Milla the making of Africa at the World Cup

football11 August 2022 16:29| © Mzansi Football
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Roger Milla © Gallo Images

The image of the veteran Cameroonian striker Roger Milla gyrating his hips in the direction of the corner flag remains one of the most vivid in the history of the World Cup, as Africa made its mark on the international game at Italia 1990.

Milla’s samba came after a breakaway goal for Cameroon in a second round match against Colombia in Naples that ensured the Indomitable Lions became the first African side to make it to the last eight of the World Cup finals.

The 1990 finals saw Cameroon capture the footballing world’s imagination, banishing stereotypes with their brand of flamboyant, innovative and yet eye-opening tough soccer.

Also vivid is the image of the Cameroon’s being given a standing ovation by the crowd in Naples as they exited the tournament, beaten by an extra time England penalty in the quarterfinals.

To date, the charismatic run of Cameroon in the 1990 finals in Italy among remains Africa’s finest hour at the World Cup finals.

But the 38-year-old Milla really should not have been playing. His inclusion came at the end of his club career as he was earning some retirement Francs on the Indian Ocean island of reunion.

The country’s president Paul Biya demanded Milla be put in the team and the striker’s goals and dancing celebrations filled millions with a sense of pride.

“I no longer had any ambition for my career, but in the December before the World Cup , I took part in Théophile Abega's testimonial match in Douala. There, the fans realised that I was still in good shape,” recalls Milla, now an ambassador for his country’s football.

Biya called the coach Valeri Nepomniachi to order him included in the squad.

“I do not know about this phone call, but three ministers of his government told him that 'we had to do everything to get Roger Milla into the squad, because he would be the only one to get us out of the trouble we were in’.”

It followed the 1990 Africa Cup of Nations finals in Algeria where Cameroon were defending champions but lost two of three group games and did not advance past the group phase.

“I couldn't believe it, but I went back to work. Within three months, I was back to a my best physical level. I could run over everyone.

“At the World Cup I came on as a substitute. I first sat on the sidelines, I watched the opponent’s weaknesses, and when I came on, I knew exactly what to do. The matches were easy for me.”

His dancing celebration made him an instant international icon after a modest club career.

“It was instinctive, really, it was the sun that sent me there! It's was a good place on the pitch to dance. Today's goal scorers aren't celebrating for the spectators but for their egos. The fans come to the stadium to have fun, to dance... playing football and celebrating is the same, it is dancing.”

That was supposed to be the end for Milla but in 1992 he was invited as a special guest with Cameroon as they travelled to South Africa to help celebrate the country’s return to the Fifa fold after decades of apartheid-enforced isolation. He was not meant to play but needed no persuasion to again done his kit and played all three matches for the full 90 minutes.

At age 42, he returned to the squad for the 1994 World Cup?

“I was the administrative director of the national teams, but in the friendlies I played from time to time. People were telling me, ‘You can still do it.’ I said, ‘no, I’m not going to do it again’. But the coach Henri Michel told me to register with a club to be able to be part of the selection.”

Milla scored against Russia at the age of 42 for a record unlikely to ever be broken.

“Difficult, because the players themselves assume they are over when they get to 35. When you see 50-year-old boxers coming back into the ring to fight 30-year-olds, you tell yourself it's really in your head.

“If you have a really healthy lifestyle who says you can't play until you're 50?”