Italy 1990 marked the coming out of Africa’s greatest player. A previous selection as African Footballer of the Year, Roger Milla was to lead his nation of Cameroon to heights never before achieved by a side from his continent in the World Cup.
While all this is worthy of recognition and praise, the item that makes his achievements all the more remarkable is the fact that when all this transpired, he was 38 years old. And his POY award, oh yeah, that was 14 years earlier in 1976!
For a footballer, that is very long in the tooth, even for an indomitable lion.
Having retired from international play in 1987, Milla was the marquee player in a Cameroon side that had competed in the 1982 World Cup in Spain but was eliminated in group play. He was a dedicated servant of the Indomitable Lions but hung his boots up at 35 years of age.
When Cameroon qualified for Italy in 1990, Milla, at age 38 and amid much controversy, was included in the squad at the insistence of then Cameroon president, Paul Biya.
The Lions burst onto the scene with an opening day upset of defending champion Argentina in a front of a worldwide audience. Despite playing down two men at the final whistle, Cameroon had shocked the world and put African football on the map.
Milla’s ascendancy was meteoric, and surpassed even the coming out of his beloved Cameroon.
In the next three games, the Lions won their group and then defeated Colombia to advance to the quarterfinal stage; going further than any other African team in World Cup history at the time (Senegal, Japan/ Korea 2002). Milla scored all four goals (all as a substitute) in those three games.
In the quarterfinal, he did not score, but was the architect of both Cameroonian goals in their defeat to England, 3-2, that saw them knocked out of the tournament.
Milla went on to be named to the All Tournament Team, and even hung around for another four years to participate in the US in 1994. While on American soil, he became the oldest player to participate, and more importantly, score in a World Cup.
The heart and soul of the Cameroon sides of the '80s and '90s, Milla went on to be named the African Footballer of the 20th Century. Lofty heights for a man, especially considering that the award was earned based on his achievements after reaching the age of 38!
As a player, the pedigree was there, but the inspiration came much later; at the end, as a matter of fact.
Take a moment to consider the odds of achieving what he did, despite living in and representing a third world nation on the global stage.
At an age where very few can even lace up their boots for another match, Milla actually dominated the play in an arena where most, if not all, of his teammates and adversaries were at least 10 years his junior...and that stage was the biggest of them all.
His performance can only be attributed to passion and desire. The strength and perseverance to defy father time does not come easily or frequently. If it did, there would be more players dominating the game on the world stage in their late 30's. But as long as I have been following football, only one man has ever done this, and his name is Roger Milla.
To this day, the post-goal celebrations of his days of glory in Italy are still mimicked. When a celebrant dances around the corner flag, think of Mr. Milla.
Age catches us all, and the last cruel twist of fate for Roger Milla was that as his career was in its twilight; his country was emerging as a force to be reckoned with in international football. As his ambitions were rising, his abilities were fading: but his heroics will be forever remembered as coming in his final days while he was riding off into the sunset.