Karl Toko-Ekambi: Lyon star helping power Cameroon surge

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Karl Toko-Ekambi: Lyon star helping power Cameroon surge
© Kenzo Tribouillard, AFP

Lyon striker Karl Toko-Ekambi has been crucial to Africa Cup of Nations hosts Cameroon winning the status of favourites after surging through the tournament so far. His darting runs, clever creative play and sharp finishing skills have been invaluable assets. FRANCE 24 looks back at Toko-Ekambi’s career.

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Cameroon have the aura of favourites after much-fancied Nigeria went from hero to zero, crashing out to a previously unimpressive Tunisia in the second round after winning all their group stage matches.

In large part, the hosts are seen as the most likely winners thanks to talismanic striker Vincent Aboubakar, who boasts a magnificent 6 goals in 4 matches at the tournament so far. But Aboubakar’s strike partner Karl Toko-Ekambi has been almost as impressive, scoring three goals in the same number of matches while playing a pivotal role by distracting defenders from Aboubakar with dangerous runs. 

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Cameroon’s first goal against Comoros on Tuesday highlighted the strength of their partnership. 

The tiny Indian Ocean national team had qualified for their first-ever Africa Cup of Nations and got through to the second round. Covid cases racked their squad so badly that a left-back had to go in goal as all the Comoros keepers on the squad had come down with the virus.

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No one expected Comoros to triumph over the in-form hosts. But for the first half-hour, the minnows seemed impossible to break down. Humiliation beckoned for Cameroon. Then Aboubakar burst forward while Toko Ekambi positioned himself perfectly, allowing him to tee up a pass for the Lyon striker to place into the back of the net. Cameroon never looked back after that. 

This followed two formidable Toko Ekambi goals when Cameroon lit up a previously goal-shy tournament by thumping Ethiopia 4-1: Firstly, a powerful header from a cross; secondly, with a blistering run into the box, sidestepping past two defenders and slotting it past them and the goalkeeper into the bottom left corner.  

Born in 1992, Toko-Ekambi started out as a teenager at Paris FC, the City of Lights club that has struggled just as much as PSG has flourished, languishing in the lower divisions of French football. A successful four years there took him to Ligue 2 side Sochaux in 2014, where he became one of their top scorers during his two seasons at the club. Toko-Ekambi’s burgeoning talent – notably his fast pace and cool finishing skills – landed him a move to the top tier in 2016, when he was snapped up by Angers SCO, a team long stuck in the low ranks of Ligue 1 who have constantly cherished hopes of doing better. 

An impressive run of form in the 2017-18 season – with 17 goals in 37 matches –attracted interest from Brighton & Hove Albion, freshly promoted to the Premier League and determined to up their standards to avoid yo-yoing back down to the Championship. But Angers fended off the English bid and kept their budding talent – and at the end of that season Toko-Ekambi won the Prix Marc-Vivien Foé for the best African player in Ligue 1, making him the first Cameroonian player to win the plaudit. 

Toko-Ekambi got his big move in the summer of 2018, when Villareal signed him. He scored 14 goals during his first season in Spain, including 4 in a remarkable 8-0 demolition of UD Almeria. The following season saw Toko-Ekambi named La Liga Player of the Month in October 2019 – despite competition from the two best players in the world at the time, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – after a sterling run of form including a notably impressive brace against Deportivo Alaves. 

However, Toko-Ekambi’s form dipped in 2019-20, prompting a move back to France as Villareal loaned him out to Lyon. At that point Memphis Depay dominated the Lyon attack. Toko-Ekambi often played a valuable role as his wingman, just as he has with Aboubakar at the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations, using his pace to draw away defenders. Lyon were suitably impressed and signed him on a permanent contract in June 2020. 

Toko-Ekambi impressed in his own right in his first season at Lyon, scoring 14 goals. When Memphis was snapped up by Barcelona a year later that the Cameroonian striker entered the limelight for the Ligue 1 club, establishing himself as Lyon’s most prolific goal scorer in the months that followed.  

Yet it is for his country that Toko-Ekambi has played best. He garnered little attention as Cameroon romped to victory in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, as teammates Aboubakar, Christian Bassogog and Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui. But so far Toko-Ekambi’s performances at this year’s tournament have been the best of his career. As Cameroon face giant-killers Gambia in the quarter-finals on Saturday – with expectations pumped up as fans expect them to seize the trophy on home soil – the strike partnership between him and Aboubakar is their greatest asset.

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