When Roger Milla played his last World Cup tie for Cameroon in their 6-1 defeat by Russia at USA 94, he was 42 years and 39 days, the oldest player to appear in the finals.
Eight years later, the most recognisable name in African football is a roving ambassador, representing his country and his continent around the world. Such trips provide bitter-sweet emotions for Milla. While delighted to see the progress Cameroon and Africa have made in the world game, he is frustrated that the bag of gold awaiting today’s leading players eluded him.
Milla’s tale is a remarkable one. He played for Cameroon on their debut at the World Cup finals in Spain 82 when they returned home undefeated, failing to reach the second stage on goal difference.
He retired from football in 1988 after Cameroon won the African Nations Cup, but two years later came back to help the Indomitable Lions reach the quarter-finals of Italia 90, where they were beaten 3-2 by England. Milla scored four goals in Italy, all his goals coming as a substitute.
The most memorable was against Colombia when goalkeeper Rene
Higuita, who in a previous life may have been a striker, was dispossessed by Milla near the halfway line and could only look back in horror as the supersub scored one of the easiest goals of his illustrious career. His hip-shaking goal celebrations with the corner flag are part of World Cup legend. Think of Milla and this is the first image that springs to mind.
Another retirement and another comeback saw Milla at USA 94, but this time there were no heroics. Milla scored one goal but the sands of time had finally caught up with him. While too many of the players from Milla’s era were exploited by European clubs, the latest generation can achieve millionaire status in England, Italy, France, Germany or Spain. Kanu, Foe, Mboma, Ikpebe and others have played in Europe’s leading leagues, and while Milla knows they are unlikely to achieve his status, he envies their earning potential.
« I didn’t make the money to match my talent, » he said. « When I played there was not the same kind of money in the game there is now. I left Cameroon for Europe in 1977 without an agent. In those days players discussed terms with the club president and as an African, when you had the slightest chance to get into professional football, you accepted whatever peanuts they threw at you.
« If I was 25 years younger I would earn as much if not more than Ronaldo or Zidane as well as winning the world player award. But you can’t blame God for creating you when he deemed necessary. »
It took Milla a long time to reach the top, but players can be fast-tracked to stardom these days, from obscurity to limelight in a hat-trick. « This can be good and bad, » Milla said. « While it is always good to see youngsters come through, the media can also blow a young player’s ability out of all proportion. He scores some goals for his club and the next day the headlines are singing his praise. He lets this go to his head, he won’t train hard, goes out drinking and womanising and doesn’t listen to his coach. »
Cameroon, who play the Republic of Ireland in their opening game on Saturday week, have emerged as Africa’s leading contenders. They have won the last two African Nations Cups plus the 2000 Olympics, each time after a penalty shoot-out. The rise and rise of Cameroon continues.
(c) Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2002.
Source: DAILY TELEGRAPH 21/05/2002 P5