Warning: People in the vicinity may hear cheering — loud, loud cheering. The fact that said sounds could be emanating from one of the best basketball players on the planet merely adds to the intrigue.
When he’s not playing Most Valuable Player-caliber ball for the Philadelphia 76ers — and his definition of “a bad night” was a near triple-double of 26 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists in a 105-87 rout of the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday — five-time NBA All-Star Joel Embiid is rooting for his nation of Cameroon at the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), which his homeland happens to be hosting.
Saturday’s quarterfinal pits the Indomitable Lions against The Gambia in a match Embiid’s team is expected to win. Victory would mean Cameroon is two games away from lifting a sixth AFCON title, with the most recent coming in 2017, the center’s rookie year for the 76ers.
Embiid was named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month just three days before Cameroon defeated Egypt 2-1 in the 2017 final; a match-up which, if all things fall into place, could happen again on Sunday, February 6th.
“The excitement level has always been huge,” Embiid tells CNN Sport’s Amanda Davies about his love of the Cameroon national team dating back to childhood. “The crazy thing is that when Cameroon would always play, anytime they would score, everybody would just scream. You could hear the whole country just scream.”
The love of the Lions
While his remarkable journey brought Embiid to America at the age of 16 — first via high school and college in Florida and Kansas, and subsequently selected 3rd overall in the 2014 NBA Draft by Philadelphia — he was born a few years after Cameroon’s fairytale run to the quarterfinals of the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
The first African nation to advance to the last eight, a mere seven minutes away from reaching the final four, Cameroon eventually succumbed to England in extra-time. Along the way, the Indomitable Lions wowed the world, starting with the upset of reigning champion Argentina in the opening match.
“Obviously, Roger Milla kind of put us on the map,” recalls Embiid about the then 38-year-old striker Milla scoring four times at Italia ’90, gaining further fame for his trademark goal celebration of dancing by the corner flag.
“Going back through history and watching the games, and learning through the history before I was born, and obviously the celebration was a huge part of that history … we have a lot of history coming from Cameroon, and any time I get the chance to kind of be part of it, I always enjoy.”
Embiid believes that the class of 2022 can reign supreme at Africa’s showpiece tournament. “We’re playing at home so any time you’ve got the support from your home fans that usually adds a lot to your motivation to go on and win every single game,” he observes.
“Playing at home is a huge advantage for us, and I think we’ve got a chance to win it all … I’m excited to keep watching and keep supporting.”
Cameroon’s success at AFCON notwithstanding, the fortunes of a football team pale in comparison to the deaths which occurred at the Olembe Stadium in Yaoundé last Monday due to a stadium crush. At least eight people were killed and 38 injured during the Round of 16 game between Cameroon and Comoros.
A somber Embiid says: “I’m a man of God, so I pray for those families to find peace and also for their loved ones to find peace and be at peace. It is tragic that it happened and I’m extremely sorry for it.” Given the horrific events, what would it mean to Embiid and Cameroon if the team does go on to lift the trophy?
“As a country, we’ve been through a lot,” he reveals. “We haven’t had any competition [held] over there for a long time, so to be able to finally get it and to be able to win, I think is going to be huge for us.”
AFCON getting more credit
In the build up to AFCON 2022, there was discussion in some quarters that stars such as Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah (Egypt) and Sadio Mané (Senegal), Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez (Algeria), Paris Saint-Germain’s Achraf Hakimi (Morocco) and Kalidou Koulibaly (Senegal) temporarily leaving their club sides behind was such a bitter pill for their club sides and supporters to swallow, it overshadowed the prestige which comes from representing one’s country, to say nothing of elevating the tournament to the levels attained across other continents.
Embiid follows European football closely, so does he concur that AFCON fails to get the credit it deserves on the global stage?
“It’s messed up,” Embiid quickly concludes. “When it always comes to Africa, I feel like there’s always kind of double standards. I never hear any complaints when it comes to the European Cup or any other cups.
“[AFCON]’s a little different because obviously it’s going on during the season over there, and some of the best players, when you talk about someone like Mo Salah or Sadio [Mané] they’re supposed to be playing for their clubs. But I also appreciate them wanting to just go back and represent their country, which is good.
“I think we’re still earning our respect … when you look at the success that Africa has in general, we have a lot of talent. Not just in football but in basketball or other sports too. Over time, we’re going to overcome that but it’s getting there slowly.”
As for the big man himself, when asked what would mean more to him — Cameroon triumphing at AFCON or Embiid winning MVP — he smiles. “That’s tough! I want both — both would be great!
“It would have been a better question if you were to ask me between Cameroon winning or me winning a championship!” Asked then which he would prefer, Embiid said, “Both would be great, like I said, I’m a competitor — I want to win.”
After detailing the hard work Cameroon made of their previous opponents Comoros, as the continental minnows played much of the match with 10 men and the entire game with an outfield player in goal, Embiid gives a message to the team of his heart ahead of the challenges which await.
“Go out there and keep doing whatever they’ve been doing. At the end, they’ve been doing great. They have our full support to continue to do so and I really hope that they’re able to keep that cup in our home territory, so I’m gonna keep supporting them. Like I said, I’m going to be watching the rest of the games.”
Will we see another iconic celebration like Embiid’s Twitter video of Max Verstappen’s maiden Formula One title if the Indomitable Lions pull off their sixth AFCON crown? “I hope the excitement of when we get to the final is the same thing [as the F1 finale]. We might get one!”