Milla, Roger 1952–
Roger Milla 1952–
professional soccer player
International soccer star Roger Milla of Cameroon has probably done more for African soccer than any individual in this century. In both literal and figurative terms he has promoted African soccer to the level shared by the elite of the world soccer community. Prior to the 1990 World Cup, African soccer was considered primitive and underdeveloped by the ruling elite of international soccer, and African participation was limited to two teams that were expected to do little more than show up.
But in June of 1990, Milla and Cameroon turned the soccer world upside down for three weeks as they advanced to the quarter-finals of the tournament before finally losing 3-2 in a dramatic overtime encounter with England, the nation credited with inventing the game. Milla, at 38 years old, was the hero, scoring four goals. He was heralded around the world as the “heroic patriarch” not only of Cameroon, but for all of Sub-Saharan Africa. “He is one of the most remarkable stories in the history of the World Cup,” commented London Times reporter David Miller.
The immediate outcome of the 1990 showdown was that Africa is now to be awarded an additional slot for the World Cup. The long-range result was that African soccer in general is now considered the fastest developing game in the world, and certainly worthy of more attention. As London Times correspondent Simon Barnes wrote, “The only thing that emerged from the  World Cup was African Football.”
When he was a small boy, Milla could be found kicking a soccer ball around the town of Douala where he grew up. Eventually he went on to play at the highest level in Cameroon, for Eclaire de Douala, and, according to Pierre Lemmonier of Football Clubs, “caused panic in the African defenses.” In 1975 he helped Eclaire to win the African Cup, a tournament of all the champions of the respective leagues in Africa. Then in 1977 he was named the African Footballer of the Year as the continent’s best player. He had gone as far as he could at home.
So Milla took his considerable skills to one of the most prestigious leagues in the world, the French First Division. In France Milla became well known for his aggressive play and ability to create opportunities out of nothing,
Born in Cameroon in 1952; married; children. Played semi-professionally with Eclaire de Douala. Played professionally in France for several teams, including Valenciennes, Montpellier, Saint-Etienne, Bastia, and Monaco; played for Cameroon on the 1982 and 1990 World Cup teams. Player and coach for semiprofessional team St. Pierre de la Reunion in the late 1980s.
Awards: Member of African Cup-winning team Eclaire de Douala, 1975; named African Footballer of the Year, 1977; recognized as oldest player to score a goal in the history of the World Cup, June 14, 1990.
and he turned out to be a great scorer for several teams, including Valenciennes, Montpellier, Saint-Etienne, and particularly Bastia and Monaco. All told, he played on three teams that reached the finals of the championship of France.
During this period Milla was also playing for his country at the international level. In 1982, when he was only 30, Milla was described in the London Times as “by far the most experienced and impressive forward” on the Cameroon team. That year, at the World Cup in Spain, Cameroon first surprised the world by going undefeated in their three games. Unfortunately they also failed to win a game, leaving after the first round with no wins, no losses, and three ties.
But this was still considered a remarkable feat for a nation that has no professional league. Milla assisted on the goal against Italy (the team that went on to win the World Cup that year) that allowed Cameroon to tie them 1-1. He was considered a national hero, finishing out his career in full glory.
In 1986 Cameroon failed to qualify for the World Cup in Mexico. Milla continued to be an outstanding player in the French League, but by 1988 he was back with Cameroon as they prepared to qualify for the 1990 World Cup in Italy. While Milla was on a trip with the team to Saudi Arabia, though, his mother died. According to Paul Gardner of Sports Illustrated, “He quit the team because the country’s soccer federation had failed to take care of his dying mother while he was away with the team in Saudi Arabia.”
Milla’s wife had also become pregnant with another child, and he decided it was time to stop playing and traveling. During this period of retirement, Milla and a friend started an athletic shirt company that was relatively successful. But, despite his age, Milla still felt he had some soccer-playing years left. He went to the tiny Indian Ocean island of Reunion to be a player-coach for a semiprofessional team called St. Pierre de la Reunion.
