The Indomitable Lions
In 1990, in one of the World Cup's best underdog stories, Cameroon became the first African nation to advance to the quarterfinals. But their legacy, and history, is much more complicated than that.
The world was watching on June 8th, 1990 as the two teams ran onto the pitch. With the crowd chatting loudly, Argentina and Cameroon readied themselves for the opening game of the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Just by watching the two teams warm up, it was pretty clear they came from very different circumstances. Argentina was football royalty. Winner of the last World Cup in 1986 and two of the last three, they were one of the best teams in the world. The great Diego Maradona led their attack. If it weren’t for Pele, Maradona would have been known as the greatest footballer ever. Heck, even God was on his and Argentina’s side with the infamous 1986 “Hand of God” goal.
Cameroon was, well, overmatched, to say the least. This was only their second World Cup, having participated in 1982. They didn’t win a game four years earlier. Their team had been in turmoil in the weeks leading up the Cup, with infighting and communication breakdowns (literally). Cameroon’s President Paul Biya even got involved, deciding that he had the right to make roster moves, forcing the team to take on a retired, out of shape, 36 year-old legend that the President had a fondness for. Plus, Cameroon was in Africa and "everyone" knew that African teams could never compete in “the beautiful game” against South American or European squads. They just weren’t at their level and probably would never be.
As 73,000 fans packed into Giuseppe Maezza Stadum in Milan, Italy, and billions around the world watched at home, Argentina was expected to trounce Cameroon and move on to play real competition. Except that wasn’t what happened.
As the 2014 World Cup heats up in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, let’s take a look back at the greatest story the game of football has ever seen, the 1990 Cameroon World Cup team.
Cameroon is a country that is extremely diverse, divided, economically stable, corrupt, religiously free, and limited in freedom of expression. It has one the highest rates of literacy in Africa, yet poverty rates have remained at forty percent since 2001. If this seems like a country with contradictions, that’s because it is.
Situated on the western coast of Africa, Cameroon has and continues to hold great value to traders for it’s water access on the Bight of Bonny, which empties into the Gulf of Guinea and, eventually, the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, the name “Cameroon” came from the Portuguese trader Fernando Pô, whom upon sailing the Wouri River in 1472, was astonished at the amount of prawns in the water. So, he named the river Rio dos Camaroes, translated to “River of Prawns.” Soon after, Portuguese merchants flocked to the West African coast in search of trade, including the profitable venture that was the slave trade. Through out the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, merchants and slave traders from Portugal, France, Britain, and Germany settled in Cameroon, giving the country a great diversity in languages, nationalities, and religions that still exists today. According to a 2010 US State Department report, 69 percent of the population is Christian, 21 percent is Muslim, and six percent are animist, a belief that “a spiritual dimension exists along with the bodies of animals and humans.” Orthodox Jews and the Baha'i Faith also make up a portion of the religious community in Cameroon.
While Cameroon existed as a friendly West African trading post for European travelers for hundreds of years, the Germans were the first to claim the region as part of their empire in the early 1880s. In what became known as the “Scramble for Africa,” European powers competed for the right to colonize or annex African nations for their own growing empires. By 1914, only Liberia and Ethiopia were not under European control. On July 14th, 1884, after the Berlin Conference helped divide up the continent, Germany moved in to take ownership of Cameroon, or as they spelled it, Kamrun.
The Germans, as well as the other European powers, didn’t hold the highest regard for their new “native subjects” and thought they required European parental guidance. The famed explorer David Livingstone told a Cambridge audience that the “dark continent” was in need of “Christianity, commerce, and civilization.” Many works and research papers from England and the Americas at this time were all pretty transparent in their prejudices, stereotypes, preconceived notions, and racism. In the 1901 book, The Beginnings of German Colonization, Yale professor and German colonial policy expert Albert G. Keller wrote, “The Kru-men of Kamerun are, on the whole, the best native subjects Germany possesses, though their activity to almost exclusively confined to the sea. Where the tribes are not unspeakably stupid and lazy, they are generally warlike and far from docile.”
World War I was supposed to be “the war to end all wars.” While it wasn’t quite that, it certainly was a world war. On August 6th, 1914, France, Britain, and Belgium invaded the German-controlled Kamerun. Less two years later, Kamerun was surrendered by German commander Carl Zimmermann. At the Paris Peace Conference, the Treaty of Versailles was written and in it, as part of the League of Nations mandate, French Cameroon and British Cameroon were created.
