World Cups are always won by the old guard, the elite, the “big football” countries. Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, England, France, Italy, Spain, Germany – in 21 editions of the tournament there have been eight winners. All of them are from Europe or South America, and all have a rich heritage within the sport. If you were to draw up a list of the most influential footballing nations, it would look almost identical to the list of the eight winners – the Netherlands being the one obvious omission. There is an argument to be heard that this is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: nations are considered “big football” countries because they have won the World Cup rather than the other way around.
But the fact remains that the grandest sporting occasion on earth has still never been won by a team that could be considered a true underdog. And yet, the World Cup still has a reputation for being a charming spectacle, one which throws together the best and the rest and puts them on equal standing. There’s never been an underdog champion, but there are countless fairy tales and “almost” stories. For a nation to produce one of these, they don’t necessarily have to go very far in the competition; they only need to capture hearts and minds with their football.
There are teams such as New Zealand in 2010; they were knocked out in the group stage but didn’t lose a single game. Then there are teams who combine a classic underdog story with thrilling football and actually achieve results. There were Sweden and Bulgaria in the 1994 World Cup – they both managed to reach the semi-finals. Senegal reached the quarter-finals eight years later in Japan and South Korea. But for a Luis Suarez handball, Ghana would have reached the same stage in 2010.
But perhaps the status of the best-loved “cult” teams in World Cup history belongs to Cameroon at Italia ’90. They dazzled at that edition of the tournament, reaching the quarter-finals and playing some magnificent football along the way. At the time, it was the furthest stage an African side had ever reached in a World Cup finals and, though it has been equalled, it has not been bettered by any African side since.
Cameroon’s 22-man squad was made up 11 players from Cameroon’s first division, one from La Liga in Spain, nine from Ligue 1 in France and one from Réunion a French overseas territory in the Indian Ocean. The man from Réunion was a certain Roger Milla. Already an icon before the start of the tournament, the 38-year-old would carve out a place for himself in World Cup history with his four goals throughout the competition.
At the time, Milla was playing his football for JS Saint-Pierroise – it was effectively the start of his retirement, though he would go on to play for a further six years at a much lower level. He had spent almost the first decade of his career playing the Cameroon Premiere League with three different teams: Eclair de Douala, Leopard Douala and Ronnerre Yaounde. For them, he had scored almost 200 goals.
His consistency did not go unnoticed and, in 1978, he was signed by French side Valenciennes. Milla spent 12 seasons in France, most of them in the top-flight, and became known as one of the best marksmen around. In total, he scored 164 goals in France and was thought of fondly by the fans of the clubs he played for: Valenciennes, Monaco, Bastia, Saint-Etienne and Montpellier.
Milla had actually retired from international football two years earlier. But a disastrous showing at the 1990 African Cup of Nations – at which they were the reigning champions – prompted the president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, to persuade Milla to come out of retirement. Four years later and he would again play at the World Cup at the ripe old age of 42.
There’s no doubt who the star of Cameroon’s Italia ’90 squad was. But he had an excellent supporting cast too. Thomas N’Kono was another of the Indomitable Lions star players. The goalkeeper played for Espanyol at the time but was Cameroon’s second choice after Joseph-Antoine Bell. But in a move of self-destruction, Bell decided to criticise his team in the run-up to the tournament, saying that he doubted very much that they would make it out of the group stages. This prompted manager Valery Nepomnyashchy to pick the Espanyol number 1 instead, and he was rewarded for his choice as the shot-stopper produced some excellent performances over the course of the Italia ’90 campaign.
In front of him in the defensive line was Emmanuel Kundé, a former Stade Reims centre-half who would be a commanding presence at the back. He also got on the scoresheet, scoring a famous penalty against England in the quarter-final.
Leading the line for Cameroon (Roger Milla would make his impact coming off the bench) was François Omam-Biyik, a highly influential figure in the Cameroonian game. A young forward in 1990, he played for Stade Lavallois at the time but would go on to turn out for Rennes, Cannes, Marseille, Lens and Sampdoria in an excellent career. After stepping down from the playing side of the game, Omam-Biyik would enjoy two stints as Cameroon’s assistant manager, one in 2010 and one which began in 2019 and which is still ongoing. François’s brother, André Kana-Biyik, also featured in the squad.
