Friday, February 19, 2010 ESPNsoccernet: March 9, 9:17 AM UK
Roger Milla: Indomitable Lionheart
When Roger Milla took the 1990 World Cup by storm, scoring four goals despite not starting a single game, Cameroon's virtuoso veteran not only wrote his own name into finals folklore, but helped drag African football out of the shadows and into the global consciousness.
Longevity is a quality often commended in football, and though we are unlikely to see another Stanley Matthews, still plying their trade at the ripe old age of 53, Milla's international achievements left many in awe. And the super-sub moniker applies to no-one better than Cameroon's greatest ever footballing icon.
By the time a 30-year-old Milla played in his first finals, in 1982, he had already built up an impressive continental reputation - picking up his first African Footballer of the Year award in 1976 during a prolific spell with hometown club Tonerre Yaounde, where he plundered 69 goals in 87 games. His scoring exploits alerted the attention of European scouts and in 1979 he began a fruitful ten-year club career in France, taking in Monaco, Bastia, St Etienne and Montpellier.
Milla, with three years experience in Europe under his belt, was charged with spearheading Cameroon's attack for the 1982 World Cup in Spain but, in truth, he hardly carried out his duties with aplomb. While the Indomitable Lions enjoyed a respectable debut World Cup campaign, exiting at the group stage despite finishing unbeaten with three draws, their strikers flattered to deceive. Stalemates against Peru and Poland were followed by an excellent 1-1 draw with eventual winners Italy, but Milla had played 269 minutes of football - every minute but one after being substituted late on against Peru - without scoring.
After Cameroon missed out on qualification for the 1986 World Cup, Milla might have believed he would never have another opportunity to play or score on the greatest stage of all. At 34, many might have considered hanging up their international boots. Not Milla. Four years later, and the striker was rewarded for his self-belief as in just 238 minutes of football and five cameo appearances at Italia '90, Milla etched his name into World Cup folklore.
Cameroon's 1990 World Cup campaign began in remarkable fashion as they shocked reigning champions Argentina 1-0 courtesy of Francois Omam-Biyik's second-half strike. Milla played the last nine minutes of the match as a substitute, but it would be six days later that his World Cup career finally exploded into life.
With the scores tied at 0-0 against Romania, Cameroon coach Valeri Nepomnyashchi threw on his 38-year-old wildcard just before the hour mark. With 76 minutes on the clock, Milla gambled on a long ball out of defence that had been left to bounce by the Romanian back-line. He leapt for the second ball, outmuscling centre-back Iaone Andone before slotting a left-foot effort past helpless goalkeeper Silviu Lung - a demonstration of anticipation, strength and finishing prowess encapsulated in a single goal.
Ten minutes later he fired the Indomitable Lions into a two-goal lead, lashing home a fierce right-footed strike that sealed victory - though Gavril Balint bundled home a Romanian consolation - and guaranteed Cameroon's passage into the second round. Already safely through, Nepomnyashchi's side were thrashed 4-0 by the coach's Soviet motherland in the final group game, with Milla unable to reduce the deficit after coming on for Emmanuel Kunde in the 34th minute.
In reaching the last-16, they were paired against a Colombia side captained by wild-haired playmaker Carlos Valderrama and 'aided' in defence by the irrepressible antics of goalkeeper and showman Rene Higuita. But it was to be Cameroon's enigmatic veteran, not Colombia's colourful characters, who would steal the show.
After 54 goalless minutes, Milla rose from his customary position on the substitute's bench and came on to rapturous applause from the Cameroon fans, praying for another Milla miracle. They weren't to be disappointed. The saving grace was not immediately forthcoming as the game remained 0-0 after 90 minutes and headed into extra-time, but after 106 minutes, the 38-year-old produced a silky turn and burst of pace - more befitting of a player 15 years his junior - to break through the Colombian rearguard, before sliding a left-foot shot past Higuita.
Milla immediately ran to the corner flag, spontaneously shimmying and shaking in celebration at the biggest goal in Cameroon's history. Not content with just one to his name, three minutes later Milla netted a second thanks to one of the worst goalkeeping errors in World Cup memory. Higuita, playing the ever-entertaining sweeper, exchanged passes with his defender before turning away to be met, not by space ahead of him, but the imposing frame of Milla. The striker pick-pocketed the goalkeeper, stroked the ball home and ran to the opposite corner to repeat the flag-dancing celebration that would become synonymous with Italia '90.
Milla later said of that goal: "More than a year before the World Cup he [former Montpellier team-mate Valderrama] gave me a video tape of Colombia games, which had TV footage of Higuita and his tricks. I told Valderrama then, 'If Cameroon play Colombia in the World Cup, he can't do that. We have fast players, intelligent players'. When we were drawn against them I noticed Higuita was up to his tricks. I saw a chance to dispossess him and took it. It was good tactics, good planning.'
Bernado Redin made it an interesting final five minutes with a consolation effort but Cameroon, inspired again by Milla, held on to become the first African nation to reach the quarter-finals - an achievement only equalled by Senegal 12 years later. England provided the last-eight opponents and it was Bobby Robson's side who opened the scoring through David Platt's first-half effort. But when Cameroon's talisman was introduced at the interval, the stage seemed set for another Milla masterpiece to be created.
Sure enough, Milla, displaying all the energy of a precocious teenager, was felled by Paul Gascoigne in the area 15 minutes after the restart and Emmanuel Kunde netted from the spot to restore parity. Four minutes later and the game was turned on its head as Milla escaped the advances of Gascoigne, Platt and Mark Wright to slide a sublime through ball to Eugene Ekeke, who dinked the ball home. But there was to be no fairytale story for Milla this time, as two Gary Lineker penalties secured England's place in the semis against West Germany.
Even so, Milla was unquestionably the star of the tournament and was named in the World Cup All-Star Team ahead of Lineker and alongside top scorers Salvatore Schillaci and Tomas Skuhravy, as well as receiving the African Footballer of the Year crown later in 1990, 14 years after he first received the honour.
Incredibly, Milla's World Cup story didn't end there - though it never hit the same dizzy heights. Four years later, at the age of 42 years and 39 days, he became the oldest person to both play in and score in a World Cup match, when he netted Cameroon's only goal in an embarrassing 6-1 humbling at the hands of Russia at USA '94.
It was a truly record-breaking occasion as Oleg Salenko became the first and thus far only player to net five goals in a single finals match. And just days before, against Brazil, the 24 years and 42 days age gap between Milla and 17-year-old future captain Rigobert Song became (and remains) the largest between two team-mates in World Cup history.
When FIFA named him African Footballer of the Century, ahead of the likes of George Weah and Abedi Pele, it was testament more to his character than his talent, and Milla helped the continent believe it deserves a place at world football's top-table. The effervescent veteran, whose dance-moves lit up our screens in 1990, is unquestionably a true World Cup Legend.