For the next thirty-seven years, the country was divided between the French and Brits, with the French getting a larger portion of what is now modern-day Cameroon. Today, there are over 230 languages spoken in Cameroon, though English and French are still the official languages. The divided country existed in a state of relative peace, albeit under the rule of a colonel power.
That all changed in December 1956 when members of the recently formed Union of Cameroon People rebelled against the French government that occupied their country. Violence erupted. The French tried to quell the uprising by sending troops from the mainland. It wasn’t until three years later, January 1, 1960, when French Cameroon was finally granted its independence. It is estimated thousands of Cameroonians were killed in their fight to be a sovereign nation. A year later, British Cameroon split, with the majority joining Nigeria, but a small portion joining the Republic of Cameroon. It was the first time in 76 years that Cameroon was to govern itself.
Ahmadou Ahidjo was elected the first President of Cameroon and became responsible for uniting the country. Radicalized groups continued to haunt Cameroon with violence, so Ahidjo took a controversial step and turned the fledging nation into a one-party state. His argument was that it would curtail violence, foster economic development, and encourage national unity. While this was a highly autocratic maneuver, Ahidjo wasn’t necessarily wrong. Cameroon became, and to this day remains, economically stable, respectful of diverse ethnic groups, and encouraging of peaceful coexistence. But the government was quite corrupt. As described in the book The Leadership Challenge in Africa, “lucrative monopoly positions in the economy were being ‘sold’ by a corrupt, parasitic, and bloated civil service.” Ahidjo was in control of Cameroon for twenty-two years, until 1982, when it became clear that his power was waning.
When Paul Biya became Ahidjo’s prime minister in 1975, he immediately set his eyes on the presidential seat. On November 4th, 1982, Ahmadou Ahidjo made the surprising and unexpected announcement that he was resigning. Soon after, he appointed Paul Biya as President of Cameroon. For months, it was a mystery why a man who clearly desired power unceremoniously resigned. Rumors flew that it was health-relate. In fact, a rumor that still persists today is that a doctor, under the employment of Biya, had “tricked” Ahidjo into thinking his health was failing. Either way, it soon became clear Ahidjo and Biya were allies no more. Biya refused any assistance or advice from Ahidjo and erased him from the history books, including replacing all of his portraits in the Presidential palace with ones of himself. After a violent unsuccessful coup in April of 1984 that many believed was at the behest of Ahidjo, including Biya himself, Ahidjo was sentenced to death. While this never came to pass, Ahidjo fled to France and never returned to his home country. Biya, after thirty years, four elections, countless accusations of voter fraud, and creative rewriting of the country’s term limit laws is still Cameroon’s president to this day.
While wrestling was long considered Cameroon’s national sport, soccer eventually captured the minds and feet of the nation’s youth. As was exemplified earlier in the article, Europeans brought many things over to Africa when they “colonized,” including the “beautiful game” - soccer. Documents show that the first soccer games played on the continent were in the African missions in the 1880s. It soon spread to all parts of the Africa, becoming an immensely popular game among children. Club teams popped up, the oldest of which was in Ghana in 1903, the Cape Coast Excelsior. They are still playing today. In 1957, the Confederation of African Football officially was created.
Cameroon actually played their first international match when they were still French Cameroon in 1956, losing to Belgian Congo three to two. In 1959, the country formed a national team a year before they would become an independent nation. They called themselves Les Lions Indomptables in French, or The Indomitable Lions. As they were fighting for their freedom, they equated their soccer team to their struggle, thinking both were impossible to defeat. They joined FIFA in 1962 and were eligible to qualify for the 1966 World Cup, along with nine other African countries. Unfortunately, FIFA only allocated one spot to the winner of a four-way playoff between winners of the three groups plus one group from Asia. In other words, half of the world was competing for one spot in the 1966 World Cup, as designed by the Swiss-based FIFA. The ten African teams, including Cameroon, withdrew in protest.