Cameroon had breezed through the CAF qualifying stages, recording just one loss in their six games against Nigeria, Angola and Gabon. They joined Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria in the final round of qualifying. Egypt won by an aggerate score of 1-0 against Algeria while Cameroon eased past Tunisia by a 3-0 scoreline over two legs. After Cameroon’s exploits in Italy, FIFA would award African teams with an extra spot at the competition in future editions.
They were drawn in one of the more difficult groups. In order to secure safe passage to the round-of-16, Cameroon would have to get the better of Romania, Argentina and the Soviet Union. It wasn’t the dreaded group of death, but a tricky arrangement nonetheless.
Argentina were the reigning champions having won in Mexico four years earlier. The Soviet Union had a number of players employed by clubs in Europe’s top five leagues. Romania had the great Gheorghe Hagi as well as Ilie Dumitrescu and several other members of the massively successful Steaua Bucuresti team of the 1980s – they won the European Cup in 1986 and finished as runners-up three years later.
Argentina 0-1 Cameroon, 08/06/90, San Siro
As opening fixtures at a World Cup go, they don’t come much more daunting than this. Cameroon’s first match was against the World Champions in front of 75,000 at the San Siro. No one gave them a chance. But they defied the pundits to cause one of the biggest upsets in the World Cup’s long history. Their 1-0 victory was made all the more impressive by the fact that Cameroon finished the match with nine men.
Maradona was marshalled excellently by the Cameroon back five. Their sweeper, Victor N’Dip cleared up any loose balls that made their way over the defence and, if that line was breached, Thomas N’Kono stood strong to deny any goalscoring chances. But when Cameroon went a man down with half an hour left to play, no one expected them to get a draw, let alone a win. Kana-Biyak was sent off for a very soft foul and Cameroon looked like a team with little hope.
But just six minutes later, his brother Francois put Cameroon ahead. His huge, towering header probably should have been kept out by Argentine keeper Nery Pumpido, but the athleticism from the Laval striker had to be admired nonetheless.
Roger Milla was brought on with ten minutes remaining and provided a valuable out-ball for Cameroon. But with just two minutes to go, their task got even harder. If there was some doubt about the first red card, there was certainly none about the second. Benjamin Massing was sent packing after a wildly irreverent, chest-high kick at Diego Maradona.
But in the end, it made no difference to the outcome. Cameroon were victorious and had already earned legions of fans from a shocked international audience.
Cameroon 2-1 Romania, 14/06/90, Stadio San Nicola
After their stunning performance on opening night, the eyes of the world were on Cameroon for their second game of Group B against a brilliant Romania side. Even without the injured Hagi, they had triumphed 2-0 over the Soviet Union in their first game. Hagi returned for the Romanians against Cameroon. But the day was to be all about one man: Roger Milla.
The game was quiet until around the 60-minute mark when the 38-year-old veteran striker was brought into the action. Milla was no longer capable of performing for a full 90 minutes but, as an impact sub, he became one of the stars of the tournament. Fifteen minutes into his game, Milla nicked the ball off the head of a Romania defender from Kunde’s long kick upfield. He chested the ball into his stride and finished hard and low past the onrushing goalkeeper.
Ten minutes later and Milla made it two. He capitalised on Romania’s failure to clear the ball from a Cameroon free-kick, accelerated past a Romania defender and unleashed a rip-roaring shot in at the keeper’s near post.
Romania got one back just a couple of minutes later, but in the end it made no difference. Cameroon had maximum points from their opening two games and already had qualified themselves for the knockout stages.
Cameroon 0-4 Soviet Union, 18/04/90, Stadio San Nicola
Cameroon’s last match in group B was something of a non-event before it had even kicked off. The Soviet Union had lost their opening two games against Argentina and Romania and knew that they had no chance of qualifying. With Cameroon already qualified, perhaps over-confidence got the better of them. They lost 4-0 in what was by far their worst performance of the tournament.
Protasov stabbed home at the near post to make it 1-0 inside 20 minutes. Ten minutes later, Zygmantovich scored into an empty net after N’Kono had been rounded. Zavarov made it 3-0 seven minutes into the second half after running into the space behind Cameroon’s defence and slotting in at the near post. The Soviet’s rout was completed with half an hour left to play when Dobrovski headed in a looping cross.
Cameroon had been humiliated on the final day, but they were still going through to the second round; the Soviets were not. They won the group with four points (it was two points for a win at Italia ’90), Romania finished in second place, and Argentina qualified as one of the best third-placed teams.
