop the depth chart, succeeding Ray Gaddis after the stalwart stepped away from the field.
“I’ve told him a million times his talent is to be a [French] Ligue 1 type of starter — I think he’s that good,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “If he can put together another good season and add some consistency, that’s the best thing for him. We’re definitely aware that he’s a good season and a good World Cup away from possibly moving to a top team in Europe.”
Mbaizo is on track to become the first Union player to go to a senior-level men’s World Cup while a member of the team. That would be a big feat for the player and the club — and an interesting storyline for fans who assumed the breakthrough would be made by a U.S. or European star.
“To have Olivier potentially go to a World Cup would be something that would make me very proud of him as a coach,” Curtin said. “The ultimate goal is always for any player to play in the World Cup and represent your country. So that would be a special honor for him, first and foremost, but also a special honor for the Philadelphia Union, and our fans could be really proud of that.”
There is much to do before then, though, beginning with the start of a new MLS season on Saturday.
“Last year, we were unlucky,” Mbaizo said. “This year, we’re focused on doing it together, as we always try to do it: game by game, starting with this weekend. We’re going to try to get three points [for a win], then go on to qualify for the playoffs.”
Then he added a flourish in his native French — but also the universal language of soccer.
“We want to win the MLS Cup this year,” he said. “That’s the club’s No. 1 goal.”