It took the Lions until 1982 to qualify for the World Cup, the same year Ahidjo resigned (though it had happened several months before). With the Cup in Spain, Cameroon was placed into a group with Peru, Poland, and eventual champion, Italy. In a somewhat stunning first round, the Lions didn’t lose a game. Well, they didn’t win either, but rather tied every one of their games. This all very nearly changed with a goal scored against Peru by Africa’s greatest player, Roger Milla. Moments later, it was called off by the referees for an apparent offside despite the fact no Cameroon player was offside. It was recently ranked as one of the worst referee errors in World Cup history. The real highlight came in the 61st minute of their last game. Cameroon hadn’t been scored on either of their first two games, against Peru and Poland, but that changed in the 60th minute when Francesco Graziani of Italy kicked one in the net. Less than a minute later, though, Gregoire M’Bida stunned Italy with a goal of Cameroon’s own. The game finished in a one to one tie, shocking everyone. Despite this, Italy still advanced to the second round and went on to win the World Cup. The Cameroon Indomitable Lions went home. Despite playing tough physical defense and equalizing Italy (in fact, many Cameroonians believe this team was better defensively than the 1990 incarnation, despite their greater success), they had little to show for their efforts. They didn’t qualify for the 1986 World Cup. This wasn’t acceptable to President Paul Biya.
As the team trained for the 1990 World Cup, Biya decided that a fresh set of eyes was needed to manage the team – a European pair of eyes. So, the President of Cameroon asked Russia to send over a few coaches to help train the Lions. Thinking little of the soccer-playing African nation, they sent several coaches from their third-tier league, including Valery Nepomniachi. Nepomniachi’s playing and managing career in Russia were both rather unspectacular. His biggest achievement was head coaching an obscure Turkmenistan club in Russia’s third tier to an eighth place finish. Turkmen (now called Turkmenistan) borders Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and approximately 1,500 miles from the center of Moscow, Russia. That is to say, it wasn’t particularly a high-pressure coaching gig. Despite this, Biya liked what he saw and named Nepomniachi head coach of the Cameroon National Team. He did this knowing that Nepomniachi couldn’t speak French and barely a word of English, the languages of the majority of the players. This made coaching rather tough. Talks and instructions had to be translated into two different languages. It was said that a man “normally employed as a driver at the Cameroon embassy in Moscow” had to translate for the coach. The players had trouble respecting Nepomniachi; their coach couldn’t even talk to them. His instructions fell on deaf ears. And it showed during the African Cup, the lead up to the 1990 World Cup.
Luckily for Cameroon, they had already qualified for the World Cup (when they defeated Tunisia twice in 42 days while competing against 23 other teams for two spots) because the 1990 African Cup did not go well. They lost to Zambia and a Senegal team who hadn’t gotten past the first round since 1965. Once again, Cameroon had trouble scoring and didn’t until the 28th minute of their last game against Kenya. When they were knocked out of the tournament, Nepomniachi was nearly knocked out as coach. Players were openly tuning him out (that is, what they could understand). President Biya, who by now had firmly entrenched himself in charge of the national team, saw this and knew changes had to be made. So, instead of subtracting, he added. He turned to the retired Cameroon superstar, the man who nearly led Cameroon to World Cup glory eight years ago, Roger Milla, who was enjoying his days on the island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, some 3,500 miles from Cameroon.
Roger Milla first made a name for himself in 1972, when he helped lead his club to a league championship at the age of twenty. In 1974, he joined the Tonnerre Yaoundé football club in Cameroon and, two years later, they won the African Club. That same year, Milla was awarded Africa's Golden Ball, given to the continent’s best player. He was an African star, but he wanted to become an international star. The next year, the highly respected French football club Valenciennes purchased his contract. Things didn’t go as planned in France. He clashed with coaches, got hurt, and was benched. The French media ripped the Cameroonian hero apart by calling him lazy and out of shape. Milla would explain later that, “People judged me on what they heard and read about me in the media. The big clubs didn't have faith in me." In 1982, he was part of Cameroon’s first World Cup team. He contributed to what would become the team’s trademark stout and physical defense. Even though his goal against Peru was disallowed, this sparked something in Milla and got his career back on track. He finished second and third in the running for Africa’s Golden Ball in 1986 and 1988, at ages, 34 and 36 respectively, a time when a footballer’s legs start to go. Despite this, Milla was still criticized. At the time, he mostly played for Montpellier, a French division two club. He didn’t play for an African team, therefore wasn’t “patriotic,” but didn’t play for a division one French team either. As the thinking went, the best African players couldn’t hold a candle to the top European or South American players. After helping his beloved home country of Cameroon to another African Cup in 1988, Milla announced his retirement. Hundreds of thousands of fans saw Milla off as he made his way to Reunion, the peaceful, tropical end of his career that can only be dreamed of. He would later admit that he played tennis, basketball, and swam to keep in shape. But very little football.
