Rigobert Song is the youngest player to be sent off at the World Cup. And before French legend Zinedine Zidane in 2006, Song was the only one to have seen red in two World Cup editions.
Those unflattering records in Song’s first two editions did not forecast the enduring career the young Indomitable Lion would later enjoy.
He fell and rose and fell again and rose again. Even off the field, he has ‘died’ and risen several times.
According to a recent interview with Fifa, Song first watched the World Cup in 1990, on a small black-and-white television. He remembers the tension of a nation as Cameroon, against odds, defeated Diego Maradona’s mighty Argentina. Francois Omam Biyick’s 67th minute strike downing the defending champions, despite the Africans being down to nine men.
Song calls the match “classic.” Cameroon reached the quarterfinals, the first African side to do so, before losing to England 3-2.
Fast forward, at USA ‘94, Song would play in his first World Cup, aged 17, alongside the very men he only admired on tv four years earlier. He played the entire 2-2 draw against Sweden, but was sent off against eventual champions Brazil.
Cameroon failed to match their Italia ‘90 form, exiting at the group after 6-1 thumping by Russia.
But four years later Song, played his second World Cup hosted by France, where he was nased with Metz.
Song regrets Cameroon’s 1-1 stalemate against Austria after leading in 77 minutes, the 3-0 loss to Italy but mostly his red card in the 1-1 draw against Chile, which ended the Lions’ campaign in the group stage.
Three Cameroonians saw red in that tournament, but Song blames his case on “youthful exuberance,” saying “After that, I learned my lesson! In 2002, I wasn’t sent off, nor in 2010.”
Yet, throughout his career, Song wore the reputation of a fearless and fierce field commander, especially when he captained his national team, no wonder former Nigeria and Barcelona striker Emmanuel Amunike named the centre-back as the toughest player he ever faced.
Song could confront match officials and equally fearless opponents – like Germany’s goalie Oliver Kahn – for justice.
Song traversed Europe: from Metz in France, to Salernitana Sport in Italy; to Liverpool and West Ham in England, to Cologne in Germany and to Lens back in France. Then to Galatasaray (winning two league titles) and Trabzonspor in Turkey, where he retired in 2010.
But his best moments came with the national team with which he won the 2000 and 2002 African Nations Cup trophies.
Against co-hosts Nigeria in the 2000 final, Song scored the decisive penalty for Cameroon’s 4-3 win. Against Senegal in the 2002 final, he missed Cameroon’s last kick but his opposite number Aliou Cisse missed, too, and Cameroon triumphed 3-2, becoming the first team to win back-to-back Afcons since Ghana in 1965.
The Lion floored
The 2008 Afcon final was a rematch between Group C rivals Cameroon and Egypt. The Pharaohs had won their opening group match 4-2. In the semifinal, Egypt beat 1992 champions Ivory Coast 4-1 after Cameroon edged four-time winners Ghana 1-0.
The odds: Egypt wanted to defend their crown and count six, while Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o, Geremi Njitap and Song wanted a record third for themselves and a fifth for their country.
Eto’o was the leading scorer with five goals, while Egypt’s Hosny Abd Rabo and Essam El-Hadary would become the tournament’s MVP and best goalkeeper, respectively.
Eto’o hadn’t scored in the knockouts but who could bet against the Barcelona marksman? Hamburg’s Mohamed Zidan, who netted a brace against Cameroon in the group encounter, started the final on the bench. But his introduction in the 60th minute would be the winning move.
In the 77th minute of a tight contest, Song had the chance to clear a diagonal ball outside the area. Instead, he invited a fresh and hungry Zidan in a costly duel. Entering the area, Zidan went down, but he didn’t wait for the whistle, rolling up, Song too, and passing the ball.
Bill Tchato, who deputised in defence for the suspended Andre Bikey, rushed to Song’s rescue but missed the ball that fell to an unmarked Mohamed Aboutrika – he coolly slotted it past the onrushing Idriss Kameni.
Song looked like a hungry lion that had lost grip on its prey. He buried his face in his shirt and pointed to the skies, as if begging for forgiveness.
Cameroon did not bounce back, with Song missing the shot at redemption when he headed Geremi’s cross over the bar in injury time. Egypt won 1-0.
Song’s teammates were disappointed but stood by their captain.
“We’re disappointed but in football, when someone makes a mistake, you can’t blame them because it happens,” Geremi, who played right back, said post-match.
Song was defiant: “I will continue with the national team. It is not because things did not go the right way that I am going to retire.”
At 33, Song would feature in the Afcon 2010 in Angola but again Cameroon, weaker than they were two years earlier, lost to Egypt (3-1 in extra time) in the quarterfinals as the Pharaohs marched to a record seventh title.
Cameroon struggled and Song’s errors in the group games (1-0 loss to Gabon and 3-2 win over Zambia) forced manager Paul Le Guen to try the younger Aurélien Chedjou in the knockout phase, and the likes of Sébastien Bassong and Benoît Assou-Ekotto in future competitions.
Missing the match against Egypt ended Song’s run of 36 consecutive Afcon matches, and a total of 3,201 minutes.
Song surrendered the captaincy to Eto’o but made the 2010 South Africa World Cup squad, replacing Nicolas N’Koulou in a 2-1 loss to Netherlands. This made Song the only player to play in the 1994 and 2010 World Cup editions, unlike his Brazilian agemate Ronaldo.
With 136 caps, he was also the most experienced player at South Africa 2010. He, Eto’o and fellow Cameroonian Jacques Songo’o are the only Africans to have featured at four World Cup finals.
That Cameroon lost all the group matches cannot overshadow Song’s odd longevity.
He says: “I’m beyond proud of the fact that I took part in four World Cups. I know many reputable players who would give everything to play just one.”
Think of the likes of Egyptian Ahmed Hassan, who played eight Afcon editions, winning four, but none of his golden generation played at a World Cup final.