Perched on a hilltop overlooking the Cameroon capital of Yaounde, Arnaud Djoum’s mind drifts back to Gorgie. He knows he wouldn’t be there preparing for the Africa Cup of Nations without Hearts’ help.
The midfielder’s remarkable progress since arriving in Edinburgh just 16 months ago was crowned on Wednesday evening when national coach Hugo Broos named him in Cameroon’s final squad for AFCON 2017.
Djoum is one of just four midfielders in the 23-man group gathered in a hotel high on Mount Febe. They will stay there until next week and then travel across the border into neighbouring Gabon. Their opening group match is against Burkina Faso a week tomorrow.
It is the kind of lofty international stage Djoum could never have imagined when he arrived in Edinburgh in September last year. By his own admission, Hearts have transformed him into an international star. The 27-year-old achieved all three of his Cameroon caps since joining up at Tynecastle. The latest came yesterday in a friendly against Congo. Previously, despite being eligible for Belgium and Cameroon, he was nowhere near the radar of either country.
He is seen as one of Hearts’ key players but was released for the Africa Cup of Nations with his club’s blessing. That’s despite the fact he may miss vital Scottish Cup and Premiership matches. Hearts officials recognise Djoum is desperate to be involved in Gabon and he is eternally grateful for their help in getting him there.
“Every day I have to be thankful to Hearts. They have helped me a lot to become a better player and to grow up,” said Djoum, speaking exclusively to the Evening News.
“They helped me become an international player and get me into the national team. This has been my best time in football. I have enjoyed it so much and I just say ‘thank you’ to Hearts.
“I really wanted to go to Gabon because I think it’s a huge thing to be there. I hope I will be involved on the pitch because it’s a huge tournament.”
He will definitely miss Hearts’ Scottish Cup fourth round tie against Raith Rovers on Sunday, January 22. Should Cameroon reach the latter stages as expected, he could still be absent for league fixtures against Celtic on January 29, Rangers on February 1 and Motherwell on February 4.
For the player, it is a sacrifice worth making for the chance to compete in one of the world’s biggest international championships.
“It would be something so big for my family in Cameroon, and also my family in Belgium. For me personally, it would be a massive achievement,” continued Djoum.
“The Africa Cup of Nations is like a European competition and I think everybody dreams about playing in these games. To play in Gabon would be amazing. I was praying every day that I would be in the Cameroon list.”
Not every Cameroonian is as enthusiastic. Seven of the country’s most high-profile players refused Broos’ invitation to join the final squad having been named in a provisional 35-man pool. Liverpool’s Josip Matip West Bromwich Albion’s Allan Nyom, plus Andre Onana (Ajax), Guy N’dy Assembe (Nancy), Maxime Poundje (Bordeaux), Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa (Marseille) and Ibrahim Amadou (Lille) all chose to put club before country and did not travel to Yaounde.
The Indomitable Lions plan to roar in Gabon nonetheless. They start in Group A alongside the host nation, Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau. It would be a massive upset if they did not make the knockout phase. Regardless of their on-field fortunes, life within Broos’ squad will be anything but dull.
Djoum gave an insight into what goes on inside the camp, where players dance and sing on the national team bus whilst travelling to matches.
“I always enjoy being part of the Cameroon squad because it is a great atmosphere,” he explained. “When we are on the bus on the way to a game, someone puts music on and we all start to dance and sing.
“It’s typical Africa music but it’s very nice to see and it’s such a different atmosphere. It’s so funny but it’s something really different. That’s one of the things I enjoy.”
Cameroon are sixth favourites to win the Africa Cup of Nations outright. Camaraderie and team spirit will be central to their chances of success. Djoum is confident they have a strong enough bond despite the absence of so many household names.
“I get on well with many of the players in the squad and we always stay in touch. It is a nice group,” he said. “Even the players I don’t know so much, I have them on Snapchat or I have their phone number.
“We are a strong group. Some players play in bigger teams but they are not arrogant. Everybody speaks to each other.
“I play as a box-to-box midfielder with Cameroon but at Hearts I play in the number ten position a lot. I know what I have to do but I have so many good players around me, so it is easy to play here.”