Roger Milla, the Indomitable Lion Who Changed World Cup History
Roger Milla, the Indomitable Lion Who Changed World Cup History
The fifth installment in ‘22 Goals’ features the Cameroonian forward whose goal-scoring feats at the 1990 World Cup in Italy changed the perception of African soccer
Roger Milla on Réunion
In 1990, the Cameroonian striker Roger Milla turned 38. He’d been playing professional soccer for 20 years. He was one of the most successful players in Cameroon’s history. But he was now in his sunset years, soccer-wise, and that wasn’t just how other people saw it. That was how he saw it.
He’d spent most of his career playing in France, putting up good if not mind-blowing numbers for a succession of good if not world-beating teams. But now he’d left mainland France behind and was playing out the end of his career for a little club on the island of Réunion, in the Indian Ocean, which he loved because the scenery was gorgeous and the competition wasn’t too intense. It was like being on vacation.
Roger Milla. Not Miller, if you don’t know him. It says Miller on his birth certificate, thanks to a clerical error, but his name is Milla. Born in 1952, in Cameroon.
Cameroon. If you can picture the continent of Africa—the shape of it—well, you know how there’s that big bulge on the upper left, in the northwest? And then if you go south a little ways, the bulge kind of tucks in? There’s that sharp bend in the coastline on the western side, and right in the middle of that bend is Cameroon.
It’s a medium-sized country. About 28 million people. It was colonized by the Germans in the 19th century, and that, to borrow a term from academic historians, was a fucking nightmare. So after World War I, the League of Nations—the precursor to the United Nations—was like, we have to come up with a better solution.
So they did the only thing a high-minded organization committed to the cause of justice could do in the 1910s. They arbitrarily divided Cameroon between the British Empire and the French Empire. Values.
So part of the country speaks English, but most of it speaks French. Cameroon achieved independence, finally, in the early 1960s, but the francophone part and the anglophone part are frequently at odds. Footnote one, see colonialism.
Now, take the Google Maps image of Cameroon you’ve got in your brain and scroll it to the southeast. Right and down. You come to the east coast of Africa, and then you’re over the Indian Ocean. After 250 miles of ocean, you come to the big island of Madagascar. Keep going, pass over 600 more miles of ocean and then you come to Réunion, where Roger Milla is casually winding down his playing days.
Réunion, incidentally, is legally part of France. It’s part of the European Union, even though it’s thousands of miles from the continent of Europe.
What are you gonna do. We’ve got Alaska. Footnote two, see footnote one.
So Milla is playing for this little club called JS Saint-Pierroise. JSSP. It’s great. He’s way better than everyone else. He’s taking it easy. He’s put on weight. Plays a little tennis. Picture drinks with umbrellas, basically. He later said, “To finish my career that way seemed idyllic.”
I would like to add that as a writer, I too wish to end my career that way. Picture me dominating, like, a small weekly grocery store newsletter in paradise. I could be the weather columnist. It’s sunny and 72. I will take my paycheck in limes, thanks.
In his prime, Milla had spent—oh, gosh—15 years or so starring for the Cameroon men’s national soccer team. He played in the 1982 World Cup in Spain, Cameroon’s first World Cup. It’s really hard, in the ’80s and early ’90s, for African teams to make the World Cup, because FIFA, in its wisdom, lets only two teams from the whole continent play in the tournament. That’s exactly the number of teams that usually play in the tournament from just the United Kingdom.
So Milla’s been around. But now he’s retired from international soccer. Been retired for a couple of years.
I don’t know, 38 maybe doesn’t seem that old for a player in 2022? In the LeBron James/Tom Brady/Serena Williams/horse placenta/alkalizing dragonberry era, careers don’t end the way they used to. That’s a good thing.
It used to be like, “Oh hey, you’re 32 now? Here’s your cane and your hearing trumpet. Tell us a story, O grandfather.”
So keep in mind that in 1990, 38 is a geriatric number for an athlete. If you’re 38, you’re Methuselah. Milla is done with international soccer.
However. There’s a problem. The problem is that Cameroon is going to the 1990 World Cup, and the team looks awful. People are stressing out. Soccer is huge in Cameroon. They enter 1990 as the defending Africa Cup of Nations champion. Then they crash out of the Cup of Nations in the group stage. There’s a lot of discontent. And people are like, hmm, remember when we had Roger Milla? He was good, right?
And the thing is, a few months earlier, at the end of 1989, he’d gone back to Douala, the biggest city in Cameroon, to play in an exhibition game. And he’d looked great. He scored two goals. Everybody had fun.
An exhibition game is not the World Cup. Nevertheless.
Fast-forward to 1990, and this is the moment when Milla’s idyllic island life gets interrupted by a text from the dog sitter. Mr. Milla, a mighty tree of public opinion has fallen on the street of your happy pseudo-retirement. The fans, in other words, are clamoring for him to come back.
Now, no one on the Cameroon national team wants him to come back. The players don’t want him. The coaches don’t want him. Cameroon has this new manager, a sort of gaunt, chilly-looking Russian dude. He doesn’t want Milla.
So Milla, personality-wise—how can I put this? He has a little bit of Larry Bird in him. Obviously, he likes having a good time—he’s not playing on Réunion because he’s a ruthless disciplinarian who hates pleasure. But on the pitch, when the stakes matter, he’s a perfectionist. He’s been the best player in Cameroon most of his life. He was born in 1952, he traveled around the country a lot during his childhood because his dad worked on the railroads. Learned the game by playing barefoot with other kids, on dirt roads, sometimes with an orange or a tin can for a ball. He was so good that people nicknamed him “Pelé.” By the time he was a skinny 17-year-old, he was famous.
So he’s used to being better than everyone else. And he’s not known for being patient with his teammates.
They also have a nickname for him. That nickname is “Gaddafi.” Yes. After the Libyan dictator. The other Cameroonian players would much prefer to go to Italy for the World Cup without their ancient, prickly, washed, demanding ex-striker.
You know who did want him, though? Everyone else in Cameroon.
So the president of the country, Paul Biya—who’s still the president of Cameroon, by the way—issued a decree summoning him back to the national team.
The president of the country signed a decree compelling the coach to call him up.
Like OK. You’re at Disneyland. You’re having the time of your life. You’re three-quarters of the way through Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride when your phone buzzes. It’s a reporter from CNN informing you that Joe Biden has just delivered a nationally televised address from the Rose Garden demanding that you return to the Buffalo Wild Wings franchise you used to co-manage immediately.