The troubling trend of Cameroon’s vanishing players

Cameroon made history at the 2023 Women’s World Championship this week, reaching the main round for the first time, thanks to a 26:23 victory over Paraguay on Monday. However, they have achieved this success with a 14-woman squad, an unusual sight at this level in this day and age. The depleted squad is not due to a lack of handball athletes in Cameroon but rather players disappearing from the squad.

Bénédicte Manga Ambassa and Marianne Batamag were included in the squad preparing for the championship with test matches in France. In between their test match against Senegal in Caen on 26 November and their opening match of the World Championship against Montenegro in Helsingborg on 30 November, both left the squad and are no longer accounted for.

“I started seeing reports that two players had disappeared. The Federation spoke about it and said they tried to let Cameroonians in France keep an eye on the team, but it wasn’t their fault these two disappeared along with their belongings.

“It means at least that they were not kidnapped, they left on their own. This is not something new for us in Cameroon,” explains Leocadia Bongben, a Cameroonian sports journalist.

Challenges beyond the court

Indeed, it is not something new in the handball world either. At the 2021 World Championship, there were widespread reports that four of the Cameroon squad fled – Jasmine Yotchoum, Clarisse Madjoufang, Michèle Ekobena and Amélie Mvoua.

The four players disappeared after the preliminary round and a fifth, Gisèle Nkolo, departed shortly afterward, leaving Cameroon with 11 players for their final three matches of the Presidents Cup.

“We hardly reported because we feel it may be an opportunity for them to get somewhere where they are valued as our conditions here in Cameroon are not the best.

“It’s not that I’m not encouraging people to run away but they find a better way of living out there. When you look at it from a woman’s perspective, you see that there’s still this disparity in the pay package. If a woman goes to a competition like this, when they come back, what is given to them? It’s nothing that can actually take them anywhere.

“Finding a job as a young person in Cameroon is not easy and the pay can be about $70 a month, what can you do with that? Other young people leave the country by sea and you hear how many die, taken home, or are in a refugee camp somewhere.

“You don’t see it happening with football players because if a player comes back and can buy a car and build a house from a competition like the football World Cup, at least you won’t see them leaving the country. But with handball, it’s a different case, when you see the kind of stipends they are given, it’s not encouraging,” explains Bongben.

Balancing competition and athlete well-being

Cameroon will enter the main round of the championship in Gothenburg as rank outsiders in an otherwise tightly contested Group I. They will take on co-hosts Sweden on Thursday evening at 20:30 hrs with a weakened squad, a disadvantage that takes a greater toll on players as the intense competition wears on. Nevertheless, there will be no ill will towards those who have taken the opportunity to leave the team in search of a new life.

“It’s difficult to even tell your teammate that you are going to leave, those who leave will have planned this quietly before and won’t tell their teammates. And when the teammates hear about it, they’ll certainly just support them because there is nothing they can do and if they had it their way, I’m sure they would also leave. But if a whole team would disappear, it’s bad for the image of the country.”

“There is no freedom”

This is far from a unique case in the wider sporting world and we have seen it on a larger scale in handball over the years. Most recently, at this summer’s Men’s Youth World Championship in Croatia, at least ten players from Burundi suddenly disappeared while taking part in the event. In September, the same players applied for asylum in Belgium.

“I don’t think these actions will stop a team from taking part in such competitions in the future, but I think what they normally do is once they get somewhere, they keep their passports. And in that sense, there is no freedom again. You’re like a prisoner. This is one part of the measures to make sure the team comes back to Cameroon,” says Leocadia Bongben, who would like to see a more practical measure in place to ensure Cameroonian athletes are happy to return home.

“I would love to see better conditions for the athletes. If you give them social security, I don’t think they are likely to be running away every time. So instead of like stopping them from taking part in a competition, if you provide the athletes social security and a stipend every month, I don’t think somebody will leave the comfort of her home and struggle to start over somewhere new.

“But the political will is not there. The government wants these athletes to bring back the trophies, but they are not doing what they are supposed to do to make sure the athletes are financially stable.”

Although Cameroon are unlikely to be claiming a World Championship medal in the near future, their progression to the main round and the performances of key players suggest the talent is certainly there to match the impressive results of fellow African sides Senegal and Angola.

“Cameroonian athletes are really determined. The talent is there, it’s just that the facilities are not there. And when we look at how this is the first time Cameroon has progressed from the preliminary round, this is great but it will take something more significant for the authorities to wake up and provide the support to truly encourage these players who try their best,” concludes Leocadia Bongben.

The audio of this interview can be heard below, recorded for the (Un)informed Handball Hour podcast.