In the comfort of his hotel room in Libreville, Gabon, Joseph Antoine-Bell pulled down his fedora hat, folded his arms and, despite Cameroon reaching the finals of the 2017 African Cup of Nations that they eventually won, the legendary goalkeeper was not impressed.
The football environment is often cozy, but his way with words — frank and, at times, brutal — has led to more than a few problems.
Bell, sometimes called JoJo, always said what he thought. Capped 50 times by the Indomitable Lions, he felt strongly about defending the values of the game he loves, and sometimes the gloves come off. Not usual for a goalkeeper, but then again, he was no ordinary custodian.
“If we are honest,” he said, “if we are sporting — and the first quality of a sportsman is to be honest — to go to the World Cup with Cameroon now that the continent has been allocated five places should no longer constitute a performance in itself.”
According to Bell, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland, is expected to deliver a verdict that would set aside the Confederation of African Football (CAF) decision to allow what he considered a nonrepresentative Cameroonian team management to participate in the Afcon Gabon 2017 finals.
Cameroon has been embroiled in bitter, disputed FA presidential elections that have put Tombi á Roko Sidiki at the helm since 2013. Complaints have been filed with Fifa, CAF and now with the sports court.
The Chamber of Conciliation and Arbitration of the Cameroon National Olympic and Sports Committee annulled the presidential electoral results.
One would have expected Bell to be ecstatic, maybe even lost in celebrations that engulfed his country after the Indomitable Lions added a fifth star to their crest following their 2-1 triumph over Egypt in the final. But he was not moved.
It had certainly been a remarkable journey for the Cameroon team with a string of poor results over the course of nearly a decade and an association wracked by strife and controversy.
“I hope this victory in Gabon will not cloud the deep problems facing Cameroon football,” cautioned Bell. “I mean, we have been talking about rebuilding since time immemorial and tragically even the media is buying into this farce about rebuilding.”
When Liverpool defender Joël Matip led a mass withdrawal of players including André Onana, Guy Roland N’dy Assembé and Ibrahim Amadou, they were viciously condemned from even beyond their borders. Bell did not join in.
“The withdrawal of the players is simply a sign of weak leadership,” charged Bell. “It cannot be that in this age, from the time I was playing to the present, players still have to deal with issues related to bonuses among their challenges.
“If I was part of officialdom, instead of calling for sanctions against the players, I would ask myself what led to the players refusing to honour a national call-up. A national call-up is the highest honour a player aspires to yet our players withdrew en masse. Are they not trying to tell us something?
“I equate the problems within Cameroon football to a father trying to gloat under the success of his own son who has passed a university degree because, despite it being his primary responsibility to educate his child, he wants to tell the whole village that he is the one that made it possible for his son to pass.
“Let it be your son who must tell the world that his father made it possible for him to succeed and do not try to take the credit for his success. And if he does not acknowledge you, be humble enough to swallow it and remain in the background with the silent knowledge that you contributed.”
Also known by some at home as “Madiba” for challenging authority, Bell feels their national team has regressed.
“The media still expect Cameroon to be the first African country to win the Fifa World Cup. We have to face the harsh truth and the reality is that Cameroon is not doing what they are supposed to be doing.
He said Cameroon would have to change and, when they host the next Afcon in 2019, they will have faced their problems.
“We must work really hard and stop being intoxicated by the achievements of 1990 in Italy. We must stop basking in past glories and stop fooling ourselves that we are rebuilding.”
Voted the best African goalkeeper of all time, Bell arrived in Europe already aged 30 after he had claimed every African honour possible with Union Douala (Cameroon), Africa Sports (Côte d’Ivoire), Al Moqaouloun al-Arab (Saudi Arabia) and, of course, the Cameroon national team.
Over the next decade in France, despite his advancing years, he was to prove that, like wine, he was maturing with each passing year as he got better during spells with Marseille, Toulon, Bordeaux and Saint-Etienne.
He feels the Gabonese tournament flattered to deceive with no star player setting the showpiece alight.
“Sadio Mané (Senegal) might in two or four years time. We wish he would be a great player. Riyad Mahrez or Pierre Aubameyang failed to light up the tournament or make an impression. I cannot accept that as a continent we are advancing.
“It is not the same with the likes of Didier Drogba with Ivory Coast or Samuel Eto’o with Cameroon or even Mohamed Aboutrika with Egypt at the time, who had some other players with equal quality around them.
“The kind of players that would pass him the ball, work for him, support him and help him as a leader. For when you are a leader, you cannot lead on your own. You need to lead someone and you need deputies, the kind that can help you take the team forward.”
Asked why so few Africans are coming forward to coach African national teams, Bell said it saddened him that at this year’s tournament only Zimbabwe (Kallisto Pasuwa), Senegal (Aliou Cissé), Democratic Republic of Congo (Florent Ibengé) and Baciro Candé (Guinea Bissau) were guided by locals.
“We like to shout and talk against foreigners, especially against colonialist and colonialism in general,” said Bell. “But the truth is that we do respect white people more than we care to admit. We put our confidence in them (Europeans coaches) because we don’t trust ourselves.
“How is it that after more than 60 years of independence and playing abroad we can still say there is none of our own sons who is afforded the opportunity and the support to guide our national teams despite having played there (Europe)?”
Bell pointed out that despite his qualifications and countless Uefa certifications, nobody in Cameroon wants to touch him.
“How is it that despite your qualifications, when you retire and offer to serve your country, they just don’t want you anywhere near the national set-up and go as far as to question your nationality?
“What is not normal is that in our countries — and in my country Cameroon in particular — people behave like they only discovered me when I do something for a foreign company [radio and TV commentary]?
“How can it be that I am respected and acknowledged outside my own country, receive numerous accolades as well as the respect and the love from people outside my country than from within my own constituency?”