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One Sunday in May, David Mayebi left the field of play for the final time. Yet he bowed out safe in the knowledge that he had done his life’s work. His was a life devoted entirely to football – first as a player, then as a coach and manager.

In his later years, he founded and headed Cameroon’s footballers’ union and served on the FIFPro Board and within Division Africa – responsibilities that he took extremely seriously, driven by a determination to help others.

David was especially fond of being referred to as “big brother” – a term of endearment that Africans use to show respect for their elders. Indeed, he was proud that people came to him for his wisdom. Yet he was a man like no other. The former Union Douala and Cameroon international central defender was a real team man – a “physical player” in his own words. He was just as wily off the pitch as he was on it, famous for being elusive about his year of birth. In fact, David’s age changed regularly depending on his mood and the situation – and on whom he was talking to. It became something of a running joke.

David was a man of many words. He loved to talk about himself, his wife and his children, especially to people he trusted. Inevitably, every conversation eventually came round to the subject that was his life’s passion: football. He never failed to mention, at least in passing, that he had also worked as an “authorised signatory” at a major bank after hanging up his boots.

Whenever he found a willing ear, he also enjoyed talking about his time as a coach at Union Douala. He would proclaim, with great pride, that he had trained as a coach (and learned about “functional anatomy”) in France, where he had attended a course in Joinville-le-Pont in the Parisian suburbs.

In 1995, just two days before Christmas, he and a group of other former players, including Roger Milla, gave his fellow countrymen the best gift they could have wished for by founding the Association des Footballeurs Camerounais (AFC) – the organisation that now goes by the name of Syndicat National des Footballeurs Camerounais (Synafoc).

He devoted the rest of his life to this vocation, spending many an hour talking to and learning from René Charrier, Vice-President of France’s Union Nationale des Footballeurs Professionnels (UNFP) – the man whom he dubbed his “mentor”. He wanted to make sure that the rights and interests of Cameroon’s footballers received the protection they deserved, and he was willing to put in the time to achieve this.

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Synafoc now has a team of more than 20 staff and is the only African players’ union with its own headquarters – premises opened in the outer suburbs of Douala back in 2008. While the “king of crude oil”, as he was known in Cameroon, was the spearhead of the union, he had the foresight to look to the future, gathering around him a team of people including Geremi N’Jitap and Lucien Metomo. There can be no doubt that he fully intended to pass the heavy burden of duty onto them once the time came.

His battle for players’ rights brought him into direct conflict with the now-toppled President of the Fédération Camerounaise de Football (Fécafoot). Last year, he rejoined the federation after being “hounded out” for standing firmly behind Samuel Eto’o when Cameroon’s star player spoke out against Fécafoot for reneging on its promise to pay bonuses to the country’s international players.

Over the last two years, he was involved in rebuilding the federation, pushing vigorously for the FIFA-backed reforms. He also helped to secure the election of Fécafoot’s new President, Tombi à Roko Sidiki. Ultimately, his ambition was to bring about an end to the stagnation that had befallen Cameroonian football, and to secure seats on Fécafoot’s Executive Committee for Synafoc members.

He knew that football in his country was beset by organisational problems. He never sought to bury his head in the sand. Nor did he look for excuses. But he took any criticism of his beloved sport in his native land as a personal affront.

David held a deep love for his country. He organised a mass meningitis and tetanus immunisation campaign in 2000, ensured that defibrillators were installed in Cameroon’s major stadiums, and had several other projects in mind.

David was a highly respected person in his home country and is said to have had the ear of Cameroon’s President, Paul Biya. Yet he also served a wider cause – that of Africa as a whole. He was determined to see the continent gain its rightful place in the world. He wanted Africa’s richness to be recognised, its elites honoured, its children educated.

In 2005, he was elected as the first African representative on the FIFPro Board – an appointment that ultimately led to the founding of Division Africa in 2007. He naturally played a leading role within the new division, willingly sharing his vast experience with representatives of the continent’s fledgling unions. They looked up to him as a “big brother”. It was a role that he cherished during his life.

And his legacy will live on.

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In February 2011, the Confederation Africaine de Football (CAF) and FIFPro Division Africa signed a historic memorandum of understanding in Khartoum. This achievement was due, in no small part, to David’s close relationship with CAF President Issa Hayatou, and to his personal grit and determination to swim against the tide. It was a truly historic moment, and something in which he took great pride. It heralded a brighter future for African footballers.

Everything that David did was in pursuit of one goal: to give footballers in Cameroon, and across the continent as a whole, something more than hope to cling to. Like anyone with lofty ambitions, he didn’t always succeed. What’s more, he was regularly subjected to criticism, even jealousy. Yet this didn’t stop him striving to reach his goal.

On Sunday 15 May, David Mayebi’s battle came to an untimely end. Yet his voice continues to resonate after his passing. He is no longer with us in person, but he will live long in the memories of footballers across Cameroon and throughout Africa – players to whom he gave so much during his life.

He was, is and will always be a cherished member of Synafoc, FIFPro and Division Africa. In honour of his memory, we will continue to fight his battles – battles that were and are now our own. Although he cannot be here to celebrate our victories, we will not relent in our determination to support the cause of footballers – and of football as a whole.

“A Lion never dies. It only sleeps.”

Sleep in peace, David.

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