Later this month, Olivier Mbaizo and Jamiro Monteiro will play in one of the biggest games of their Union careers when they host the rival New York Red Bulls in the first round of the MLS playoffs.
But before then, they will play in some of the biggest games of their lives.
Cameroon plays Malawi in Johannesburg on Saturday (the game was moved because Malawi’s national stadium is being renovated), then hosts the Ivory Coast on Tuesday. Cape Verde hosts the Central African Republic on Saturday, then visits Nigeria on Tuesday.
Cameroon and Cape Verde are both in second place in their groups, the former by one point and the latter by two. That means if they win their games Saturday, each of which is against their respective groups’ third-place teams, they’ll play one-game showdowns next Tuesday to take first place — and only the group winners reach the final round of qualifying.
The 10 group winners across the continent will then be drawn into five home-and-away playoff matchups to determine Africa’s participants at next year’s World Cup in Qatar.
“It’s a dream that I’ve had since I was a kid to play for the Cameroon national team, for my family that is very proud of me,” Mbaizo said.
‘They can see the good level of MLS’
Cameroon is one of African soccer’s traditional powers, with five Africa Cup of Nations titles and seven World Cup appearances (the most by an African nation). The Indomitable Lions have produced some of the continent’s most famous players, including three-time UEFA Champions League winner Samuel Eto’o; 1990 World Cup legend Roger Milla; and former Liverpool and West Ham United player Rigobert Song, the team’s all-time games played leader (137), who has been a mentor to Mbaizo.
“He’s like a parent for me,” Mbaizo said. “He gives me advice all the time, he calls me all the time, he tells me what it’s like to be part of the national team, how I should carry myself to follow in his footsteps. I think that with all the advice I get from him, I’m going in the right direction and I thank him for that.”
The current squad is led by forwards Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting of Germany’s Bayern Munich; Karl Toko Ekambi of France’s Lyon; and Vincent Aboubakar of Saudi Arabia’s Al-Nassr, who used to play for clubs in France, Portugal and Turkey.
“I’m one of the youngest players in this squad, but I learn a lot from them,” the 24-year-old Mbaizo said. “Vincent Aboubakar is a guy who teaches all the young players when they arrive. He talks with us a lot and gives us confidence. … Choupo-Moting does the same thing.”
There’s also another player with ties to MLS, Seattle Sounders outside back Nouhou Tolo. He and Mbaizo grew up in the same neighborhood of Douala, Cameroon’s largest city. They’ve been friends since childhood, and have played together since the under-17 national team.
“We always talked about how it was our dream to play with the national team,” Mbaizo said. “It’s something to be proud of, and it makes me happy that all the work we’ve put in since childhood has put us in a good place.”
They even played for the same club team in Cameroon before coming to America, Rainbow Bamenda, which also produced former Montreal outside back Ambroise Oyongo. He’s now at French club Montpellier, and his success there has opened eyes to MLS becoming a place for Cameroonian players to become well-known.
“Hopefully now when people see us play in MLS, they can see the good level of MLS,” Mbaizo said, adding that fans back home are indeed watching.
New MLS possibilities are watching in Cape Verde, too. Monteiro said he has fielded many calls from players he knows.
“Since I came to Philadelphia, my first year everybody was already asking me how it is over there,” he said. “MLS is growing, and in the three years since I’m here, I like it over here. People I know, they really like MLS, and a lot of guys [are] asking and talking about coming.”
‘It’s all of Cameroon playing’
The hype is building in Cameroon for the game against the Ivory Coast, a longtime rivalry in the French-speaking part of West Africa.
Soccer fans worldwide know of Ivorian legends such as Didier Drogba, and brothers Yaya and Kolo Touré. The current Elephants squad features Manchester United’s Eric Bailly, AC Milan’s Franck Kessié, and Arsenal’s Nicolas Pépé.
“Cameroon-Ivory Coast games are derbies,” Mbaizo said, using the classic European term for soccer rivalries. “To be in the stadium, it’s electric. … It’s like it’s not just us players who are playing, it’s all of Cameroon playing and all of the Ivory Coast playing.”
And like any good rivalry, he said the trash talk has already been going on for a month.
Cape Verde’s national team doesn’t have as much history. The nation didn’t start playing in African World Cup qualifying until the 2002 cycle, and finished third in its group in the 2014 and 2018 cycles.
In recent years, the tide has turned, and the national team has started to bring some of those dual-nationals into the program. Monteiro is one of them, having been born in the Netherlands to parents of Cape Verdean descent.
Other notable players on the squad include winger Ryan Mendes of the United Arab Emirates’ Al-Nasr, and striker Zé Luis of Russia’s Lokomotiv Moscow. They are among many Cape Verdean players with Portuguese ties. Monteiro and winger Garry Rodrigues of Greece’s Olympiacos are among the many with Dutch ties.
If the Blue Sharks can beat the Central African Republic, the trip to Nigeria will be the biggest in the nation’s history. Nigeria is arguably Africa’s most famous soccer nation, though the Super Eagles aren’t flying as high these days as they used to. They were upset at home by the Central African Republic on Oct. 7, a result that opened the door for Cape Verde to make a run at first place.
“The coach talks a lot about it, how big this chance is and how big it is for the country,” Monteiro said. “It’s like a big dream. And if we come [to the World Cup], you play against big, big, big countries, big players. So, it will be crazy if we make it through as a small country.”
‘The dream of every player’
“For me, if I could play a game, I would play every day,” Monteiro said. The only difference, he said with a laugh, is that “in Cape Verde in Africa it’s hot, and here it’s cold.”
If Cape Verde and Cameroon advance, Mbaizo and Monteiro could be drawn against each other in the final round. That would potentially be the first time they play against each other.
If they don’t meet in World Cup qualifying, their first game against each other will likely come in January when Cameroon hosts the Cup of Nations and has Cape Verde in its group. Monteiro and Mbaizo have already talked about how much they’re looking forward to the occasion, part of what will be each player’s first chance to play in Africa’s continental championship.
“It’s like a dream that came true,” Monteiro said. “I can’t wait to play the games — and win [against] Mbaizo.”
And if at the end of next year, either of them gets to play on the biggest stage of all, they would become the first Union player to play in a World Cup while a member of the team. The closest any Union player has ever come was Carlos Valdés, who went out on loan to teams in South America before the 2014 World Cup to raise his stock with Colombia’s manager.
There’s a lot to do between now and next November, of course. But Mbaizo is letting himself imagine what could be.
“To play in the World Cup is the dream of every player, especially a young player who might go to a World Cup with stars he’s been following since [he was] a kid,” Mbaizo said. “It would be a source of great pride for me and my family.”
So is Monteiro.
“If I would play in the World Cup next [year], I will cry,” Monteiro said. “I will cry for sure. That’s a big dream for every soccer player. [The] World Cup, Champions League, you dream for moments like this.”