World Cup Tales: The Oldest Swinger In Town (1990)

italia90

Italy, 1990

To the strains of Luciano Pavarotti, the 1990 World Cup arrived on our screens and signaled the dawn of a new era in football. The 1980s had been rife with hooliganism, racism and the dismantling of the beautiful game, particularly in England where the Heysel Disaster in the 1985 European Cup final had seen 39 Juventus supporters killed and English clubs banned from European competition, and the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989 led to the deaths of 96 Liverpool supporters, penned in at the Leppings Lane end of Sheffield Wednesday’s stadium minutes before kick-off in an FA Cup semi-final, as poor stewarding, irresponsible policing, and a barbaric fencing policy collided to create one of the greatest tragedies of the modern game. England almost didn’t make it to the tournament, with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher keen to prevent ‘football hooligans’ from travelling abroad to watch the team, but amidst scenes of localised trouble and police brutality the majority of England supporters were impeccably behaved. The second summer of love, played out to the soundtrack of The Stone Roses, New Order and the Madchester scene, became the a turning point in the history of the game, opening the doors to the Premier League, Sky Sports, and the multi-billion pound business football has become today.

Though it almost didn’t arrive in the glorious, historic, romantic host country of Italy. Up until the eve of the decision the Soviet Union had been in with a decent shout of hosting the tournament for the first time, but with the announcement that the Eastern Bloc would boycott the 1984 Summer Olympics, on account of the games being held in America, and the US having boycotted the Moscow games four years before. Mature. Twenty-four hours later the Soviets were outvoted 11 to 5, and Italy were announced as hosts for 1990, becoming the second country to host the tournament twice. There were long awaited returns to the tournament for the United States, Egypt, Colombia, Romania, Sweden and the Netherlands, while Costa Rica, the UAE and the Republic of Ireland all made their World Cup debuts.

The opening game set the tone for the tournament – brutal, largely goal free, but full of drama. Cameroon were back after failing to win a game in 1982, but beginning their campaign against holders Argentina, and Serie A winning Diego Maradona, put them at an immediate disadvantage. When André Kana-Biyik was sent off for a fairly innocuous challenge on Claudio Cannigia on the hour, a result for the Indomitable Lions seemed nigh on impossible. But the World Cup finds a way, and just six minutes later François Omam-Biyik headed Cameroon into the lead, thanks in no small part to some desperate goalkeeping from Nery Pumpido. The champions lay siege on Thomas N’Kono’s goal in the final twenty minutes, but still couldn’t find a way through, even after Benjamin Massing’s wild lunge on Caniggia saw the African’s reduced to nine men. An exciting, if not beautiful start to the tournament.  There was little joy to be had elsewhere in the Group Stage, with the hosts coming over all Italian in Group A, winning all three games, scoring four goals and conceding zero, joined in the second round by Czechoslovakia. Brazil, now less beautiful than the side of ’82, were similarly efficient in Group C with three wins from three, while the unfancied Costa Rica finished ahead of Scotland as the Tartan Army bowed out in typically farcical circumstances. Group D was the closest we got to a semblance of entertainment as West Germany dispatched Yugoslavia and the UAE in ruthless fashion, while Colombia’s devil-may-care attitude delighted fans in Bologna – only the Arabic side failed to progress.

Group E was a keenly contested affair from which only the pointless South Koreans failed to advance from, Spain coming out on top thanks to the goals of Real Madrid schemer Míchel, closely followed by Belgium and the dour Uruguayans. Group F, for all its potential, was utter dog muck. The opening game of the group between England and Republic of Ireland inspired the headline ‘NO FOOTBALL PLEASE, WE’RE ENGLISH’, and until Mark Wright’s goal for England against Egypt, it looked like all six group games were headed for draws. That result was enough to see the North Africans out and European Champions Netherlands through, though despite boasting the talents of Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, the Oranje were far from their best. Thankfully the surprise package of the tournament weren’t stopping at just beating the holders, and in their second game against fancied Romania, Cameroon manager Valery Nepomnyashchy introduced the world to their new favourite footballer.

Roger Milla had spent the 89/90 season enjoying semi-retirement with JS Saint-Pierroise, a club playing in the Premier League on the French overseas territory of the Reunion Island. At 38, Milla had enjoyed a full and fruitful career, appearing for Cameroon in the World Cup in 1982 as well as making his name as a competent striker in Ligue 1 with Monaco, Bastia, Saint-Etienne and Montpellier. So it came as a surprise to him as much as anyone when President of Cameroon Paul Biya contacted him in the vain hope of persuading the striker to join up with the squad for Italia 90. Milla had appeared in a former team-mate’s testimonial six months before, and his performance had led to those spectating questioning why he wasn’t still playing at the top level. Eventually, after much persuasion from Biya and the Cameroonian government, Nepomnyashchy was convinced to add the veteran to his squad, and Milla was convinced to join up for the tournament.

