Breel Embolo grew up in Basel but was born in the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé and only received Swiss citizenship eight years ago. That explains why the Monaco striker refrained from celebrating one of the simplest, but potentially most significant goals he has ever scored.
In an awkward group that also included Brazil and Serbia, this was a game Swiss he needed to win and, in the 48th minute, Embolo assured that he would fulfill it.
It wasn’t Embolo’s fault, his six-yard finish driving a stake through the hearts of the Cameroonians, as their team’s chances of advancing beyond the group stage for the first time since Italia 90 were greatly reduced.
“Football writes these stories,” said Murat Yakin, the Swiss coach. “I told Breel: ‘Cameroons are your friends, but they are also your opponents.’ I am happy with his performance”.
The opening week of Qatar 2022 has shown plenty of intricate passing, clever movement and sometimes kaleidoscopic positional exchanges, but Cameroon introduced a retro theme, reminding everyone that crashing balls into corners hasn’t necessarily had its moment.
The game plan was largely focused on getting the ball long and early to Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. The Bayern Munich striker is still familiar to his former Stoke crowd, as is Swiss Xherdan Shaqiri. Now with the Chicago Fire, Shaqiri, who also retains something of a fan club at Liverpool, is Switzerland’s creative catalyst, but it took time for him to get going.
All of Shaqiri’s maneuvering in the first half was overshadowed by Cameroonian left-back Nouhou Tolo. When Shaqiri switched wings, he experienced similar treatment from Collins Fai.
Those early struggles dictated that although the Indomitable Lions didn’t always get their way in a central midfield consisting of Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka and Nottingham Forest’s Remo Freuler for Switzerland, they were often free to focus on feeding Choupo-Moting.
Yakin had left Newcastle’s Fabian Schär on the bench and instead paired Manchester City’s Nico Elvedi and Manuel Akanji in central defence. Choupo-Moting, before he faded away, enjoyed putting that pair through a full workout, on one occasion lobbing the ball past Akanji only to shoot tepidly at Yann Sommer.
An even better opportunity came when Brentford’s Bryan Mbeumo, whose advances down the right hand side threatened sporadically, unleashed a shot that was saved by Sommer into the path of the well-placed Karl Toko Ekambi, whose shot wildly deflected off the goal. Otherwise, Toko Ekambi found himself marked efficiently and intelligently by Silvan Widmer.
Rigobert’s Song tactics may have come straight out of the Sam Allardyce playbook, but when the impressive Sommer saved again, this time from Martin Hongla, Switzerland looked uneasy. By half time, they had barely threatened, failing to score an effort on target. Furthermore, Cameroon’s key midfielder, Napoli’s André-Frank Zambo Anguissa, had finished the first 45 minutes strongly and looked capable of upsetting the Freuler-Xhaka axis.
Yet for all Cameroon’s pressing counter-attack, driven from behind, their defense looked like a nervous wreck on those admittedly strictly rationed occasions when Switzerland turned the ball over into their penalty area.
In such a foray on 45 minutes they should have scored, but Akanji missed a tempting start with a header after conceding Freuler’s corner.
Perhaps that failure galvanized Switzerland, who emerged for the second half in a more slick and precise passing mode and were quickly rewarded when Embolo scored.
With the defense losing focus, Shaqiri was allowed to capitalize on clever approach work from Xhaka and Freuler and sent a low, curling cross towards the similarly neglected scorer. All that was missing was for Embolo, who has set up a charitable foundation to help refugees in Switzerland and underprivileged children in Cameroon, to bring the ball home from twenty feet in the face of that stolid reaction.
It was Switzerland’s first shot on goal and, briefly, the African drums and vuvuzelas, which had been making a lot of noise in the Doha metro early Thursday, fell silent.
The soundtrack had resumed when Zambo Anguissa’s superb interception prevented Embolo from scoring another goal and André Onana’s fabulous dive save denied Ruben Vargas.
After that, Switzerland fell back deep, packing up their defence. With Choupo-Moting a shadow of their first half, Cameroon couldn’t find their way.
“It’s hard to lose a game we dominated in the first half,” Song said. “I feel disappointed but we only have three players with a record World Cup experience, and there are two more games.