With only weeks to go until their first match, Cameroon President Paul Biya called the retired sports hero and begged him to come back. Milla, always full of national pride and ego, eventually said yes. His return did not bring harmony to the national team. Teammates were skeptical and didn’t want to move aside for an out-of-shape 38 year old, no matter how much of a legend he was. Coach Nepomniachi didn’t want to contend with another ego on a team that he was already losing control over. Additionally, the players were having trouble getting paid by their government. Many of them thought about protesting the tournament until they got their promised payments. Cameroon’s goalkeeper Joseph-Antoine Bell saw the dissention and commented to a newspaper that his team had "no chance of coping with Argentina, or any other team" and "will go out in the first round without much glory." After those comments, Bell was dropped from the team.
As June 8th fast approached, Cameroon did have a little bit of good news. The group they been placed in, Group B and back in December during the group lottery, wasn’t exactly the traditional “Group of Death.” Sure, there was Argentina, the powerhouse, but there was also Romania and the Soviet Union. Romania, despite being one of only four European teams to have played in the first World Cup, hadn’t qualified for the tournament since 1970 and only twice since 1950. The Soviet Union, despite getting into the second round in 1986, were going through a bit of political turmoil themselves. 1990 would end up being the last World Cup for the Soviet Union. With two teams from each group moving to the knockout round, plus the four best third place teams, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that Cameroon could at least move to the knockout round. But no one ever thought that Cameroon would ever top Argentina in the group standings.
The raucous crown in Milan, Italy was ready for the 1990 World Cup to begin. For the first minutes of the game, the “humble team with an insignificant past” actually had the look of a scared child about to be beaten up by a bully. Argentina looked like the bully. As the game progressed though, Cameroon’s physical, tough defensive play proved that they were no meek child. If anything, they played the part of the bully. Tackling, kicking, and pushing the Argentine players, Cameroon was showing through their playing that they were not scared, not intimidated. Some pundits actually have expressed that their team’s in fighting leading up to the Cup forced each player to channel their anger into, literally, taking down Argentina. Yellow cards and fouls were abundant in that first half, but as each team walked off the field at halftime, the game remained scoreless.
After halftime, Cameroon’s plan was the same: physicality. In the 61st minute, Cameroon defender André Kana-Biyik made a sliding tackle on a streaking Claudio Caniggia. He caught more leg than ball and was given a red card, disqualifying him for the rest of the match. This also meant that the Cameroon squad would be a man short for the rest of the game. According to Argentina manager Carlos Bilardo, this was the very moment when momentum swung to Cameroon, “Everything was under control until Cameroon went down to 10 men and we got disorganized.” Six minutes later, history was made. On a free kick for Cameroon, the ball came off the foot of Cyrille Makanaky (a journeymen who bounced around lower tier European club teams) and onto the head of François Omam-Biyik, who promptly deposited the ball in front of 1986 World Cup-winning goaltender Nery Pumpido. Somehow, someway the ball ricocheted off Pumpido’s knee and into the net, as if the fates had a plan. Cameroon had scored a goal. Chaos ensued. Arms jerked into the air. Cameroon players fell on top of and grabbed one another. The crowd went nuts. A collection of players had become a team again.
Even after another red card brought Cameroon down to nine men, the team played on. Milla actually entered the game as a late sub, not fully having his legs under him yet (his World Cup moments would come later). As the clock ticked, the crowd turned. Something magical was happening. For years, football was a sport that belonged to the greats of South America and Europe. Now, in front of Italy’s and the world’s very eyes, football was becoming an African sport as well. This team wasn’t just playing for themselves, or even for their own country of Cameroon. They were playing for a continent, for a whole collection of the world’s population who were thought of as inferior in both sport and basic humanity.
The crowd continued to roar and as the final moments melted away, it certainly seemed that Cameroon was the champion and Argentina was just another team. When it was over, the final score was one to nothing Cameroon. The media called it “The Miracle in Milan.” Cameroon, a bunch of nondescript African journeymen who were never taken seriously, had upset the greatest team in the world led by the greatest player in the world. Said Omam-Biyak after the game, "We hate it when European reporters ask us if we eat monkeys and have a witch doctor. We are real football players and we proved this tonight."
