Rigobert Song: The Big Chief

cameroon defender rigobert song

Player Profile: Rigobert Song

Date of Birth: 01/07/1976

Height: 1.83 m

Position: Centre-back

National Team: Cameroon

International Caps: 137

International Goals: 5

Club Career

Rigobert Song is a torch-bearer of sorts for footballers from Africa. He was one of the early players to forge a successful career in Europe, a path that thousands of footballers from the continent have followed since. His physical, all-action style has endeared him to lovers of the game the world over.

After leaving his homeland, Song developed in the ranks of French team, FC Metz. Pretty soon, he was their first-choice centre-back, and his emergence coincided with the clubs rise up the league standings. During his four-season stay, Metz went from finishing in mid-table, to runners up in the 1997–98 season – losing the title to Lens on goal difference.

Song made a total of 123 league appearances for Metz and won his first piece of silverware with the club when they lifted the 1996 Coupe de la Ligue. With interest building in his services, it wasn’t long before newly-promoted Italian side Salernitana took a chance on the Cameroonian.

It’s fair to say Rigobert Song’s Italian adventure did not go to plan. For whatever reason, he featured in just four league games Salernitana during the 1998-99 season, as the club were relegated to Serie B. But, his ordeal was short-lived. Despite his lack of game time in Serie A, he got a move to an even bigger club when English giants Liverpool took him to Anfield for a fee of £2.7 million.

In his first season in the Premier League, Song quickly established himself as a fan favourite despite operating out of position – he was playing at right-back. He remained an integral part of the first team in the 1999-00 season, making eighteen league appearances for the Reds despite missing a good chunk of the season with African Cup of Nations commitments.

In his third season, Song found opportunities hard to come by, making just two league appearances. He was sold to West Ham United at the end of the season where, again, his impact was lukewarm. A decent first campaign with the Hammers saw him make 22 appearances, despite joining the club three months into the season. However, this was followed by a disappointing second season where he only featured in six games before going out on loan to German Bundesliga club FC Köln.

After an average loan spell with Köln, Song left England and returned to where it all began in France, this time joining RC Lens. After two seasons there, he moved to Turkish giants Galatasaray. He would eventually end up captaining the club during his four-year stay there and was highly successful, winning the league title twice and the Turkish Cup once. 

He left Galatasaray in 2007-08 but didn’t go far. Song decided to stay in Turkey, joining Trabzonspor. He won the Turkish Cup with them during the 2009-10 season at the end of which, he called time on his playing career.

International Career

Rigobert Song is regarded as one of the greatest-ever players to pull on the Cameroon shirt. Indeed, nobody has more international caps for the country than him. He also has the unique distinction of having played in eight African Cup of Nations, more than any other player. The defender has won the tournament twice and was also able to represent his country in four World Cups.

Song was only 17 when he received his first senior call-up, and that was to Henri Michel’s squad for the 1994 World Cup in the USA. That World Cup though did not go well for him. He made his debut in a group match against Sweden and immediately set a record. His captain Roger Milla was 42 at the time, and the age-gap between the two players was a whopping 24 years, the biggest ever between two teammates in a World Cup match. That record still stands to this day.

In the very next match against Brazil, Song received a red card becoming the youngest player ever to be sent off in a World Cup match. Cameroon lost the game 3-0 and a 6-1 defeat to Russia in the next game meant they bowed out in the group stages, unable to repeat the heroics of the 1990 Cameroon side.

By the time the 1998 World Cup came around, Song was one of the prominent members of the squad, and he had fresh teammates to back him up, like the 17-year-old Samuel Eto’o. However, the results were eerily similar to four years prior. Cameroon were eliminated in the group stages after two draws and a 3-0 loss to Italy. Song ended up getting another red card, this time against Chile, becoming the first player to receive red cards in two different editions of the World Cup. A feat Zinedine Zidane would go on to emulate eight years later.

He would taste success with Cameroon soon enough though, winning the 2000 African Cup of Nations and was a part of the squad that retained the title two years later. Song once again made Cameroon’s 2002 World Cup squad, but the Indomitable Lions failed to get past the group stage. This time though, they had a win to show for their efforts – they beat Saudi Arabia 1-0.

Song had a successful yet tragic outing in the Confederations Cup a year later. He led his team to the final of the tournament where they lost against France. However, earlier in the competition he had witnessed his teammate Marc-Vivien Foe collapse in a game against Colombia, leading to his unfortunate death.

The defender missed a World Cup for the first time since his debut when Cameroon failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. Earlier that year he had reason to celebrate though when he became Cameroon’s most-capped player when playing at the African Cup of Nations. His team was eliminated in the quarter-finals.

Two years later, Song represented Cameroon in the tournament and played a significant role in their run to the final. However, the competition ended on a bitter note for him as a mistake that he made allowed Mohamed Aboutrika to score the winner for Egypt in the final.

Song was dropped in 2009 marking the first time in nearly a decade that Cameroon had lined up without him. His team qualified for the 2010 African Cup of Nations without him, but Song was recalled for the final tournament. He, however, made several mistakes there as Cameroon went out in the quarter-finals.

Despite that, he was selected in his team’s 2010 World Cup squad but had been reduced to a bit-part player. By the time he featured in the final group game against the Netherlands, Cameroon had been eliminated from the tournament. Shortly after the tournament, he retired from international football.

Where is Rigobert Song now?

After retiring as a player, Rigobert Song promptly embarked on a journey as a coach. There were reports that he was set to take up the reins of the Chad national team in 2015, but that move never materialised.

A year later, the Cameroon football federation brought Song into the national team set-up. He was entrusted with managing the Cameroon A team which is a side comprised entirely of local-based players. Under him, the team qualified for the 2018 African Nations Cup but fared poorly in the tournament, finishing bottom of their group with two losses and two draws.

In 2017, when Cameroon manager Hugo Broos left the post, he was appointed caretaker manager of the team. There were calls to give him the job permanently. However, in 2018, the Cameroon FA appointed Dutch legend Clarence Seedorf to the post. As a result, Song went back to managing the nation’s U-23 team a role he still holds today.

Did you know?

– Even though he lost his father at an early age, Song cites him as a major motivational force in his life, saying that his absence motivated him to work even harder.

– In October 2016, Song suffered a brain aneurysm and slipped into a coma. It was widely reported on social media that he was already dead. But in less than a year, he was back to coaching again.

– Rigobert Song’s nephew Alex Song is also a footballer having played for multiple clubs across Europe, most notably for Arsenal between 2006 and 2012, and Barcelona.