Cameroon 2-1 Colombia (a.e.t), 23/06/90, Stadio San Paolo
In their round-of 16 match, Cameroon faced Colombia. Like Argentina, Colombia had snuck through into the knockout stages as one of the best third-placed teams. In the group stages, their record was won one, drawn one, lost one. They easily beat the UAE via a 2-0 scoreline but then struggled against Yugoslavia in their second match, losing 1-0. They knew that to stand any chance of qualifying, they had to get a result against West Germany who, of course, would go on to win the competition that year. The Colombians earned a very creditable draw and went through as the second-best third-place team behind Argentina.
Their squad boasted some big names, Rene Higuita and Carlos Valderrama chief among them. There was also Andres Escobar, the centre-half who was tragically murdered in the aftermath of his own goal at the 1994 World Cup.
The match itself – in normal time at least – was nothing to write home about. It was a game of limited opportunities and remained scoreless until extra time when, suddenly, it burst into life. And it was no surprise who the catalyst proved to be…
Roger Milla fired Cameroon into the lead a minute into the second half of extra-time. Displaying the physicality you’d expect from an 18-year-old, not a 38-year-old, Milla skipped past a Colombian defender, took a touch to line up the goal in his sights then beat Rene Higuita for pace with a ferocious shot into the roof of the net – a superb goal from a player who was proving to be one of the stars of the Italia ’90.
The first goal was all his own making, but the second was decidedly less so. It came just two minutes after the first when, perhaps slightly shaken by Cameroon taking the lead, Colombia attempted a dangerous backpass to Higuita who was a good 40 yards out of his goal. Higuita, ever the performer, attempted a Cruyff turn but was easily dispossessed by Milla. With an open goal to aim at, there was never any chance the clinical striker would miss. With 12 minutes to go, Cameroon looked sure of a spot in the last eight.
Colombia instilled the last few minutes with a sense of jeopardy after Redin finished off a sublime move. But it wasn’t enough. Cameroon had made it to the quarter-finals, the first African team in the history of the game to do so.
Cameroon 2-3 England (a.e.t), 01/07/90, Stadio San Paolo
Cameroon’s final match at the 1990 World Cup was one for the ages. They were drawn against an impressive England side managed by Bobby Robson and riding the crest of a wave since their late 1-0 victory over Belgium in the round-of-16.
The England squad was one of the strongest at the tournament. Captain Bryan Robson was a stalwart at the heart of defence, Peter Beardsley made things happen in midfield, and Gary Lineker had been the golden boot winner in ’86. But above all, there was Paul Gascoigne. Gazza was one of the players of the tournament throughout Italia ’90, his boyish charm and mercurial skill endearing him not only to an English audience but fans worldwide.
England took the lead through David Platt – the man who had also been their last-gasp hero against Belgium. Stuart Pearce’s feathered in a cross and Platt climbed highest to nod home. England looked grateful to land the first body blow against a Cameroon side whose reputation had grown throughout the tournament. But in truth, England deserved their lead at the interval.
At half time, the game change with the introduction of, you guessed it, Roger Milla. He had been on the pitch barely fifteen minutes when he was brought down by Gascoigne inside the area after a clever off-the-shoulder run. Kunde gratefully fired the resulting penalty past the 40-year-old Peter Shilton. The goal breathed new life into Cameroon who began to play on the front foot.
Another five minutes passed and, miraculously, Cameroon took the lead. A flowing move made up of three vertical passes ended up at the feet of Ebelle Ekeke who dinked past Shilton and into the England net. Horror for the Three Lions, joy for Cameroon. They continued to be the better side for much of the second half, causing England problems on several occasions. Seven minutes from time and Cameroon were truly beginning to dream of a World Cup semi-final.
But, unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. Gary Lineker was – allegedly – brought down in the area, although there is still a great deal of debate as to whether the referee’s call was correct or not. Lineker scored the penalty and squared the game at 2-2.
In extra-time, Cameroon’s ill disciple was their downfall. Again, Lineker was fouled in the area. Again, he scored the penalty. England 3-2 Cameroon. Cameroon were dumped out in the quarter-finals; England reached a first semi-final since 1966.
But while the manner of their exit was particularly painful, Cameroon left the tournament with their heads held high. It says a lot that they are particularly well remembered in England. They had become the greatest African team at a World Cup and blazed a trail for Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal to emulate their performance in later World Cups.