Roger Milla at Italia '90
Updated: May 15
Words: Adam Williams
Illustration: Glory Days Artwork
ITALIA '90 – The sands of time are slipping agonisingly away from Cameroon. In the dying seconds of the World Cup quarter-final at Stadio San Paolo, their wild-eyed number 9 remonstrates with the slick-haired Mexican referee who has just shown him a yellow card. Squaring up, their faces are so close to one another that it’s safe to say a fair amount of spittle is inadvertently exchanged in the crossfire – “high risk of transmission,” to use the vernacular of the current age.
Moments earlier, as Cyril Makanaky saw the flash of yellow emerge from Edgardo Codesal’s pocket, the Cameroon midfielder placed his body between his teammate and the official, putting his hands on the latter in a futile attempt to prevent the inevitable. Ultimately, the booking meant nothing. Cameroon were 3-2 down and a little over a minute away from bowing out. But the moment was loaded with symbolism. Makanaky was desperate to prevent any blot, however minor, appearing on the great man’s immaculate World Cup manuscript.
The number 9 he was defending was a glistening national treasure. A striker, a dancer, a footballing sunbeam who for many years remained both his country’s all-time leading goalscorer and the World Cup’s highest-scoring African player. A man who put his soul into every shot. A man for whom every run on goal was an adventure and every strike a resolution. The archetypal super-sub who over the course of three epoch-making weeks at Italia 90 perfected his stagecraft and carved out a unique legacy, not only for himself, but for his country and his continent. He did it all in just 218 minutes on the pitch.
Roger Milla turned 38 just 19 days before Cameroon’s first match at the 1990 World Cup. Though he would continue to play for a number of years, he was effectively retired from professional football by the time the tournament came around, having left Montpellier in 1989 to play for Saint-Pierroise in the Réunion Premier League. Indeed, he had played what everyone – himself included – presumed would be his last match for Cameroon some two years earlier. The Indomitable Lions thrice reached the final of the Africa Cup of Nations between 1984 and 1988, winning on two of those occasions. Milla had been top-scorer in ‘84 and ‘88, but at 36 it was widely accepted that his race was run.
He did not feature in the 1990 Cup of Nations in March. It was no coincidence that an uninspiring Cameroon failed to reach the knockout stages. And with that, Paul Biya’s mind was made up. The Cameroon president successfully convinced Milla out of retirement and – in direct contradiction to the wishes of head coach Valeri Nepomniachi and captain Stephen Tataw – insisted that he be given a place in the World Cup squad. It is no exaggeration to say that Biya’s decision has influenced the retention of his presidency some 30 years later.
Ahead of the World Cup, Cameroon were drawn against the Romania of Popescu, Hagi and Dumitrescu as well as a Soviet Union side which had won plaudits aplenty in qualifying. But first up was an opposition that loomed larger. The reigning champions, Maradona’s Argentina.
What followed at the San Siro was arguably the greatest upset in World Cup history. Cameroon beat Argentina 1-0 in the first match of the tournament, one which is remembered as much for Cameroon’s two red cards – one soft, the other decidedly not so – as it was for the juddering impact of their decisive goal.
François Omam-Biyik was given a straight red for barely clipping the back of Claudio Caniggia’s heels and, with half an hour remaining, Cameroon were ostensibly doomed. But six minutes later, Oman-Biyik’s brother, André Kana-Biyik, headed in the goal which secured an earth-shaking victory
Milla was introduced to rapturous applause with nine minutes remaining, but his main impact was to come in later games. With the match almost done and Argentina breaking away, the late Benjamin Massing committed an extraordinary bulldozer foul, again on Caniggia, and Cameroon were reduced to nine. It mattered not. Cameroon had beaten the world champions.
Like the excitement-building crackle of the needle as it first drops onto the record, their victory set the tone for an era-defining World Cup. But for Cameroon and Milla, even sweeter music was to come.
