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Aboubakar and Toko-Ekambi hold key to AFCON success for Cameroon

YAOUNDE, Cameroon, Feb 2Forget Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane, because the most prolific strikers at this Africa Cup of Nations are the two players leading the attack for the hosts as they face Egypt in the semi-finals on Thursday.

Cameroon captain Vincent Aboubakar is the tournament’s top marksman with six, while Karl Toko-Ekambi scored both goals for the Indomitable Lions in their 2-0 quarter-final win over Gambia to move onto five altogether.

Between them they have scored every one of Cameroon’s 11 goals so far at the Cup of Nations, the duo emerging as the key men five years after playing bit-part roles in the side that won the title in Gabon.

In 2017 both were used almost exclusively from the bench, although Aboubakar came on as a substitute to score the winner in the final against Egypt.

“In 2017 I played a bit less but still helped the others in training and during games,” recalled Toko-Ekambi after his match-winning display in the quarter-final.

“Now the roles are reversed and it is the same for Aboubakar too, although the main thing is that the squad gets on well together, that we play well and that we win.”

It would be grossly unfair to reduce Cameroon’s success so far solely to the two forwards, with Collins Fai starring at right-back and midfielders Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Martin Hongla both outstanding.

“They are the finishers but their goals are the result of the work put in by everyone,” says the coach, Toni Conceicao.

– The role model –

Aboubakar hails from Garoua in the north of Cameroon where he began playing with Cotonsport © AFP/File / Issouf SANOGO

Aboubakar is a star throughout Cameroon, albeit he may never be worshipped in the same way Roger Milla or Samuel Eto’o were before him.

However he is certainly a hero in his native Garoua, the main city in the north of the country.

“Before Aboubakar people didn’t really believe that the region might produce a top player, but now youngsters look at him and say to themselves that anything is possible,” said Djibrilla Kada, who runs the youth academy at Garoua club Cotonsport, Cameroon’s leading side.

“He is a role model for all the young players at the club.”

Aboubakar grew up in a working-class neighbourhood described by his brother, Michel Dior, as “a place with a bad reputation”.

“Vincent was not like us, going out, spending his money. Cotonsport saw his potential right away,” he said.

Cotonsport are the only professional club in the north, financed by the insurance company of the workers of cotton company Sodecoton, the main employer in northern Cameroon.

“Aboubakar is the best ambassador for the club, a product of our youth academy. We are now looking to develop partnerships with foreign clubs,” says Fernand Sadou, Cotonsport’s president.

Aboubakar started banging in the goals there when he was 17 and was still a teenager when he was called up to the Cameroon squad for the 2010 World Cup.

– Former rapper –

After a spell in France, he went to Porto. Still just 30, he recently left Europe to go and play in Saudi Arabia for Al-Nassr. But his first coach believes he may soon end up back in Europe.

“He has been one of the best players at the tournament. I think big European clubs will come in for him now, and he deserves it,” says Kada.

French-born Toko-Ekambi was a bit-player in the Cameroon team that won the 2017 AFCON © AFP/File / CHARLY TRIBALLEAU

Toko-Ekambi, meanwhile, is among the players born and raised in Europe but with Cameroonian heritage.

Now 29, he grew up in Paris in a Cameroonian family.

Almost lost to football after suffering a knee injury as a teenager, he was a member of a rap group before returning to the sport and working his way up through the French leagues.

After a spell at Villarreal in Spain, he moved two years ago to Lyon, where he has sometimes struggled to win over the doubters.

Nobody doubts him in Cameroonnow though, as Toko-Ekambi and Aboubakar look to fire the Indomitable Lions to their sixth AFCON crown.

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