Blast from the past: Roger Milla’s Cameroon dance their way into the quarterfinals

As they sealed their return to the English Premier League, Wolverhampton Wanderers defender Barry Douglas says they knew their season would be special.

13/06/2018 - 12:00 -

Roger Milla
For nearly 30 years, African football has had a ‘glass ceiling’ at the World Cup, with no team able to advance beyond the quarterfinals. Ghana very nearly did so in South Africa in 2010, while Senegal also reached the last eight on debut in 2002.

But the first and most memorable instance of an African side reaching the quarterfinals of a World Cup came in 1990, with Cameroon lighting up an otherwise dour tournament in Italy with stunning wins over Argentina, Romania and Colombia, before falling in heart-breaking fashion to England in Naples.

Few gave an Indomitable Lions team which was appearing at just its second World Cup any hope of getting out of a tough Group B which pitted them against Argentina, Romania and the now defunct Soviet Union.

They opened their tournament with a shock 1-0 win over reigning champions Argentina at the famous San Siro in Milan. Despite being down to nine men (Andre Kana-Biyik and Benjamin Massing were both sent off), the Lions won thanks to a 67th minute strike from Francois Omam-Biyik. It was a classic ‘ugly win’ from Cameroon, but it set them on the path to make African football history.

Next up was a 2-1 win over Romania in Bari, with veteran Roger Milla rising off the bench to score in the 76th and 86th minutes. The 38-year-old, who celebrated his goals with a famous dance at the corner flag, no longer had the stamina to play from the start but was used brilliantly as an impact substitute by manager Valeri Nepomniachi throughout Cameroon’s campaign.

The West Africans slumped to a 4-0 defeat at the hands of the Soviets in their final group game, but their place in the last 16 was already assured. After a five-day break they came up against South American contenders Colombia at Stadio San Paolo and Milla was again the hero, scoring twice in extra time (the game finished goalless after the regulation 90 minutes) to seal a 2-1 win.

Cameroon’s victory saw them become the first African side to reach the quarterfinals of a World Cup, while Milla’s status went from cult hero to outright legend – and he would further underline his pedigree with a heroic showing in defeat to England in the last eight.

The Indomitable Lions trailed the English 1-0 at the break in their quarterfinal and looked set to exit the tournament with a whimper. However, the arrival of Milla off the bench turned the game, with the long-limbed forward first drawing a penalty from which Emmanuel Kunde levelled the score, before setting up a goal for Eugene Ekeke to give Cameroon a 2–1 lead. Yet it was to be England’s day, as they later scored two penalties through Gary Lineker to win 3-2 after extra time.

Despite their exit, Cameroon had every right to be proud of the way they broke new ground for African football at the World Cup, with their last-eight showing yet to be bettered by any other side from the continent in six subsequent tournaments.

As for Milla, he went on to be named African Football of the Year for 1990 and returned to the World Cup four years later at USA where he set the record – which still stands today – for the oldest goal scorer in the tournament’s history: 42 years, 1 month, 8 days.

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