Born in Cameroon, raised in Colorado, forged in the North American women’s league, Estelle Johnson adds reassuring defensive experience as the Indomitable Lionesses as they try to grab their last World Cup chance against New Zealand on Thursday.
Johnson smiles all the time, happy to be playing in her first World Cup at the age of 30 for her country of birth.
“I’m a happy person, I just enjoy football and I enjoy everything that goes along with it,” she told AFP. “But I think I’m extra happy because it’s a great competition.”
Even though Cameroon have lost their first two games in Group E, Johnson says her first World Cup has “been even better that I could have imagined.”
A victory over New Zealand in Montpellier would give Cameroon three points and could be enough to earn a place in the last 16 as one of the four best third-place teams.
Johnson was born in Maroua, Cameroon, in 1988. Her American father was a crop scientist.
At seven she moved to Fort Collins in Colorado. She tried “all type of different sports, basketball, volleyball. I’ve played baseball as well with a team full of boys, only girl on the team!”
“But soccer has always been the sport for me.”
She has played for three US clubs, but was aware that she could appear on the international stage with Cameroon.
“I’ve always thought about it, but once I saw them playing in 2015, I think that’s what really made me want to join the team and I’ve been trying to get on the team for a little while now.”
Her dream was held up by red tape.
“I wanted to play in the African Cup a couples of years back, but nothing really was happening,” she said.
Once Alain Djeumfa took over as coach in January he moved to have her application approved.
“When the second coach Alain took over everything started working,” she said.
Djeumfa said he wanted Johnson on his team.
“She is a girl of unparallelled maturity in the game, she is really experienced, has an excellent reading of situations, she anticipates a lot and has a very good footwork,” he said. “She was very motivated. Now she is in Cameroon and we are very proud of her.”
She had a week in Cameroon in May to meet her teammates “and eat African food,” said Djeumfa. “She laughs, and eats all the food!”
In a bilingual, French and English-speaking country, the US star, who plays for New Jersey’s Sky Blue in the National Women’s Soccer League, quickly adapted on the field as well.
“On the pitch, I try to communicate in French,” she said, laughing as she repeated the terms. “‘Droite’, ‘dans ton dos’, stuff like that, it’s not good French but get the message across.”
She’s even trying to adapt to the fact that in most of the world outside the United States the sport is not called ‘soccer’.
“Sometimes I say ‘football’ talking with my Cameroonian teammates.”
Johnson now has six international caps. The last two came in the 1-0 loss to Canada and a 3-1 defeat by the Dutch.
“We’ve played really good matches so far, but sometimes football doesn’t go the way that it’s supposed to go. Against Canada we could have come away with a point,” she said.
Even victory against the Kiwis might not be enough, depending on results in other groups.
“Some things need to happen in our favour, but we just need to make sure we win on Thursday and make sure we do everything possible and get to the next round,” she said.
“We all believe we can do it, we’ve no doubt in our mind we are going to put on a good performance.”