The charming renaissance of Africa’s most potent forward
Words by Charlie Carmichael | Tw. @CHARLIEJC93
‘L’impossible n’est pas Camerounais’ is a popular saying in the city of Douala. Translated as ‘the impossible is not Cameroonian’, the inhabitants of the coastal metropolis are firm believers that no challenge is too great, no climb too steep and no odds too stacked against their proud nation.
Never was there a more fitting microcosm of this than at Italia ‘90. The Indomitable Lions had slumped to group stage elimination in the preceding African Cup of Nations, courtesy of defeats to Zambia and Senegal, and global expectation heading into the World Cup was at an all-time low.
Matters weren’t aided by the fact their first team coach, Valery Nepomnyashchy, couldn’t speak a word of French, let alone his very limited grasp of the English language. The lack of coherent communication proved problematic and team talks were subsequently translated by a man nominally employed as the Cameroonian driver at the Moscow embassy.
Nepomnyashchy may well have been dismissed following Cameroon’s dismal exit from the tournament were it not for the fact that the initial decision to appoint him was that of the national President, Paul Biya. The nation’s political leader had sought to rekindle his country’s footballing fortunes by appointing the Russian, hoping the coach’s European pedigree and tactical nous would outweigh the obvious cultural difficulties. Hope may have been waning, but fortunately, Biya had one last trick up his sleeve.
At 38 years of age, Roger Milla was enjoying his international retirement. The 1976 African footballer of the year had already played at a World Cup and exited the national stage on a high, helping Les Lions Indomptables capture consecutive AFCON championships in 1986 and 1988 respectively. After a dispute with Cameroon’s minister for sport accelerated his retirement plans, Milla was peacefully playing hedonistically in the French overseas department of Réunion.
“I felt a huge call from my country to come back.” Milla recounted to Soccer Bible, “That’s what I needed to show that I still had a lot in my legs and in my head, that it wasn’t over for me and that I could still help my country.” Nepomnyashchy wasn’t so convinced. Given his precarious job security, however, there was little he could do but re-welcome Milla into the international set-up.
If regaining elite match fitness in his late thirties represented a steep task, then Cameroon’s opening fixture was almost insurmountable. Pitted against current world champions and a Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina, the match for many was a foregone conclusion. As Guardian columnist, Simon Burnton, notes: “To say they were underestimated before kick-off would be to wrongly suggest that they were estimated at all.”
What ensued was a wild concoction of brutality and poetry. Tackles that would have made Norman Hunter wince combined with Pep-purring combination play had Cameroon both reaffirming and dispelling African football stereotypes in one. They shocked Argentina – and the world – winning the match 1-0 whilst also finishing the game with nine men after being shown two red cards.
Milla’s involvement was seldom, but the confidence gained from such a historic win was more than evident on match-day two. Vanquishing Romania 4-0, Milla netted a brace to become the World Cup’s oldest ever scorer.
Both goals were celebrated in the same way, with that iconic dance at the corner flag. Paying homage to his local roots, Milla cracked out the makossa dance – an urban musical dance popularised in Cameroon – showing the kind of rhythmic gyrations that even Shakira would struggle to emulate. The old dog was fast learning new tricks and doing so with the type of graceful élan only associated with South American and European players at the time.
Cameroon had qualified from the group with a game to spare and were now gearing up for their round-of-16 match against Colombia. With the stakes high, the fixture was an unsurprisingly cagey affair and remained scoreless heading into extra-time. Milla entered the fray deep into the second half and it didn’t take long before the veteran was once again living up to his super-sub billing.
Receiving the ball on the half-turn, the striker proved his hips weren’t solely reserved for dancing, swivelling, showing a blistering turn of pace, that left his helpless Colombian marker for dead, and lashing the ball home at the near post.
He then inflicted the coup de grâce in a moment more comedy than football. Watching it back, you’d be forgiven for thinking that maverick Colombian keeper, Rene Higuita, was plotting an appearance on You’ve Been Framed when he found himself disposed by Milla some 35 yards from goal before being left red-faced as the striker rolled the ball into an empty net for his fourth of the tournament.
Such reading of the game came naturally to Milla, however on this occasion he was aided by the knowledge of former teammate, Carlos Valderrama. “I was lucky [with that goal] because I played with Carlos, the Colombia captain, at Montpellier,” Milla explained to FIFA. “Through Valderrama I’d seen videos of Higuita dribbling the ball out of his area. I knew if I was quick enough I might be able to take advantage of a mistake. And it worked.”
Roger had bested Rene. Cameroon became the first African team in history to make the quarter-finals of a World Cup and had done so for the most part in a manner that abolished racial stereotypes about the intellect and technique of players on the continent.
The 500-1 rank outsiders now had England standing in their way of the last four. Despite Cameroon’s heroics thus far, their opposition were again the overwhelming favourites to progress and they duly took the lead by way of a David Platt header.
Milla had watched the first half from the confines of the bench but with Cameroon trailing at the interval, Nepomnyashchy inevitably called upon his now not-so-secret weapon. His introduction immediately breathed new life into the side as he first won a penalty – after being upended by Paul Gascoigne’s attempted challenge – before providing a beautifully weighted through-ball to Emmanuel Kundé.
Both opportunities were taken with great aplomb, sending the already rapturous fans into a state of delirium. With Milla and co. just seven minutes away from another historic victory, Gary Lineker arrived on the scene to crush Cameroonian hearts.
First winning and converting a penalty to take the tie to extra time, another tumble in the 106th minute resulted in a case of déjà vu. England’s prize poacher dispatched his second from the spot and empathically ended Cameroon’s improbable Italian adventure.
The significance of Cameroon’s exit can’t be understated. Some of its population even took their own lives after the final whistle had blown: “The elimination of Cameroon means the end of my life” was the shocking message left in one woman’s suicide note. Grim scenes of fatality aside, the majority of the nation greeted their players – and in particular Milla – back to the country with a hero’s welcome.
The striker would go down in folklore, not just in Cameroon, but in Africa and the world over. Children no longer just wanted to mimic Maradona or Gazza but dreamt of rounding off their goals in the park with a little wiggle next to a tree that marked the corner flag.
Milla would eventually conclude his illustrious international career in four years later, extraordinarily competing in the 1994 World Cup and breaking his own record of being the oldest scorer at the ripe old age of 42. He was named in Pelé’s list of the top 125 living footballers in 2004 and in 2007 received the prestigious award of being crowned the best African footballer of the past 50 years by the Confederation of African Football.
Nostalgia can so often blur our judgement. When it comes to Milla, though, his ability, impact and legacy remains crystalline. He was a luminary for African footballers and encapsulated the phrase ‘age is but a number’.
Many believe it impossible for a player to hit their peak after reaching their mid-thirties – let alone forties – but then again, Milla and Cameroon have never been ones to pay much attention to what is and isn’t socially accepted as possible.