Next, Cameroon made the near-600-mile trip southward from Milan to Bari where they would face Romania at Stadio San Nicola. The match showed no signs of reigniting the fires of pandemonium that had been lit in the opener; that was until the introduction of Milla in the 58th minute. Raw-boned but deceptively strong, he outmuscled Ioan Andone, teetering before regaining his balance and firing beyond the goalkeeper with 15 to play. In the process, he became the World Cup’s oldest-ever goalscorer, a record which he himself would go on to break three more times in 1990 and again in 1994.
For all Milla’s prowess, it is perhaps the celebration which followed for which he is best remembered – rightly or wrongly. Swept away in an ocean of joy, Milla made a dance partner out of the corner flag, performing a gleeful Makossa twist that has been the subject of countless recreations in the 30 years since.
Ten minutes later, Milla was dancing again. This time displaying the kind of acceleration that few 38- year-olds possess to get round the back of the Romanian defence and beat the keeper for pace at his near post. Romania got one back with two minutes remaining, but it didn’t affect the outcome. Cameroon qualified for the knockout stages, only the second-ever African team to do so.
They were brought back down to earth by the Soviet Union, losing 4-0 to a team that had nothing but pride to play for. Cameroon still went through as group winners with Romania qualifying in second place and Argentina making the round-of-16 as one of the best third-placed teams.
It was the following match against Colombia which really carved Milla’s name into the stone and established Cameroon as classic of the “cult team” genre. In what was now becoming a familiar format, Milla’s viper-like instincts brought what had been a wilting match into full flower.
Coming off the bench early in the second half, he was unable to prevent the match from going to extra-time. His first goal came in the 106th minute and proved to be his best of the tournament. Turning with the ball 30 yards from goal, he jagged beyond a Colombian defender and lashed past René Higuita in the Colombia net. Out came the dance.
Three minutes later, a second gut-punch followed – albeit a significantly less aesthetically pleasing one. Ever the eccentric, Higuita found himself in his spiritual home: spitting distance from the centre circle with an opposition striker hurtling towards him. He attempted a Cruyff turn and was dispossessed by Milla whose job was simple; he had the whole eight yards between the posts to aim at. Out came the dance. Again. Cameroon became the first African side to win a World Cup knockout match.
Cup football is not a meritocracy. If it was, Cameroon would have reached the semi-finals. Perhaps they would have gone beyond that. Against England – an England side which is lauded as one of the best the country has ever produced – Cameroon were superior. More creative. More confident. More poetic. Less lucky.
A chance for Oman-Biyik went begging before David Platt’s header put England ahead. “I think there’s some concern about the arrival of that gentleman,” said Barry Davis on BBC commentary as the camera watched Cameroon’s number 9 warm-up before panning to a banner that read “FORZA MILLA!” in the stands. Their concern, it transpired, was well-placed.
He came on at half-time. Fifteen minutes later, with the ball percolating on the edge of the England box, he exchanged passes with Louis-Paul Mfédé and was felled inside the area. Kundé converted from the spot. Four minutes later, Cameroon took the lead. Milla was instrumental again, receiving the ball with his back to goal, spinning neatly and placing a perfectly-weighted pass at the feet of fellow substitute Ekéké who swept the ball home. 2-1. Glory was on the doorstep.
But Gary Lineker converted one highly-debated spot-kick seven minutes from time, then another, less disputable one in the additional 30 minutes. Milla could do no more. Cameroon were out. The better team were heading home.
It was heartache for the great man. But it subsided. Milla emerged from the fog of the World Cup as a global superstar. His exploits lead directly to Africa being awarded another spot at the tournament and changed the foreign perception of football from his continent. The image of Milla in his red tracksuit, sitting like a coiled spring on the bench, ready to explode into action at any moment, is one of the most enduring of any World Cup. But this wasn’t the end. Four years later, his adoring public was treated to one last dance...
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Adam Williams is a freelance football writer, often found on These Football Times and GiveMeSport. @Adam___Williams