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Last Friday morning a small band of soccer fans from the west African nation of Cameroon gathered in front of Milan's famed cathedral for an impromptu pep rally. Decked out in the brilliant red, green and yellow of their country's flag, they looked a tad out of place, but that didn't seem to bother them. As a crowd formed in the Piazza del Duomo, the Africans banged their drums and chanted defiantly, "Cam-er-oon! Cam-er-oon!"
At the time it looked as if they would need all the defiance they could muster. That evening their national team would meet defending champion Argentina in the opening game of the World Cup finals. In the 60-year history of the competition, no black African nation had won a single game. To believe that Cameroon, a 500-to-1 underdog to win the tournament according to British oddsmakers, might change that tradition required faith even stronger than that of the tireless stonemasons who took five centuries to build the Duomo. After all, Cameroon was playing a team led by perhaps the best player in the world, Diego Maradona.
Yet on Friday night there came a miracle in Milan. With two minutes to go in the game at Meazza Stadium, nearly 74,000 voices, most of them Italian, joined in a chorus of the triumphal march from Verdi's Aida and sang Cameroon—by then reduced to nine players—home to a 1-0 victory. The upset was the biggest in World Cup play since 1966, when North Korea eliminated Italy to reach the quarterfinals. Afterward, the name on everyone's lips was not Maradona's but that of Cameroon's Fran�ois Omam Biyik, a 24-year-old forward for an obscure second-division club in France. His moment came in the 66th minute when he headed a ball downward that squirmed under the diving body of goalkeeper Nery Pumpido and into the Argentine goal.
"I was very comfortable until they scored," Maradona said later, though it is hard to sec why. He had played unimpressively, his performance limited to a few brief interventions and many long disengagements. To his credit, Maradona did not blame his ingrown toenail—which had been one of the main topics of press coverage in the days leading up to the game—for his lackluster performance. Nor did he complain about the brutal working over he received from the Cameroon defenders. Instead he tried to make light of the defeat. "I cured the Italians of racism, didn't I?" he said, referring to recent tension between Italians and the flood of Third World �migr�s, particularly Africans, who have entered their country in the last decade. "The whole stadium was shouting for Cameroon. Wasn't that nice?"
Maradona did criticize his coach, Carlos Bilardo. The soccer cognoscenti in Italy knew that Maradona was unhappy with Bilardo's decision to start forward Abel Balbo beside him instead of Claudio Caniggia. Maradona, who is an attacking midfielder but played forward in this game, also disliked having to play farther up front than he normally does. "I must consider the team's needs," he said with mock humility. "If Bilardo orders it, then I must play in that zone."
Early in the game the Argentines got a taste of what was to come when Balbo broke free for a clear shot on goal but had trouble handling Maradona's pass and stumbled. As Pel� wrote in La Gazzetta Sportiva two days later, "How lonely Diego must feel now."
The Cameroon players were nervous at the start, but they soon realized that they were faster on the break and more accurate passers than the Argentines. They also were superior in the air. When he scored his goal, Omam Biyik leapt high over his defender and hit the ball with his head at around 8'6".
By then Cameroon was down to 10 men. Referee Michel Vautrot clearly took to heart the strict new FIFA directives against rough play when (in the 62nd minute) he sent off Andr� Kana Biyik, Francois's brother, for making a tackle on Caniggia, who entered the game in the second half. At the 88th minute, Vautrot ejected another Cameroon player, Benjamin Massing, for knocking down Caniggia as he dashed down the right wing on a break.
In that respect the miracle in Milan cost Cameroon dearly: Neither of the players will be allowed to play in the team's next game, on June 14 against Romania, which upset the Soviet Union, 2-0, last Saturday. What's more, Cameroon still has a long way to go to earn a spot in the second round. But last Friday night even the team's dour coach, Valeri Nepomniachi of the Soviet Union, seemed to be unconcerned about the loss of Kana Biyik and Massing. "I have 20 other men in my squad to choose from," he said.
After the game, Cameroon promised all the players a bonus of $33,000—a huge sum in that country. Yet Omam Biyik said he didn't expect success to change the team. Asked what he thought Cameroon's secret was, he replied, "Our humility and the seriousness of our players—and the fact that we still consider soccer just a game."