A sad exit in Spain
For the first time, 24 teams competed in the FIFA World Cup 1982 in Spain where two teams from Africa featured. One of them was Algeria, who shocked the European Champions Germany in the opening encounter, while the other was Cameroon. Both of them were appearing on the Greatest Show on Earth for the first time.
Algeria became the favourites of the Spanish people and the rest of the world. The aura Algeria was such that the fighting display of Cameroon went unnoticed. In their first encounter against Peru at Vigo ended goalless and the next against Poland at Coruna ended in the same manner. In their last encounter against a dismal Italy at Vigo, they cancelled Bruno Conte’s goal in the 61st minute. The game ended 1-1 with Italy and Cameroon’s fate hanging in the balance with 3 points each. Italy advanced by virtue of a goal difference and they would finish the tournament by lifting the trophy!
Cameroon along with Algeria, who were robbed by a terrible display of football from Germany and Austria at Gijon, went home. Cameroon did not lose any matches in Spain, but still, luck was not on their side.
A house at sixes and sevens
They failed to qualify in Mexico 1986, where Morocco impressed immensely, but their impressive run the African Nations Cup in 1988 and World Cup Qualifiers for Italia 90 gave them hope for a better outcome in the fourteenth FIFA World Cup.
Sadly, their preparations for the 1990 tournament had been embarrassing.
Just a few months before, they – the reigning champions – had suffered a humiliating early exit from the Cup of Nations, losing to Zambia and Senegal. But there were other issues threatening to pull the squad apart, both personal and financial.
There was an intense rivalry between Cameroon’s two goalkeepers – Joseph-Antoine Bell and Thomas N’Kono. The latter had been first-choice in 1982 and his performances led to a move to Espanyol. But Bell took advantage of N’Kono’s club commitments to take over during the 1984 Cup of Nations triumph and retained his place for the remainder of the decade.
But on the eve of Cameroon’s first group game against Argentina, Bell heavily criticised his team and predicted a first-round elimination. So, a couple of hours before the match, the side’s manager, Valeri Nepomniatchi, told N’Kono he was starting instead. So unexpected was the decision that N’Kono’s wife missed the game because she had decided to go shopping instead.
It proved to be a decisive decision.
In the first match against the World Champions, Cameroon were regarded as nothing because of the issues off the field and the kind of defeats they suffered prior to the start of the event. Still, Francois Omam-Biyik, the captain of the side, stated boldly that he would score the winner with a header, which would make him a laughing stock, but ultimately, he kept his words and those who laughed eat a humble pie.
On that match, Cameroon were rough in defending and digested two red cards, but what mattered most important to them was winning the match – a fitting reply to those who made fun of them and their culture.
“We hate it when European reporters ask us if we eat monkeys and have a witch doctor,” Omam-Biyik said later on.
N’Kono kept a clean sheet and would cement a permanent place in the team.
Bell was left to rue for his statement.
Surely African keepers are not known to be tough nuts like their European counterparts. More often, the experts cite the example of Zaire’s goalkeeper in World Cup 1974, but N’Kono’s brilliant keeping would change the views of many.
Here comes Roger Milla
In the last nine minutes against Argentina, a 38-year old player named Roger Milla, who featured in Espana 82, was introduced by the USSR coach Valery Nepomnyashchy to keep Argentina occupied. In just nine minutes Milla hinted, he would be a threat in the upcoming matches as he split-opened the Argentinian defence more often.
At Bari, Cameroon were struggling against Romania, who had players like Gheorghe Hagi, Marius Lacatus and Gica Popescu.
N’Kono had kept his side in the game with a string of excellent saves.
Milla, who had retired from the professional game three years previously and had most recently played for Saint-Pierroise on the tiny African island of La Reunion, had been included in Cameroon’s squad at the behest of the country’s president Paul Biya and was eventually summoned from the bench in the 58th minute to provide Cameroon with the cutting-edge.
Milla took 18 minutes to announce his arrival and Italia 90 had truly started!
According to These Football Times, “Contesting a high, bouncing ball with Ioan Andone, Milla simply smashed through the Romanian central defender, a challenge that would have almost certainly been deemed illegal today. Regaining his composure, Milla slotted the ball past goalkeeper Silviu Lung and ran off joyfully towards the corner flag, where he debuted the hip-wiggling celebration that would come to define the tournament”.
