FIFA World Cup moments: When Roger Milla and Cameroon danced their way into African hearts at Italia 1990

Cameroon's FIFA World Cup campaign in 1990 is one of the most glorious chapters in the history of not only just this sport. The importance of Cameroon's journey in the 1990 edition of FIFA World Cup is still relevant today. For any African nation which takes part in a FIFA World Cup post 1990, the flight from their country to the host nation is not the only distance they cover. The journey involves years of waiting for an African country to prove their mettle in football at the world stage and that they too belonged on the football ground.

Cameroon's forward Roger Milla (9) is congratulated by his teammates after scoring a goal against Romania. AFP

Cameroon's forward Roger Milla (9) is congratulated by his teammates after scoring a goal against Romania. AFP

The year 1990 turned out to be one such a moment for all the African nations and it was Cameroon that blazed a trail. Before the tournament began, nobody gave them and Egypt – another African nation – a chance in the World Cup. However, Cameroon's spirited performance in the showpiece event was a miracle that the world took notice of.

In retrospect, even Cameroon themselves might have not thought they would end up playing the tournament so well. Their campaign was so good that they almost made it to the semi-finals.

Cameroon who had had a terrific outing in the 1984 and 1988 Africa Cup of Nations, were out in the first round of the competition just a few months before 1990 World Cup. In addition was  the personal and financial conflicts that the team went through, saw the world writing them off, even before their first match.

Before Cameroon's first World Cup game against Argentina, there were issues within the team. The rivalry between the two goalkeepers Joseph-Antoine Bell and Thomas N’Kono had intensified. N'Kono's club commitments led to him missing the chance of becoming the first-choice goalkeeper for Cameroon after Bell's brilliant performance in 1984's Cup of Nations. Bell was certain to start in the first match against Argentina but minutes before the match, an angry criticism by Bell on his team led to him being dropped and the management decided to go with N'Kono as the goalkeeper.

The decision to drop Bell could have backfired, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. There was only one goal scored in the match and it was not conceded at Cameroon's end. N'Kono kept a clean sheet against the then defending champions Argentina, which boasted the likes of Diego Maradona. That single goal came from the foot of Francois Omam-Biyik, which was the lone goal he scored in the tournament, but it was enough to shake the whole world. That one goal was an answer to the footballing world that African people were not expected to take orders and listen to others. They could strategise plans and execute them on a football field. They could kick the ball and score a goal. They could not only run parallel with the world but also edge past them.

For Cameroon it was important that they kept their morale high throughout the tournament and not let people term their glorious moment in the history of football a 'fluke'.
But who was going to make sure that Cameroon did not let their head down instead went one notch up? It was a 37-year-old man, written off by experts, who was included into the team at the last-minute that turned Cameroon's fortunes. Roger Milla who was not going to play 90-minutes of football in any of the matches was about to make a melody for the world to hum and dance on it.

Milla had shunned all hopes of playing for Cameroon and had joined Montpelier, first-division French Club, at the end of the 1988-89 season. However, political conflicts and interventions in the national football team meant Milla was travelling to Italy.

In the next game against Romania, Milla's magic began to spread. He came in as a late substitute and went on to score twice in space of ten minutes to stage another dramatic win. Cameroon went on to beat Romania 2-1.

Cameroon lost the next match, but the two wins made sure they were playing the Round of 16 against Colombia. The warhorse found his best again that too after 90 minutes unable to decide a winner. He scored in the 106th and then 109th minute to create history and thanks to these goals, Cameroon became the first African nation to qualify for a World Cup quarter-final, giving Cameroon more than quarter of a place in history world football.

After scoring the historic goal, Milla had sent not just his own country into a celebratory mode, but with the whole of continent. Immediately after scoring the goal, he ran to the corner flag in celebration and summed up his continent's emotions by breaking into a dance. It was just not a goal, it was an attack on the years of a continent's image that suffered slavery and the oppression of untouchability. It was a moment when sport became a medium to make a political statement. Milla's dance was a hope to future champions like Samuel Eto'o, Didier Drogba, Mohamed Salah, Riyadh Mahrez, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, George Weah, Yaya Toure and others that they can rock the world with their talents. That no one decided on their talent by looking at the place of their birth or by noticing the colour of their skins.

Cameroon lost in the quarter-finals to England and bowed out. This was a time when Africa headed into the world stage.

To read about other famous FIFA World Cup moments, click here.


Updated Date: Jun 04, 2018 20:00 PM

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