It was a decision that would benefit both parties immensely. In the second group game against Romania, with the match drifting to a goalless draw despite the Europeans’ dominance, Milla was introduced from the bench. Fifteen minutes later he opened the scoring, jumping up with a Romanian defender before slotting the bouncing ball past the onrushing keeper. What followed would become one of the enduring images of the tournament, as the Cameroon stalwart rushed to the corner flag before embarking on his trademark celebration, shimmying this way and that, an imitation of the Makossa-style dance seen in Yaoundé. Ten minutes later he added a second, running onto his own lobbed ball forward, before rocketing a shot into the top corner and confirming Cameroon’s passage to the knockout stages.

The second round promised fireworks as the African side met Colombia, though the deadlock remained unbroken in 90 minutes. By extra-time Milla was on the pitch, and a minute into the second period saw him open the scoring, hurdling over desperate lunges from the opposition defence before drilling an effort into the top corner. Two minutes later his determined pressing of madcap goalkeeper Rene Higuita all but guaranteed Cameroon’s progress to the quarter-finals, with the Colombian stopper stranded thirty yards from goal, Milla’s robust challenge left him the simplest task of walking the ball in. Cue celebrations by the corner flag.

Sadly, his team’s indiscipline would see their journey end in the next round, though once again Milla was pivotal as his team of underdogs gave England a fright. Heading into the final ten minutes, Cameroon were 2-1 up thanks to two assists from their aging superstar, but two penalties – one in extra time – would be enough to see England into the semis. In a drab tournament, Cameroon had provided some much needed sunshine, and deservedly took their place in the history books as the first African side to reach the quarter finals. Milla, having already broken the record for the oldest goalscorer at a World Cup, would beat it again in 1994, though Cameroon’s showing was far less distinguished as they went out at the group stage.

There is a bizarre post-script to Roger Milla’s story however. Whilst the world fell in love with him, his presence in the Cameroon squad didn’t exactly have the same impact on his teammates, with Francois Oman-Biyik being quoted after the tournament that “we played, but Milla won”. Tributes to the supersub often mention his modesty and humility, though in post-tournament interviews Milla was known to compare himself to Pele, suggesting “the presence of Pelé in a team motivates the other players. My presence had the same effect.”

So the legend is perhaps tarnished somewhat, though nowhere near as much as the revelation in Simon Kuper’s Football Against The Enemy that Roger Milla imprisoned 120 pygmies in the basement of Cameroon’s national stadium. I know, right? Milla threw himself into charity work after football, and part of his work involved setting up a novelty tournament for pygmy footballers. As part of the preparation, he locked the participants in the stadium and starved them – suggesting that they “play better if they don’t eat too much”. Unsurprisingly , the tournament was a disaster, and his attempts to organise a sequel were unsuccessful. Fortunately Milla’s attitude towards pygmies has shifted somewhat, and in 2005 he set up the Heart of Africa foundation in order to aid pygmies in the east of Cameroon.

England were joined in the semi-finals by West Germany, who’d made it via a spitting contest with the Netherlands and a tight victory over Czechoslovakia in the quarter finals. The semi-final between the two sides will go down as one of the World Cup classics for its drama if nothing else. West Germany eventually advanced on penalty kicks, but not before an end-to-end game saw Andreas Brehme give the Germans the lead with a heavily deflected free-kick, while ten minutes from time Gary Lineker sent the game to extra-time thanks to a well taken goal. Crossbars and posts were hit, Paul Gascoigne was booked, tears were shed, and England as a nation fell in love with football all over again. Noble defeat never tasted so good.

Italy were primed to meet the Germans in the final, having seen off Uruguay and Ireland on their way to meeting Argentina thanks to the goals from rough diamond Toto Schillaci and the ingenuity of breakout star Roberto Baggio, but the holders, by hook or by crook, were not to be denied the chance to retain the title. Winning ugly was becoming an Argentinian artform, and having dispatched Brazil, successive penalty shootout victories would seem them face West Germany in Rome, as Diego Maradona struck the decisive kick in his adopted city of Naples to see off the hosts. What followed was one of the ugliest, most forgettable finals in the competitions history. Argentina, looking to foul their way to a third successive shootout, had two men sent off, and a Brehme penalty five minutes before time spared the watching audience another half an hour of anti-football. West Germany were champions for the third time, joining the illustrious company of Brazil and Italy, and for the last time as a divided nation. By 1994, a unified Germany would be defending the title.

You can read more about Roger Milla’s run-in with Cameroonian pygmies, as well as a host of other fascinating tales from football’s dark side, in Simon Kuper’s critically-acclaimed book ‘Football Against The Enemy’

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