Milla: "Our performance allowed Africans to be taken seriously."

Updated: May 15

Interview: Archie Willis

Illustration: Glory Days Artwork

CAMEROON – In an exclusive Q&A interview with FUTBOLISTA Magazine, World Cup legend Roger Milla talks goals, Cameroon, Montpellier and that celebration...

Hello Roger. We hope you’re doing well. We’d like to start by asking you about your 400+ goals in football - did you find it easy to hit the back of the net throughout your career?

“Hello my friend. I didn’t count the goals I scored. What interested me the most was getting the victory for my team. I was good at what I did.”

In the 1970s, you starred for Léopard Douala and Tonnerre Yaoundé in Cameroon, before moving to France in 1977. Was it difficult to adapt to French football?

“It’s impossible to compare. At that time, France was massively ahead of us. We were amateurs and they were professionals. We only played for fun.”

Let’s move on to your first FIFA World Cup, in 1982. How did it feel?

“This competition left me with a bitter taste. We had three draws but if we weren’t robbed, we would have gone further. I think of my goal against Peru, which I wasn’t offside for. There was proof of this error when the referee was sent home after the match. If we had beaten Peru, we would have qualified and Italy would have been eliminated. In the end, Italy won the competition. Of all our national teams, the 1982 team was the strongest.”

Although Cameroon missed out on qualifying for the 1986 FIFA World Cup, you had a very notable spell at Montpellier. How would you describe your connection with that club, having returned as a coach in the 2000s?

“It’s a real family club. I loved the time I spent there. I left Montpellier even though I had two years left on my contract because football was eating me up. I was feeling tired so I went to rest on Réunion Island.”

Paul Biya, the President of Cameroon, called you to ask you to reconsider your international retirement in time for the 1990 World Cup. Were you reluctant to re-join the national team, or were you hungry for another opportunity to play in the tournament?

“I was called back by the President of Cameroon. It would have been difficult to turn down his decision. So I proudly honoured the president’s call.”

At 38 years old, you were arguably the star of the 1990 FIFA World Cup. Tell us about those two extra-time goals against Colombia, which sent an African nation to the quarter-finals of the World Cup for the very first time…

“It was unbelievable. I didn’t expect [René] Higuita to make that kind of mistake. I used to watch his matches with [Carlos] Valderrama when I was at Montpellier because French television broadcast his matches. My coaches Peter Schnittger and Claude Le Roy always told me that I had to stay very close to the centre line and the goalkeeper. I tried to follow their instructions and it was a total success against Higuita.”

Could we ask you about that dance, Roger? Did you practice it before the 1990 FIFA World Cup, or was it simply a moment of unforeseen joy?

“This celebration has continued to leave a mark on the whole world. Curiously, it was completely improvised. I don’t know what made me celebrate this way. It was kind of a way to thank all the supporters and those who supported me.”

Your final appearance at the World Cup came in 1994, at the age of 42. You scored against Russia, becoming the oldest goalscorer in World Cup history - did it seem strange to you that so many of your most memorable moments came at an age at which most footballers have already retired?

“No, I don’t find it strange. I was still a very good player technically. It’s physically that I could no longer last a whole game. But obviously, I was very happy. This record allowed me to demonstrate to all those who doubted me, to all those who wanted to compare themselves to me, that I was still able to make a difference thanks to my intelligence.”

The performances of the Cameroonian national football team at World Cup tournaments during your career helped to end many stereotypes about African football. Were you aware of the significance of your wonderful goals, performances and celebrations?

“We did not realize it immediately but over the years we began to understand what we achieved. We were the first African country to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup. Our performance allowed Africans to be taken seriously. Besides, it’s not me who says it, but the many journalists, internet users and football pundits around the world.”

It has been a pleasure talking to you, Roger. Finally, how did it feel to be named by Pelé in the ‘FIFA 100’ list of greatest players in 2004?

“It was a great mark of recognition. He saw what I did at 38 years old and understood that it was solid stuff. We know each other very well. I have known him for a long time at FIFA. We crossed paths several times in the United States, South Africa etc.”

This feature has been taken from the sold-out ISSUE 04. Read it inside the digital edition by purchasing a digital subscription.

Archie Willis is the editor of FUTBOLISTA Magazine and has also written for The Herald and FTBL CULT. @_archiewillis

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