Milla received very little money or attention in Reunion. Indeed, Barnes referred to the activity as “small time footy.” But for Milla it was a chance to play the game he loved without the extraneous pressures and distractions that are so prevalent in the European leagues and particularly in international competition.
When Cameroon finally qualified for the 1990 World Cup by beating Tunisia, there were few expectations for Milla to come out of retirement and play for his country. In fact, virtually none of the thousands of magazines and programs rolling off printing presses around the world included Milla on the Cameroonian roster. But just prior to the beginning of the tournament, the Soviet coach of the team, Valerie Nepomniachi, announced that Milla, at 38 years old, would indeed be on the team.
There was great speculation about his inclusion. Many have asserted that Cameroon president Paul Biya demanded that Nepomniachi take Milla along to Italy, but the more likely scenario is that Biya made a special request to Milla that he accept an invitation to play. All Milla said on the subject, as quoted in Le Monde, was, “I returned to the national team because I felt the recall of the people.” Whatever the case, there is no doubt that all parties concerned were more than delighted with the outcome. According to Nepomniachi, Milla’s presence alone was enough to lift the team. “He enlivens the game,” said the coach of his star forward. “Every time he comes on he enthuses the players around him.”
In their first game Cameroon achieved one of the greatest upsets in the history of the World Cup by defeating previous champions Argentina 1-0 on a goal by Omam-Biyik. It was Cameroon’s first win in the World Cup, and their fourth game without a loss. As a team they were instant heros, but the stage was still to be set for the “Super Hero” Roger Milla.
Cameroon’s second game was against European power, Romania. Because Milla was 38 years old at the time, the strategy decided on by Nepomniachi was to bring him in as a substitute player. Milla waited on the bench for the first 60 minutes until the sun went down over the hot Italian sky. Then, with only a third of the game left he managed to score twice, leading his countrymen to a 2-0 win, making them the first Sub-Saharan country ever to qualify for the second-round, and becoming the oldest man ever to score in the World Cup.
Against Colombia in the eighth-finals Milla again came off the bench and scored two goals in overtime as Cameroon continued to establish records, this time becoming the first African team to reach the quarter-finals. The strategy of playing him as a sub was working. “All I did was be in good physical condition,” explained Milla to a London Times reporter after the game, “and help the national team. If I had come on earlier I would not have been quite the same. I am happy for myself and my companions. I simply tried to profit from the situation.”
By this time the legend of Roger Milla, like his career, was being reborn. Back in Yaounde, the capital city of Cameroon, people were dancing and celebrating in the streets with huge portraits of their hero held high overhead. Already formal requests were being made to build a statue of “The Old Brigande” in the city square. There were even public celebrations in other African countries, so great was his appeal and accomplishment.
As the first African team in the quarter-finals, Milla and the “Indomitable Lions” of Cameroon would carry the mantle of not only the other African nations, but of all underappreciated teams around the globe. Again Milla would come on as a substitute. “I am a reserve officer,” he was quoted as saying in Le Monde before the game, “a little old man who can still be of service.”
In the match between England and Cameroon—one of the most dramatic games of the tournament—both teams came back from deficits to tie the game until England finally won 3-2 in overtime. Milla, unable to score in the game, still assisted on one of the Cameroon goals to solidify his reputation. “Milla’s performance in Italy,” wrote a Le Monde reporter, “was one of the greatest comebacks in the history of this sport”.
Barnes, in his evaluation of the World Cup, was reluctant to dole out praise, except in the case of Milla and his team. “Cameroon,” he wrote, was “the team of the tournament and Milla was its heart, soul, mascot and cutting edge. [They] provided the world with all the things we look for in sport: excitement, joy … and above all, hope.” But for the hero himself, it was a very simple matter. He explained to Barnes: “I do it for the love of my country and the love of football.”
Football Clubs (Paris), July 1990.
Le Monde, June 16, 1990.
New York Times, June 24, 1990.
Sports lllustrated, July 2,1990.
Times (London), June 16, 1982; June 25, 1990; December 28, 1990.