Garoua, located in north-eastern Cameroon, is home to just over one million people. Until recently, Ahmadou Ahidjo, Cameroon’s first post-independence president, was the city’s revered hero, but as of late there is a new poster boy in town.
At the stadium in the centre of town, you can find murals aplenty dedicated to their hero: football star Vincent Aboubakar.
The Cameroon captain, who currently plays his club football some 4,000 km away in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, spoke at length to FIFA+ about his impressive career and aspirations for Qatar 2022™.
“When I arrived in Saudi Arabia, I was initially taken aback by the heat,” he said. “However, the Saudis have been very welcoming and they’re passionate about the game.
“I was born into a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood and when I came here, I found decent and welcoming people. Playing with Al-Nassr has shown me that the Saudis are open-hearted and they gave me a warm welcome.”
Al-Nassr’s big money signing of Aboubakar from Besiktas is evidence of the ambition of a club that recently found itself in a hotly-contested title race with local rivals Al Hilal.
Since the arrival of Aboubakar, Al-Nassr have signed Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina from Napoli, former Brazil international Luiz Gustavo, as well as Ivorian left-back Ghislain Konan.
Overseeing the whole operation is head coach Rudi Garcia, also a part of the club’s summer overhaul.
The aim this season is to prise the highly coveted Saudi Pro League title from Al Hilal, something that has alluded them in the previous three campaigns.
“I think the club’s done well in the transfer market,” said Aboubakar. “This season, the board has added quality to compete for the title.
“Everyone knows the experience Rudi Garcia brings as a coach and I think he’s a great addition. He’s got a great CV having worked at some of the biggest clubs in the world.”
“The coach is doing a great job and I’m convinced we’re going to have a good season. That said, the pressure’s on and, as a squad, we’ve got to perform.”
Dethroning Al Hilal is the latest challenge for the striker, who played in France, Portugal and Turkey before moving to the Gulf.
At international level, his biggest challenge is just months away, when he will lead the Indomitable Lions at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™.
“The World Cup is a beautiful and emotional competition,” he said. “We’re in a tough group against the likes of Brazil, Switzerland and Serbia.
“We won’t be afraid of Brazil because the current side is not the Brazil of old. It is true that they have some quality players, but you need a united squad to go far in a tournament. A team with big names but no unity means nothing.
“We must arrive at the World Cup in the best shape possible – hopefully with no injuries – and prepare well. After that, we’ll see what happens.
“We aren’t here to say Brazil will or won’t do that, we’re focusing on ourselves, and the coaching staff will make sure we’re in the best shape possible going into the tournament.
“We have a good and capable squad with an excellent mentality. Whatever we achieve will be a joint effort.”
“Brazil didn’t have the best of tournaments in 2014 when they shipped seven goals against Germany. No doubt they’ll be back with a vengeance, and they have a group of mature players hungry for a title.
“We too, however, are also a big team, representing a big country and we believe we can go far. We let our football do the talking.”
“This tournament features the best teams in the world, and we have to prepare well in order to compete.”
“2014 didn’t quite go to plan, although we were a team in transition at that time. There were internal rifts, but we’ve learned from that experience and are ready to turn the page.”
In his youth, Aboubakar was so focussed on his on-field development that he had little time to watch football on TV – that is until he stumbled upon a televised La Liga match, which changed his life.
“I’m not the kind of person who likes to watch matches – I prefer to be in amongst the action, playing alongside my mates.”
“When I was a kid, I had a friend named Fidel. One day, he called me to come watch a game. ‘There’s a player I’m sure you’ll love,’ he told me.
“Barcelona were playing against Athletic Bilbao. When I arrived, the first player he pointed out to me was Ronaldinho, and from that moment onwards, I had an undying love for the Brazilian. He’s the player who has inspired me most in my career.
“Cristiano Ronaldo also inspired me with his elite mentality, something I have great respect for. Cristiano alone can raise the level of a team due to his personality, mentality and desire to win.”
After making a name for himself in Cameroon, the teenage Aboubakar secured a move to France, where, by his own account, he had a difficult start.