Cameroon’s World Cup was not over yet and, for Roger Milla, it was just beginning. Despite never starting a game in the 1990 World Cup, Milla led all players in goals scored. Against Romania, Milla tore down the sideline and deposited the ball into the net, becoming the oldest player in World Cup history to score a goal. Immediately after the goal, Milla ran to the corner post and wiggled his hips, performing for the first time his much-imitated joyous celebratory dance. Said Milla later, “It came to me in the moment, in the stadium when I scored that first goal. It was instinct.” He scored again in that game and, once again, danced with joy. Cameroon won the game two to one. They would lose four to zero to the Soviet Union several days later, but it didn’t matter. Cameroon, on the strength of their two wins, had won their Group B, ahead of Argentina, and had advanced to knockout round of the 1990 World Cup. It was the furthest an African team had ever advanced in a World Cup.
In the next round, they played another South American powerhouse, Colombia. Once again, the 38-year-old wonder got to dance not once, but twice. In the 106th minute, Milla scored. After Columbia equalized, Milla drew famed goalkeeper Rene Higuta, later nicknamed “The Mad Man,” out of position and beat him to the goal. Higuta described that his mistake was “as big as a house.” Milla, flashing his big toothy smile, danced once again. He was now the international superstar he always dreamed he would be. Cameroon moved on to play England, a country that figured prominently in the “Scramble for Africa” eighty years ago.
One win away from the semi-finals, Cameroon was playing a European powerhouse. England took the lead in the 25th minute and went into halftime up one to zero. As the teams returned for the second half, Milla was finally subbed in. Like a superhero flying down from the clouds, Milla ignited his team. First, Cameroon’s Emmanuel Kunde scored. Then, with Milla providing an assist, they scored again. With seven minutes to go, the impossible looked like it was possible. Cameroon was going to beat England and go to the semi-finals. But the fates decided otherwise. England punched in a goal and the game went into extra time. Cameroon’s aggressive, physical play throughout the tournament, the kind of play that kept them in games long enough for them to eventually score, finally was their undoing. They were called for a rather controversial foul, giving England a free kick. To this day, some still think this was phantom foul and the referees were European-biased. Either way, England scored and Cameroon’s magical World Cup run was over. As irony would have it, if Cameroon had won, they would have played West Germany, the country that had once “colonized” Cameroon.
As the English players jumped in celebration, the crowd cheered, not just for the victorious squad, but for the vanquished as well. The 55,000 fans in attendance that night knew what they had just witnessed. That night, it wasn’t about winning or losing, it was that Cameroon proved that they could compete. Upon their exit, the Cameroon players waved, as the crowd roared like an indomitable lion.
In 1994, FIFA upped the amount of spots allocated to Africa in the World Cup to three (out of 24 total spots). Players from Cameroon and other African countries quickly were recruited to play for top-flight European clubs, including Milla himself. The clubs knew that African players were a draw and still a “novelty” to European football fans. Milla ended never up playing for any of those clubs due to not being able to negotiate monetary compensation that was satisfactory to both parties. He did return to play for Cameroon in the 1994 World Cup and broke his own record when he became the oldest player to score a goal in World Cup history at the age of 42.
In this year’s World Cup, five African teams are competing: the Ivory Coast, Algeria, Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon. Additionally, several African players are among the best in the world, including Samuel Eto’o, the Cameroon forward and the most decorated African player of all time. He has won Africa’s Golden Ball four times (eclipsing Milla) and the FIFA World Player of the Year in 2005. But like most great African players, Eto’o plays for top Europeans club, including FC Barcelona (where he left as the all-time club goal scorer) and Chelsea. In fact, most of the players on this year’s African World Cup teams, approximately 71 percent, play in European professional leagues. While African football has earned a stellar reputation, football has increasingly become a European game.
Most of all, though, soccer became a way that the continent of Africa could earn the respect of the rest of the world. Until that 1990 day in June in Italy, many still looked at Africa as the “dark continent,” a place where “civilization” was still needed, and where “natives” still acted tribally. After the 1990 Cameroon World Cup soccer team, Africa became known as a place where, quite simply, really good soccer was played. • 19 June 2014
Matt Blitz is a writer based out of Los Angeles who's written for Atlas Obscura, CNN, Untapped Cities, and Today I Found Out. He's currently the head of Obscura Society LA. He does laundry on a regular basis. You can follow him on twitter @whyblitz.