It wasn’t quite the shock of 1990 but, 32 years after they opened a World Cup by beating Argentina, Cameroon exited this tournament by defeating the other South American superpower. Unlike in 1990, there will be no surge into the knockout stages, because a remarkable result was in vain. It is Switzerland who accompany Brazil into the last 16, a first group-stage defeat since 1998 not enough to prevent the Selecao from topping their pool for an 11th successive World Cup and setting up a last-16 tie with South Korea. Tite may consider the loss of that unbeaten record a worthwhile trade-off for the chance to rest his premier players.
Yet if it permitted an upset, the sense was that this was drifting to a stalemate until a mundane match had an extraordinary conclusion. Karl Toko Ekambi crossed, Vincent Aboubakar met it with a superb header which flew past Ederson. After his astonishing scooped goal against Serbia, it was another brilliant finish, but it brought his tournament to a slightly premature finish.
The Cameroon captain took his shirt off and brandished it to the crowd in celebration. The card-happy American referee Ismail Elfath followed the rules and gave him a second booking.
Yet there was no second celebration at the final whistle, Aboubakar and his teammates ending up on the pitch in contemplation and not jubilation as confirmation of Switzerland’s victory meant they were eliminated. Cameroon had come to the Lusail with a wretched World Cup record, with one point from their previous nine games, and they recorded their first win since 2002 and beat the tournament favourites.
Yet it was not enough. Brazil had lost at this stage for the first time since Dani Alves was a mere 15 years old and, on the night the 39-year-old became their oldest player in a World Cup, it mattered not.
On a night when Brazil had 21 shots, and the substitute Bruno Guimaraes missed twin sitters, either side of Cameroon’s goal, it could have been very different. That profligacy could cost them in future matches. The Selecao tend to be a byword for flair but their group-stage return is an underwhelming three goals and as they prioritised freshness, too many of their fringe players failed to stake a claim to step in.
Tite made nine changes, with only Fred and Eder Militao keeping their places. The midfielder was duly removed with 35 minutes to go, which felt a clue. So did another substitution.
If Neymar’s absence creates a vacancy in the first-choice forward line, this was an audition to fill it. Rodrygo served as a direct replacement, occupying the No 10 role, and was the brightest of the front four. Two stirring solo runs were halted in illegal fashion, bringing cautions for two Cameroonians, as the Real Madrid man showed the merits of a direct dribbler in the centre of the pitch. He had an elusiveness and a vibrancy.
When he came off and with Neymar’s ankle injury expected to sideline him for a little longer, Tite seemed to be sparing Rodrygo’s legs. When Gabriel Jesus followed, after an utterly ineffectual display, it extended his wait for a World Cup goal.
On the left, Gabriel Martinelli embarked on a quest to open his Brazil account. Devis Epassy denied him on a hat-trick of occasions, tipping a header over, repelling a shot after a solo run and turning away an effort bound for the top corner. The goalkeeper also denied Antony twice, each from distance, but the Manchester United winger’s trickery was not always allied with productivity.
Epassy had conceded three times against Serbia and almost marred his night, spilling a Militao shot as it nearly crept in, but, somewhat flatteringly, he ended with the official man-of-the-match award. This time, at least, Cameroon were not given grounds to rue their decision to send Andre Onana home.
Brazil spent the majority of the game on the front foot, but Cameroon had a greater need to win and their ambition was signposted on the teamsheet with Aboubakar recalled to join Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting in attack. When Bryan Mbuemo drew the best save of the first half, with Ederson changing direction to parry his header, it meant Brazil’s back-up goalkeeper had made more stops than the first choice, with Alisson not tested in his two outings. Ederson also held an Olivier Ntcham shot but was left powerless by Aboubakar’s header.
It was magnificent but, if it did not bring the prize Cameroon wanted, they have another major scalp. After a dismal run in World Cups, the Indomitable Lions felt indomitable again.