“When I moved to Valenciennes, a lot was made of how long it took me to adapt,” he said. “I arrived at the age of 18 in a totally foreign country, completely clueless.”
“It was a tough introduction and, what’s more, I was played out wide. When I moved to Lorient, however, I started to enjoy myself.”
Despite the tough start, Aboubakar was soon called up by Cameroon coach Paul Le Guen and, despite limited international experience, taken to South Africa 2010.
“I played at the World Cup at the tender age of 18, making me one of the youngest players in the squad at the time,” he said. “I moved to France and was thankfully surrounded by good people. Money did not corrupt me.
“Even though I took part in the World Cup in 2010, I remained humble. I stayed true to myself, played the tournament and continued my career at Valenciennes without getting ahead of myself. I am a quiet person and I steer clear of parties, smoking and things like that.”
Twelve years later Aboubakar is once again preparing to represent his country on the global stage – this time as captain. Since his international debut back in 2010, he has had lots of ups and downs.
From the disappointing Brazil 2014 campaign, where he only made two appearances and failed to score in disheartening defeats by Croatia and Brazil, to the highs of the 2017 and 2021 AFCON campaigns.
In the first of these, Aboubakar was in the midst of a goalscoring drought and reduced to substitute appearances in most matches. Indeed, he failed to muster a shot on target until the final against Egypt, who were led by Mohamed Salah.
The Pharaohs went ahead through Mohamed Elneny before Nicolas Nkoulou equalised just before the hour mark. Once again, then coach Hugo Broos called upon the services of Aboubakar in the second half.
It looked like the game was headed for extra time until, with 88 minutes on the clock, Aboubakar expertly controlled Sebastien Siani’s long ball, flicked it over a hapless defender, and volleyed it into the bottom corner.
Cameroonian legends Roger Milla and Samuel Eto’o were the in the stands for Aboubakar’s memorable strike – one that secured the nation’s fifth AFCON title, ending a 15-year drought.
Four years on, Aboubakar had another AFCON encounter with Egypt. This time, the semi-final showdown went to penalties after a goalless 120 minutes.
But it was not to be on that occasion, with Aboubakar the only Cameroonian to score in the shootout as they bowed out of their home tournament.
However, on a personal note for Aboubakar, this was his most successful AFCON campaign, during which he netted eight goals to finish as top scorer – the first Cameroonian to do so since Samuel Eto’o in 2008.
He also became the first player to score more than seven goals at the tournament since Congolese legend Ndaye Mulamba in 1974.
“It was a proud moment for me, but I will be forever thankful to coach Toni Conceicao for placing his trust in me,” said Aboubakar.
“I don’t think I let him down. I also want to thank everyone who played alongside me too – they gave their all and I wouldn’t have achieved anything without them. We were desperate to win the title, but it wasn’t to be.”
“Following that successful campaign, all eyes will be on me at the World Cup and our opponents will be marking me closely. This is not an issue for me. The most important thing is to stay healthy and who knows, we might cause a few upsets.”
Despite his many accolades over the years, Aboubakar stays true to his roots and is just as humble now as he was as a kid.
“People read a lot into me being captain, but I don’t overthink it,” he said. “I’m simply the direct line between the coach and the players, and I don’t get weighed down by the armband.”
“It’s true that it’s an honour to lead your country, and we know how much joy it brings to the fans.
“Football is of huge importance in our country – it helps people forget their problems and brings smiles to their faces. Our duty as players is to give everything on the pitch and make the Cameroonian people proud.
“I’ve had the pleasure of sharing some great moments with the fans throughout my career. There’s still a lot more that I want to achieve, but equally I can’t underestimate what I have done so far and I’m truly grateful.”
Several African teams have reached the quarter-finals of a World Cup, perhaps most memorably the Cameroonian team of Italia ‘90.
Aboubakar believes that an African team will go all the way in the not-too-distant future, but he stresses that preparation is key.
“In the coming years, an African team could win the World Cup,” he said. “Maybe in 20 or 50 years, who knows?”
“It is possible, but for that to happen we must prepare well and organise ourselves better, despite a lack of resources.”