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Top ten iconic moments in international football: No.8

We continue our series of the Top ten Iconic Moments in International Football with number eight:

Roger Milla’s dancing celebration vs Columbia, Round of 16, 1990 World Cup

The background:

Roger Milla of Cameroon celebrates during the World Cup eighth final match between Cameroon and Colombia at the San Paolo Stadium on June 23, 1990 in Naples, Italy.

1990 was a special year: East and West Germany were unified, Namibia was separated from South Africa and a lowly-ranked, hitherto unknown Cameroon side beat defending World Champions Argentina in their opening game with a 1-0 scoreline in Group B of the FIFA World Cup played in Italy. The world was taken by shock, not just because Cameroon won, but because a seemingly invincible Argentinian side was unable to score even a single goal against an unheralded side who had never won a single game in the World Cup before this one. The Argentines, led by Diego Maradona, were heavily criticised after this defeat, and the game was widely considered to be Argentina’s defeat rather than Cameroon’s victory.

The next match Cameroon played was against Romania. This was the game where a 38-year-old striker defied the convention of age in football. Roger Milla, who had retired before the World Cup only to make a comeback due to the requests of then-Cameroon president Paul Biya, scored two goals in the game after coming on as a substitute, giving Cameroon a 2-0 victory and virtually ensuring them a spot in the Round of 16, thus making them only the second African nation to achieve this feat after Morocco in the 1986 World Cup.

But more than the goals themselves, it was the unique celebration that caught the attention of the world. Roger Milla would run to the corner flag and dance in front of the spectators as his team-mates joined him. This was a 38-year-old with the youthfulness of a teenager.

Even though Cameroon lost their last game of the group stages quite heavily to the Soviet Union (it was a 4-0 scoreline), they managed to top Group B and were to face Colombia in the Round of 16. The Colombian squad boasted the likes of Carlos Valderrama, Andres Escobar and an eccentric, flamboyant keeper named René Higuita (of the ‘scorpion kick’ fame), and were expected to easily trounce a Cameroon side, which was still better known for its celebrations than its football.

The game itself was a close one, with both teams entering the second half of extra time goalless. As the second half to extra time kicked off, Roger Milla, who had once again come on as a substitute, managed to beat two Colombian defenders and slotted a perfect finish past custodian Higuita to make the score 1-0. The celebration, of course, remained the same.

Colombia were still in it and had just under fifteen minutes to make a difference. But  a moment of madness would go on to change the face of the match and of African football forever.

The moment:

Forward Roger Milla from Cameroon runs past Colombian goalkeeper Jose Higuita (R) after stealing the ball from him on his way to score a goal 23 June 1990 in Naples during the World Cup second round soccer match between Cameroon and Colombia

Barely two minutes after Milla scored the first goal, Colombian ‘keeper Rene Higuita, in his typically flamboyant style, was nearly 35 yards out of his box with the ball at his feet. With Milla approaching him, he quickly passed to ball to his nearest defender, but since Milla was too close, the ball was passed back to Higuita. At this point, Higuita completely lost his composure and was easily dispossessed by Milla, who ran up to the edge of the box and put the ball into an empty net.

And again, Milla ran to the corner flag to celebrate in his signature style with all his team-mates joining him. Cameroon were 2-0 up and had almost certainly booked a spot for the quarter-finals. At this point, the world finally woke up and took notice of these so-called ‘minnows’. The Indomitable Lions had truly lived up to their name. The ageing super-sub had scored four goals in the tournament, and was the leading scorer until then. Even though Colombia managed to score a goal a few minutes later, it wasn’t enough to prevent Cameroon from qualifying for the quarter-finals of the World Cup, becoming the first ever African nation to do so.

In a single moment, African football had finally arrived on the global stage. Cameroon lost to England after a tough match in the quarter-finals, but the magnitude of what they had achieved did not diminish their achievements in the slightest.

This was the beginning of something special.

The aftermath:

After exiting the World Cup in the quarter-finals, Milla and his team went home not just as Cameroonian heroes, but as African heroes. A continent that had faced so many problems and so much pain over the years was finally given something to cheer about. A sea of change spread over the entire continent and Africa began to produce some of the best footballers the world had seen.

After Cameroon’s historical achievement, Senegal and Ghana too went on to cause historic upsets and reach the quarter-finals of the 1998 and 2010 World Cup respectively. Today, African footballers are among the best and the highest-paid in the world. Superstars like Samuel Eto’o, Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba, to name a few, are household names. But all of these players will testify that it was Roger Milla and the Indomitable Lions who paved the path for the revolution the continent has been witnessing over the last few decades.

Some moments in football cause great joy, some great pleasure; but a moment that brings hope to an entire continent comes only once in a lifetime. When African history – not just footballing history – will be written in the future, the moment when an ‘old’ man and his team proved to the world what can be achieved through sheer will power and determination, will definitely find a place in that book.

Here’s a video clip of that legendary match:

What other moments made it to our list? Find out here: SportsKeeda’s top ten iconic moments in international football

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