Learning a footballing and life lesson

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Johnny Foley

IT’S NOW 30 years since the opening World Cup match of Italia 90—jeez that makes me feel old—when out of nowhere, an unknown Cameroon side shocked everyone by beating then world champions, Argentina. Maradona and the lads, like. A fluke? Not really.

No African team had ever done much on the big stage and nobody knew much about them at all, but boom, these boys came along and not only were they physically strong—as Claudio Caniggia found out after being on the receiving end of a trio of bruising tackles—but nevertheless they could certainly play ball as well.

It was no one-off either. They went on to qualify from the group and reach the quarter-final stages. Largely thanks to a scoring run from the irrepressible Roger Milla and who could forget his cool corner flag celebration? It’s crazy to think that as good as he was, nobody could say for sure what age he was. Some said 38, some said 40 plus, but nobody was ever sure because most of these Cameroon players never even had birth certificates. 

One story that always cracks me up is when they were about to walk out onto the pitch for the quarter-final match against England in Naples. In the tunnel, the English team look visibly relaxed and not daunted by their opposition at all. Footage still shows their players laughing, smiling, joking and just ready to go. Their players have recalled that the mood dramatically changed when they heard chants of “Nous allons gagner!” (“We are going to Win!”) grow louder and louder in the corridor behind them. The Cameroon team had started a war-chant. Their boots clattering off the ground, the noise of their song and their sheer presence began to startle the English players a bit. 

Unperturbed, then England manager, the late Sir Bobby Robson, was a kindly old figure—who’d later work for the Ireland team—but maybe he was a tad old-fashioned and set in his ways too. The chants continued. “Nous allons gagner! NOUS ALLONS GAGNER!” Steely-faced, Robson turned to his players: “Ya see lads. They’re scared of us! Terrified, they are!” All of a sudden, they stopped. Silence. One Cameroon player gently taps Robson on the shoulder and in perfectly polite and eloquent English said: “Excuse me. I beg your pardon, Mister Robson. We always sing before the games and we’re not scared of England.” Robson was stunned into a bemused silence.

I always make a point of showing that clip to pupils when teaching them about topics related to colonisation. Nothing against Sir Bobby of course because even he gives an embarrassed chuckle in that interview.

Cameroon did bow out rather unluckily from that game after a couple of dodgy referee decisions, but they definitely left their mark on the world stage and paved the way for other African teams and players to thrive in the years that followed. Nigeria at USA 94, South Africa at France 98, Senegal in 2002, Ghana at the first African-staged World Cup in 2010 and not forgetting the flurry of talent that’s hit club football across Europe since. 

It’s also worth noting that this was around the same time period as Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the beginning of the end for the apartheid regime in South Africa.  Within a few short years, even Disney were releasing movies like The Lion King which popularised African music, culture and landscapes—and even similar underdog stories like Cool Runnings with its Caribbean context cropped up—but I personally reckon these Cameroon lads got this trend going first. 

It’s kind of sad to see how some of the world’s attitude has changed about race since then, but this is not a political post, just a celebration of a great sporting anniversary.

Having visited the Continent itself back in 2018, I remember speaking to a local at a bar in Botswana. That was also a World Cup summer, of course. Even if it wasn’t one for the Ireland team, mind you. A long trek from Cameroon, Botswana may have been, but once I mentioned that ‘header from Francois Oman-Biyik against Argentina,’ he was like: “Yeaaasss Man! He was a hero to every man, woman and child in Africa!”

And we raised a bottle of beer, clinked and saluted both Cameroon and Ireland’s adventures at Italia 90. Football can teach us something about life now and again. 

Follow Johnny Foley on Twitter: @JohnnyFoley1984

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