“Milla wasn’t finished there. Taking the game by the scruff of the neck, he powered his way into the box and thundered the ball home to make it 2-0 before reprising his dance. Romania’s late counter was missed by this writer and no doubt millions of other children across the world who had already abandoned the television for the back garden, shaking their hips at make-believe corner flags as their bemused parents looked on”.
Cameroon killed Argentina first at San Siro and then they killed Romania at Bari.
Cameroon advanced from a group, where they were considered to be knocked-off early.
The strong USSR had to exit as Cameroon topped the group with Romania finishing second and Argentina third.
The Round of 16 – Colombia were defeated
Cameroon and Milla faced his former teammate in Montpellier, Carlos Valderrama, at Naples. Colombia advanced in the Round of 16 from a group, which included Germany and Yugoslavia. They were a very talented side, but the problem was they were uncertain about their abilities and in crucial moments, they tend to implode.
The course of the game was similar to Romania – uneventful, defensive and lacked the pace and intent.
Milla came on in the 60th minute to change things around.
But the game went to extra-time.
According to These Football Times, “In the 106th minute, a beautiful piece of work from Omam-Biyik allowed Milla to turn Luis Carlos Perea before leaving Gildardo Gómez for dead, hurdling the Colombian defender’s scything lunge before cajoling a finish past Higuita with his left foot. Three minutes later, Milla took advantage of Higuita’s outside-the-box dithering – he’d heard all about it from Valderrama at Montpellier and was waiting, ready to pounce – to put Cameroon 2-0 up and in dreamland. As in the Romania game, a late counter could not stop the Africans’ advance”.
For the first time, a nation from Africa would feature in the quarterfinals of the World Cup.
Milla would become the superstar of Italia 90 and his celebrations would be etched in the minds of those who watched him in action live.
End of the fairytale
England were a revolution in Italy. Their fighting spirit earned them a lot of respect and a bunch of talented individuals regrouped under Sir Bobby Robson to deliver their best and they were delivering.
England would be given the ultimate scare by the African Lions.
After 25 minutes, England took the lead with a well-worked ball-play involving Chris Waddle and Terry Butcher and ending with the wonder-oy against Belgium – David Platt heading home a Stuart Pearce outswinger to cement his place alongside Paul Gascoigne.
The first half ended with England leading by 1-0.
Milla came in the second half.
He dropped deep and decided to lead from the back.
He was dictating the game.
More often, he broke the passing lines and his twisted body movements were giving England a lot of headaches.
In the 61st minute, Milla scripted a fluid Cameroonian movement.
It ended with Milla being upended in the box by Gascoigne.
Penalty to Cameroon!
The penalty was flicked home nonchalantly by Emmanuel Kunde. 1-1.
After four minutes, there came the moment, which is still discussed by those who witnessed it live:
“Eugène Ekéké, introduced for M’Fédé two minutes earlier, fed Milla 35 yards out and with his back to goal. The 38-year-old seized his moment with the kind of unhurried insouciance that made him seem to be playing a different, easier game to everyone else”.
“A quick drag-back has him facing the goal, and then the old master knows it’s just a matter of waiting; waiting for Ekéké to ghost unchecked through England’s rearguard, waiting for Mark Wright to commit, before tickling a perfectly weighted through ball into Ekéké’s path. It was the kind of pass a lesser player would have over-complicated. As Milla’s pass tempts Shilton from his line, time seems to stand still, the only sound in the football universe Davies’ extended “Ekékééééé!” as the Cameroon number 11 dinks the ball over the onrushing Shilton. The mixture of excitement and dread in Davies’ voice is palpable as the ball finally nestles in the top corner: “And Cameroon lead!” Cue bedlam on the pitch and in the stands”.
Cameroon 2 England 1.
After the game against Argentina, this was no surprise as the African Lions were habituated to tame the big guns of world football.
But Gary Lineker had other ideas.
He would score two goals from the penalty spot and end Cameroon’s fairytale.
That exit was not taken easily by many. In Bangladesh, a woman committed suicide because his favourite team, Cameroon were out, whereas, a lot of tears were shed.
But the fact is, Cameroon were out and they would leave with their heads high!
Milla would later say, “If we’d beaten England, Africa would have exploded. Ex-plo-ded. There would have been deaths. The good Lord knows what he does. Me, I thank Him for stopping us in the quarter-finals.”
It was a humble statement.
Even Milla could not realize what they did in Italia 90.
The tournament burst into life due to the delight of Italia 90 – Cameroon and Roger Milla!