Lions' golden oldie


YAOUNDE, May 12 – Roger Milla, aged 38 at the start of the 1990 World Cup, was not expected to be anything more than a bit-part player in Cameroon's second appearance at the finals.But five games, four goals, and several samba shuffles later and the veteran striker had catapulted himself into the World Cup’s hall of fame as perhaps the most famous African footballer ever.

Milla’s displays for the ‘Indomitable Lions’ in Italia 90 were one of the stories of the tournament as Cameroon came within a whisker of qualifying for the semi-finals before exiting against England in the last eight.

Though only used as a substitute throughout, Milla was nevertheless a key figure for the west Africans, scoring twice to beat Romania, and adding another brace to defeat Colombia in the second round.

His trademark goal celebration – a quick dash to the corner-flag to perform a stomach-and-hips wiggling samba – became a sight as familiar as it was popular.

Born in Yaounde in 1952, Milla began his career in the Cameroon capital, playing for Eclair Douala, Leopards and Tonnerre, winning various domestic honours which helped see him crowned African Player of the Year in 1976.

The following season he moved to France. Milla, who had changed his name from Miller because he wanted to sound more African, was to spend the next 14 years of his career in France, enjoying success at all levels.

Two years with Valenciennes was followed by a move to Monaco, where he was a member of the French Cup-winning side of 1980. The following year Milla’s hands were on the trophy again, this time with Bastia.

In 1982, Milla made the first of his three appearances at the World Cup, 10 years after making his debut for Cameroon in 1972.

In Spain, he impressed at centre-forward as Cameroon exited in the first round, unlucky to be eliminated on goals scored after finishing level on points with eventual winners Italy.

In 1984 he was an inspirational figure as Cameroon lifted the African Nations Cup, a title he helped them lift again in 1988.

He retreated into obscurity towards the end of the 1980s, and was a forgotten figure when he semi-retired to the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion, having part-time fun in the sun with local club St Pierre.

Yet he was lured out of semi-retirement for the 1990 World Cup, and a legend was born. His heroics in Italy saw him named Africa’s Player of the Year for a second time.

His success at Italia 90 relaunched his career. Prior to the 1994 finals, Milla was found to be plying his trade in Indonesia, where he scored 23 goals in 23 games to help Pelita Jaya win the championship.

He was back in the Cameroon squad for the 1994 World Cup. There was to be no repeat of the Italy miracle in the United States however, though Milla was to have the last word.

His goal in the 6-1 defeat against Russia made him the oldest player (42 years, one month and eight days) to score a goal in the finals of the World Cup. Unreliable records have left the precise number of caps won by Milla during his 22-year international career a matter of conjecture. Estimates range from between 150 and 200.