Normally, only the most prolific of forwards are remembered long after their days of influence have passed. However, every now and again a forward without a superlative scoring record is recalled due to the sheer impact and pertinence of their contribution.
Roger Milla is one such frontman.
His scoring record with Cameroon (28 goals in 102 games) and with French clubs Bastia (35 in 113), Valenciennes (six in 28), Monaco (two in 17), Montpellier (37 in 95) and Saint-Etienne (31 in 59) is admirable without being breath-taking, but he is, nonetheless, revered by Cameroonians to this day, and admired still as one of Africa’s finest-ever strikers.
Why is this the case?
As Ian Hawkey recalled inthe excellent Feet of the Chameleon, legendary manager Claude Le Roy was one of many to commend Milla. “A diamond” was how Le Roy reminisced about the forward, suggesting that as far as technique was concerned, there were few that could ever outshine the iconic forward.
Milla was of that rare breed of player who could change the complexion and the outcome of a game with a moment of genius or a flash of inspiration. One such occasion came in an African Champions League knockout tie against Conakry-based heavyweights Hafia FC.
With Leopard labouring at half-time, trailing 2-0, the Douala side sought a hero and certainly found one. Milla scored a second-half hat-trick as his team cruised to a 4-2 victory. It was an early example of a talent that would go on to grace the greatest stage of the game.
Beyond having the ability to change a game with a burst of pace or a moment of genius, Milla is also famed for his longevity. With a career that touched four decades and spanned 34 years, he is a player who, more than most, could be considered ageless.
It is quite fitting that, to this day, he still holds the records for being both the World Cup’s oldest-ever player and its oldest-ever goalscorer—having scored against Russia in 1994 at the remarkable age of 42 years and 39 days.
The World Cup is where Milla’s legacy was forged, and even despite his admirable scoring exploits, it was at the global centrepiece that he truly etched his name into the sport’s history. At 38, he was the figurehead in the Indomitable Lions side that made such an impact at the 1990 World Cup.
In Italy, the Africans were massive outsiders, little known outside their home continent. Few gave them any chance of success in their opener against holders Argentina, but after marking Diego Maradona out of the game, the Cameroonians gave themselves a platform to play from and upset the odds with a glorious 1-0 victory.
From there, they had history in their sights—topping the group after another victory, against Romania, before advancing to the quarterfinals where much-fancied England required extra time (and a few dubious goals) to get past the West Africans.
Despite the eventual disappointment of elimination, Cameroon returned home as heroes, having broken the threshold of African sides and gone further than any side from the continent had ever done previously.
Milla, who scored four in the competition, was feted as a hero, and even at such a ripe old age, was one of the most impressive strikers present in Italy. He also contributed to two iconic World Cup moments: firstly, his awareness and assertiveness to close down, dispossess and embarrass maverick Colombian keeper Rene Higuita in the second round; and also, his memorable goal-celebration, the jig around the corner flag that has been much-replicated in subsequent years.
Despite these unforgettable exploits, Milla was by no means the perfect player; his temper was legendary, and the ease with which he would flare up led to him receiving the moniker "Gaddafi"—a reference to Libya’s temperamental president.
Since his playing career ended in 1999, Milla’s irascibility and flammable attitude have occasionally led him into controversy. Despite some sterling work as an ambassador for a myriad African causes, Milla’s influence with his own football federation was curtailed in 2012.
Things have been going downhill for the Indomitable Lions for years. Despite a generation of talented players including the likes of Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Sebastien Bassong, Joel Matip, Stephane Mbia and Nicolas Nkoulou, and headlined by the sublime talents of Samuel Eto’o, the Indomitable Lions have been hamstrung by upheaval and have been conspicuous in their absence from the last two Africa Cups of Nations.
Milla was not slow to criticise the federation of which he was previously honorary president, and after openly lambasting the management and organisation of the national side, he was dismissed from his post last spring.
With Cameroonian football once again coming into the headlines for all the wrong reasons, after advertising for the job of national team manager without notifying the incumbent Jean-Paul Akono, the absence of men like Milla—figures who enjoy a relationship with the populace and who hold the best wishes of the nation’s football close to their heart—is even more devastating.
While his eternal legacy will surely be forged on his World Cup sojourn in 1990, and his record-breaking return four years later, perhaps Milla could be one man capable of making a genuine impact today and of returning some semblance of majesty to a national federation that has been shambolic for far too long.