When the world cup kicks off in 4 months time-well in 124 days but who’s counting -with the match between South Africa and Mexico there’s no doubt it will be enough to get us all excited regardless of the result. However there’s little chance that for drama, excitement, skill and surprises, it will come anywhere close to a fateful day twenty years ago when a little team from Africa shocked the then World Cup holders and wrote themselves into football folklore.
The opening game of Italia 90 between Argentina who’d twice won the competition and Cameroon who’d twice appeared in the finals was believed to be a foregone conclusion. The South American team included many of the players who’d triumphed in 1986, men such as Ruggeri , Pumpido and Burruchaga mixed in with new stars like Balbo and Caniggia. The whole team was orchestrated by one man of course, a certain Diego Armando Maradona, who at the age of 30 had just helped Napoli to the Serie A title and was expected to be at his peak.
The Cameroon side was made up of players who plied their trade in the Cameroonian top flight; the French lowers leagues and even that footballing Mecca, the French Island of Reunion- population 800,000.
The chance of a Cameroonian victory seemed about as likely as Maradona whipping off his shirt to reveal an “I’m sorry England” tattoo. Many expected the Argentines to use the game to underline their credentials as true World cup greats with an excellent chance of retaining the trophy.
It was assumed that Cameroon would probably want to keep the score in single figures and do their best not to humiliate the whole of African football by getting spanked by their more glamorous counterparts.
The only problem was no one had bothered to tell the ‘Indomitable Lions’ the script and they promptly went about creating one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history.
The game included two sendings off, both Cameroonian of course, the second for what was almost a Boris Johnson- type rugby tackle on Claudio Caniggia- who’d already dodged two hospital tackles- was probably the most obvious red card in World Cup memory. The goal which while hardly a classic, at least showed the aerial ability of the men from Africa and the unpredictability of some of the goalkeepers from South America. There was also the skill on display, not just from the Argentines but also the Cameroonians who showed that they could play a-bit as well as get stuck in. The Lions played as though it was a kick about in the park at times, their happy-go-lucky style endeared them to everyone in Italy-apart from Argentineans.
Omam-Biyik who scored the winner, after his brother had been sent off, started the Cameroon team on a journey which saw them defeat the likes of Romania and Colombia before going out in the Quarter Finals to England-now that’s what you call bad luck! There was also the appearance of 38-year old Roger Milla whose goals and celebration summed up what Cameroon were all about- the unexpected and the cheerfulness often missing from major tournaments.
Cameroon became the real stars if Italia 90, forget the efficient Germans, it was the smiling men from Africa who truly inspired the tournament as formerly unknown men such as Pagal, Milla, Omam-Biyik and Mbouh proved to be real stars.
Senegal would go on to re-create the feel of that fateful day by beating reigning Champions France one-nil in the opening game of the 2002 World Cup. But for me, the sight of the Cameroonians diving on top of each other to celebrate beating Argentina will always remain etched in memory as the greatest World Cup shock ever, one which made quite a few Englishmen very, very happy.
Read more of Justin Mottershead work at his blog ‘Name is on the Trophy’