Broos masterminds Cameroon's unlikely final run, silences doubters
LIBREVILLE, Gabon -- Hugo Broos laughs as he recounts the tale: "A few months ago someone came up to me and said: 'Coach, you're a strange man'. I said 'Yeah, why?' He said: 'Because if someone comes to you and proposes something, you always say yes, yes, yes, but you never do it."
At 64, Broos holds few fears about doing things his own way and the results have been spectacular; that his Cameroon side face Egypt in the African Nations Cup final on Sunday is a scenario nobody really saw coming.
When Broos was appointed last February for his first national team job, having not been on the original five-man shortlist, few believed he was the man to arrest the Indomitable Lions' malaise; a year and a host of brave changes later, people queue to offer congratulations as he speaks at the team's base in Libreville.
"When I arrived at Cameroon everything was negative, certainly towards me as a coach," Broos tells ESPN FC. "There was a journalist at my first press conference who asked me: 'You have three games now, two against South Africa and one against Mauritania -- what will happen if you lose them?' I answered by asking what would happen if we won. When I selected my first squad, they wrote that it was a bunch of 'sick men.' It was all negative, negative, negative and I knew I had a lot of work to do."
That involved freshening up a side which, in Broos' view, had grown stale and clique-ridden. He introduced younger players such as Fabrice Ondoa, a 21-year-old goalkeeper who is yet to play for Sevilla's B side this season, but who has been one of this tournament's revelations, making decisive saves against Gabon in the group stage and from Senegal's Sadio Mane in the quarterfinal penalty shootout.
Meanwhile, older, more experienced faces have found their places far from guaranteed and the result is a team that looks hungry and ambitious once more.
"The first thing I did was change some of the players and it caused a big scandal," Broos says. "In my first squad 30 percent of the players were over 30. So my assistant and I started looking around Europe to see where there were Cameroon players and if they were good enough they came with us. Game by game, the team became younger and now it's a very young side."
Another star of the last three weeks has been Christian Bassogog, a right-winger for Danish side AaB. Also 21, he was plying his trade with Wilmington Hammerheads in the American fourth tier as recently as August 2015 but has been outstanding for Cameroon and scored a cutely-taken goal in added time to seal the 2-0 semifinal win over Ghana.
"If you asked me five months ago: 'You know Bassogog?' I'd say: 'Who?'" Broos says. "I didn't know him. Like I said, we have changed the team and were looking for players. It's easy to go on the internet, search for Cameroonian players and find a list from Azerbaijan to I don't know where. They're playing everywhere but what is the quality, what is the level?
"So you need to look everywhere and make checks," he continues. "I have some friends, old players of mine in Denmark, so I phoned them and asked what kind of player Bassogog was. They told me he was a young player, very good with the ball. So in September my assistant went to watch him and said: 'Coach, you have to see him too; I think we have a good player.' So I went to see him, saw his level and decided that in the next game he had to be with us. He's been given his chance and everyone can see he is a very good player."
The success of Broos' side is all the more significant given that eight players from his original 35-man provisional squad, including Liverpool's Joel Matip, opted out of representing their country in Gabon. Broos holds out little hope of persuading Matip, in particular, to change his mind in the foreseeable future.
"The most important thing is that we have a good team and maybe we can be even better with players like Matip," he says. "I hope he will reconsider, but I don't think he will. Last time they called him up and he played in all the preparation games for the 2017 Cup of Nations but then they put him out of the team when the tournament started. Then, [because of] the organization, he said no.
"I went to talk with him last year, when he was still at Schalke, because I'd been told he was not happy and would not come [with the team]," adds Broos. "From the first moment, he said no. I asked him to come just once and, if it wasn't good, he could just tell me that things were the same as before and he wouldn't come back. That would have been fine, but he never came. It's a pity because he is a very good player."
Might success on Sunday tempt players into returning?
"I hope so," Broos says. "I hope those players will phone me and say: 'OK, coach, we see something has changed now; if you want me then I'm available'. But it's not me who will [make the call]. That's finished. I did it for four months and I can't be on my hands and knees. Now, it's down to them."
For now, Cameroon are fine in their current state. Broos says the team spirit is "unbelievable... a group of 23 players but certainly a group of 23 friends" and he is finding that those who criticised his revamp are now falling over themselves to offer olive branches.
"Many journalists are coming to me now and saying: 'Coach, at the start we were wondering what you were doing'. Now they understand why I did it, again and again. And if the results were not there, I would not be here; I'd already be back home in Belgium."
Broos has promised his wife that he will retire next February, when his current contract ends: "I don't want to die on the bench. With what's happening now, maybe it will be a good moment to stop."
That will be the end of a coaching career, which brought considerable success in Belgium with, in particular, Club Brugge and Anderlecht. Now Broos is one game from a crowning moment that he might never have expected.
"Game after game we've seen that, yes, we can go further with this team," he says. "Now we are where we dreamed of being. Let's hope that on Sunday we can end this dream with a big party and the cup."
All of a sudden, Broos' apparent strangeness has given way to what his adopted country hopes is normality for years to come.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.