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Clive Gammon
July 02, 1990
Cameroon's Roger Milla chewed up Colombia to keep a dream alive
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July 02, 1990

Heart Of A Lion

Cameroon's Roger Milla chewed up Colombia to keep a dream alive

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For most of 106 scoreless minutes at San Paolo Stadium in Naples last Saturday evening-through all of regulation time and well into a 30-minute overtime—it looked as if the improbable dream would come to an end. Cameroon, the surprising conqueror of Argentina and Romania in the opening round of the World Cup finals, was struggling to stay alive against Colombia. The only reason the Indomitable Lions were still in this second-round game was that the deft, pattern-weaving Colombians had become too elaborate and had failed to convert their midfield dominance into goals.

Then along came Roger Milla. A couple of thousand years ago in these parts, Pliny the Elder had written, "Out of Africa, always something new." If Pliny had been covering this game, he would likely have changed that last word, for the gap-toothed, twice-retired Milla is 38 and is said to be on the Cameroon team because his nation's president, Paul Biya, had insisted that Milla make the trip to Italy. In the second period of overtime, Milla came crashing through the middle, shaking off two Colombian defenders, to hammer the ball high into the net, past goalie Ren� Higuita's outstretched right arm. Milla then ran to the left corner flag and saluted the crowd with a hip-wiggling Cameroonian version of the lambada.

Milla not only scored but also won the hearts of the Neapolitan fans, who until then had been derisively whistling both sides. While 50,026 tickets had been sold for the game, the stands were only half full. Many of the no-shows had bought their tickets weeks ago in anticipation of seeing their darling, Diego Maradona, star of the Napoli club, who was playing for Argentina in the World Cup. The Argentines, however, finished third in their group, behind Cameroon and Romania, and thus ended up in Turin, where they upset Brazil 1-0 on Sunday.

Two minutes after Milla's first dance routine, he scored again. As is his custom, Higuita, who is known as El Loco because of his penchant for roaming daringly out of the goal area, had taken a back pass a good 40 yards from his goal line. But Milla flew out of nowhere and robbed him of the ball. What followed was a rare and comic vignette: Higuita the goalie chasing Milla the striker from behind and attempting a desperate sliding tackle, while Milla pushed the ball carefully, delicately even, into the empty net. Afterward, he repeated his dance.

On June 14, Milla became the oldest player ever to score in the World Cup finals when he put in the first of his two goals in Cameroon's 2-1 victory over Romania. Then, for a few heady hours following the Lions' 2-1 win over Colombia, his four goals placed him in a tie for the scoring lead in the tournament, with four goals. (Later that evening, Tom�? Skuhrav� of Czechoslovakia, who had gotten two goals in the first round, scored a hat trick in a 4-1 win over Costa Rica.) Back in Cameroon, Milla's fans were already collecting money to erect a statue of him in the capital city of Yaound�.

After watching him play, it was hard to believe that Milla nearly didn't make the Cameroon team. A few years ago he quit the squad because the country's soccer federation had failed to take care of his dying mother while he was away with the team in Saudi Arabia. Until President Biya pleaded with him to return, Milla seemed fated to end his playing days on the Indian Ocean island of R�union with an obscure club called Jeunesse St. Pierroise. Now, in spite of his age, he acknowledges an ambition to play in Europe. "I'd be happy to play in Italy," he said. " Spain would be great also."

Despite Milla's leathery toughness and extraordinary speed for his age, Cameroon's chances looked shaky going into the Colombia game. After all, on June 18 the Lions lost 4-0 to the U.S.S.R. in their final first-round match. By Saturday it looked as if the Indomitable Lions had become the Pooped-out Pussycats. During the victory party following the game with Romania, Pierre M'Bala Tsala, the team dietitian—who weighs 285 pounds—declared an end to the moratorium on ice cream, whereupon midfielder Cyrille Makanaky proceeded to scarf down a pound of the stuff. And that wasn't all the Cameroonian players consumed. "We weren't ready for the Soviet match," said striker Fran�ois Omam Biyik. "We were drunk, drunk, drunk."

When the hangover evinced itself in the next game, against the U.S.S.R., no one was less surprised than Cameroon coach Valeri Nepomniachi, 45, who hails from Soviet Turkmenistan and communicates with his players through an interpreter. Nepomniachi has the work ethic of a Victorian factory owner and the haggard look of Gary Cooper about 10 years after turning in his badge in High Noon. Says Makanaky, who plays for the first-division Toulon club in France, "The coach thinks a man is like a battery—he needs to be recharged all the time or he'll run out of power. The coach would like to have us on the practice pitch all of the time."

Nepomniachi came along at just the right time for Cameroon, which after having qualified for the World Cup finals for the first time in 1982, failed to do so in '86. The notion that he would stifle the Lions' renowned creativity proved to be groundless, as did the idea that the Cameroon players were nothing more than highly skilled amateurs. Because Cameroon has no professional league, players must leave the country to earn a living in the sport, and many have honed their skills in the tough school of the French league.

Although the Cameroon players are not as technically proficient as the formidable West Germans, who defeated the Netherlands 2-1 on Sunday night, they are every bit as persistent. The hallmark of the Cameroonian game is speed and tenacity, qualities that have long been a part of soccer in black Africa. What is new about this team is its high level of sophistication. This improvement is due in large part to FIFA president Jo�o Havelange, who in 1974 began supplying Third World countries with coaches and training facilities as a quid pro quo for votes in that year's election.

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