The summer of 1990 was endless, but the world was not bored because of the music and colour the fourteenth FIFA World Cup provided – the hype started as soon as the 80s ended. One could hear people saying, the Italian Magic would rock the world. The Official song of the World Cup was an instant hit, while the music video and intro were telecast time and again across the globe. The whole world waited eagerly for June 8, 1990.
The much-awaited day arrived. At the historic San Siro Stadium in Milan, the sun shone brightly. The weather was hot and humid. But sultry weather failed to make an impact on the people present at the stadium – they wanted to enjoy every bit of the action along with the billion eyes watching on television.
The opening ceremony was magnificent – a marvellous cocktail of colour and music, which is still considered as the best opening ceremony ever in the history of FIFA World Cup by the generation of 90. While the opening match was so eventful that 30 years later, still, remains a topic to discuss for each and every football fan and expert.
In those days, global coverage of club football was not as massive as today where teams could know about the details of opposition players. Neither the defending champions Argentina and their magician Diego Maradona nor the fans knew much about Cameroon.
Before the start of the match, Cameroon’s Francois Omam-Biyik declared that his team would beat Argentina and he would score the winning goal. His big statement would only make him a laughing stock before the tournament kicked off. While the experts played it down as a pre-match psychological game.
Hiccups in the opening match of a World Cup are nothing new. Argentina themselves experienced such in Barcelona eight years ago against Belgium. Also, for sixteen years, no defending champions have won in their opening encounters. Still, it was quite tough to accept an Argentinean defeat against Cameroon.
Maradona entered the San Siro stadium in such a confident mood, it seemed, he would overcome this match easily and topping the group won’t be tough, which featured powerhouses from Eastern Europe – USSR and Romania. Before the kick-off whistle, Maradona did a bit of juggling with the ball on his shoulders to entertain the San Siro crowd and convey a message to the world, they are in Italy to win the World Cup yet again.
After 90 minutes, impromptu street parties erupted across Cameroon. The celebration was like the endless summer and it crossed the borders of Africa and beyond. The Indomitable Lions of Africa had Maradona and Argentina for lunch – Italia 90 took off in style.
Cameroon neutralize Maradona and Argentina’s swagger
Argentina started the game with swagger – Maradona, as usual, was leading from the front. Cameroon decided to disturb the rhythm by displaying physical football. Argentina struggled to get past the rugged defence while the Cameroon markers cut Maradona into halves.
Mathew Angel of Guardian wrote, “Cameroon neutralized Maradona mainly by kicking him. He spent much of the game horizontal despite wearing calf pads as well as shin pads. His 10 team-mates seemed too stunned to make any trouble but they were kicked as well if they got in the way”.
Argentina started to set foot on the defensive side and Cameroon exploited it by getting on the counter.
But their physicality never stopped.
Andre Kana-Biyik was shown a red card for a foul on Claudio Caniggia even though the decision was hard from the French referee, Michael Vautrot. He had no choice but follow Fifa’s newly handed-down guidelines for ultra-strict arbitration.
Sepp Blatter, then Fifa’s general secretary, boasted before the tournament began that, as a result of their fair play initiative, “Players will behave in a decorous manner in all phases of the match”.
The Cameroonians were not paying heed to this on that afternoon.
Omam-Biyik grows wings and stuns Argentina
The deadlock was broken by the man who boasted that he would score the winner.
Emmanuel Kunde crossed a free-kick into the area in the 67th minute, Cyrille Makanaky flicked the ball into the sky, and Omam-Biyik grew wings and took off in the air like Superman – before planting a downwards header towards Nery Pumpido, who grabbed the ball in a manner as if it was a riddling fish.
The ball entered the Argentinean nets and triggered an entertaining celebration by Omam-Biyik and his teammates.
Maboang said, “[Omam-Biyik] was a great scorer with his head. When he scored, I was warning up with Milla, because we were going to come on, and the coach was watching how things went”.
“[Kunde] shouldn’t have even crossed, I know he never crosses with his left – he’s right-footed – sometimes, he’d do that [with his left] in training, but never in matches”.
“He positioned himself, and I asked myself what he was going to do. We knew about his strong right-footed strike, but not with his left”.
“I waited for an instant, and the ball rose. Francois jumped, and I knew – when I saw him leap — that he’d get on the end of it. I knew he’d get high, we knew he could do this, but we didn’t know he’d get his head on it like that”.
People can say that maybe 1000 times it wouldn’t go in, but I’d seen Francois score so many goals in training, where it went in off the goalkeeper, where it bounced off the ground and went in.”
According to Bell, “Francois’s goal, even if he did get really high, was very unlikely. We wanted to win, we were good together, and we were very solid. We got the reward with this goal, which, nine times [out of ten] doesn’t go in”.
“One day, it happens, and that’s what happened on this day. When he jumped like that, you felt it was going to go in”.
“I guessed that, at this moment, [Pumpido] was going to make a mistake, first of all, he didn’t have a lot of work to do, and, as the match went on, I felt that he was primed to make an error because he’d had nothing to do”.
“Cameroon were surprising [Argentina] because they didn’t expect a match as difficult as that, and therefore, it resulted in a bit of a lack of concentration, or even of lucidity, and making that error”.
Argentina try to respond
Maradona rallied his team together and Caniggia decided to outclass Cameroon with his pace. But on that afternoon the African Lions would not dare to clip the wings of Caniggia. ESPN FC stated, “Benjamin Massing was shown a red card for an infamous x-rated lunge on Caniggia, losing a boot as he sent the Atalanta striker sprawling on the turf in an anguished display of agony”.
Cameroon were down to 9-men, but still did not let an 11-men Argentina to take advantage.
A 38-year old Roger Milla was brought on to keep Argentina occupied and he was successful!
This was no FLUKE!
David Lacey of Guardian wrote, “This was no fluke, the better team won. They won, moreover, after finishing with nine men on the field … Such was their superiority that the Africans still finished looking as if they had more men on the pitch than their hapless opponents.”
“No one thought we could do anything here against Maradona, but we knew what we could do. We hate it when European reporters ask us if we eat monkeys and have a witch doctor. We are real football players and we proved this tonight,” Omam-Biyik, said after the game.
While Maradona, who had been suffering from an ingrown nail and played with the aid of a protective carbon fibre “bionic toe”, claimed he had “cured the Italians of racism”. “The whole stadium was shouting for Cameroon. Wasn’t that nice?”
But deep down he could feel, things got tougher for his team as teams like USSR and Romania won’t be a cakewalk.
Meanwhile, Cameroon would become the delight of Italia 90!