The scuffed veneer of Roger Milla's mystique

Andreas Brehme's hair, Paul Gascoigne's tears and Frank Rijkaard's phlegm never came close to representing the defining image of Italia 90.  Here's Matt Nelson on the only show in town and his subsequent actions.

Here are some things that you may already know about Roger Milla.

At the 1994 World Cup, he became the oldest man to appear in a finals match, as well as being the oldest to score in one, at the age of 42. However, Milla is perhaps best known for performing a flamboyant jig after every goal he scored. Few football fans will be unfamiliar with the sight of Milla darting towards the corner flag, gap-toothed and grinning, ready to perform his signature celebration dance. But here is something that you may not know about Roger Milla: he kept 120 pygmies captive in the basement of Cameroon’s national stadium and forced them to play in a novelty football tournament.

Many of you will, quite rightly, be staring at that last sentence, jaw agape. But before we tackle the issue of Milla and his misdemeanors, let’s pause to consider why he is regarded as a World Cup icon in the first place.

The image of a jubilant Milla, wiggling his hips and shuffling his feet in celebration, has left an indelible mark on football folklore. But his journey to stardom took an unlikely route. After a mediocre career spent shuttling between the first and second divisions in France, Milla went into semi-retirement on the Indian Ocean island of Reunion in 1989. It was only due to the interference of Cameroonian president Paul Biya that Milla was even selected for the 1990 World Cup squad. In a modern context this is akin to David Cameron demanding that Robbie Fowler be recalled to the England squad despite the player’s lack of recent achievements and continuously expanding waistline (and Fabio Capello having little choice but to agree with his inclusion).

Despite being 38 years old and absent from top-flight football for some time, Milla was a revelation at Italia 90. Rangy and inelegant, the striker had the look of an intoxicated giraffe as he roamed the field; but this belied a deadly eye for goal and lethal strikers’ instincts. Milla came off the bench to score four times in the tournament, catapulting Cameroon to the giddy heights of the quarterfinals - the furthest an African team had ever advanced in the competition and is an achievement that, while equaled by Senegal and most recently Ghana, has yet to be surpassed. Milla, aided by his dance moves and iconic gap-toothed grin, quickly became a superstar.

And so the story ends for most football fans. But look closer and the veneer of Milla’s mystique is scuffed (and that’s before we even get to those pygmies). Milla’s recall to the national squad for Italia 90 was fiercely opposed by many squad members: semiretired and playing his football in an obscure league, most thought he had little to offer. And the resentment was not quelled by Milla and Cameroon’s joint success, as squad member Francois Omam- Biyik sullenly remarked, “We played, but Milla won”. Milla’s dearth of modesty probably chaffed with team members too, when asked what his presence meant to Cameroon Milla replied, “No one is indispensable. Without Pelé Brazil won matches, but the presence of Pelé in a team motivates the other players. My presence had the same effect.”

Milla’s theory that his presence alone motivated other players to perform well was put to the test in 1994 when, startlingly, he was again recalled to the Cameroon World Cup squad at the age of 42. Perhaps even more miraculous was that Milla managed to score, albeit in the 6-1 defeat to Russia. Alas, it would seem that Milla’s presence, and promise of arthritic dance moves alone were not enough to galvanize a limp Cameroon side who exited the tournament in the group stages after only harvesting a single point.
Now to those pygmies. In his book 'Football Against the Enemy', Simon Kuper documents that Milla “had invited pygmies to play a few games, to raise money for their health and education, but he imprisoned them there, issued them with guards and seldom fed them.” Apparently, the enforced crash diet the pygmies endured was to aid their performance, a spokesperson for the tournament telling the international news service Reuters that they “play better if they don’t eat too much.” To compound their misery, the hungry pygmies were forced to play in teams with unfortunate height related names (amongst the sides taking to the field were the Bee-stings and the Ants). Unsurprisingly the tournament was a disaster, only 50 fans turned up and the majority of those in attendance came specifically to shout abuse at the pygmies. Undeterred by this blip, Milla, sensing a gap in the novelty football market, proposed a sequel in the form of a charity match between the pygmies and the Bushmen of South Africa (the pygmies declined the offer, while it’s unknown what the Bushmen’s response was).

And so, presumably, the story ends - we now know that the grinning face of world football has a darker side. But there is one more twist in this tale. Look at fifa.com, the federation’s official website, and it will provide you with the following assessment of Milla’s character: “Modest and committed to a fault, this giant of world football devotes whatever spare time he has time to helping others less fortunate than himself”. Clearly, Milla must have turned over a new leaf since his days of kidnapping and comparing himself to Pelé.

Quite.  The former goalscorer is now a travelling ambassador for Cameroon and UNAIDS (the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS); helping to raise awareness among African youngsters about the risks the virus poses. So the man who was previously best known for gyrating his hips is now a fully-fledged humanitarian. And there’s more. The “giant of world football” has started looking out for the little guy too, quite literally. In 2005 Milla set up the Cœur d’Afrique (Heart of Africa) foundation which, says Milla, “comes to the aid of pygmies in the east of Cameroon”.

It’s a fittingly incongruous postscript for a man whose career took so many unexpected turns. But what of the future? Not merely content with being the image of African football’s past, Milla is intent on shaping its subsequent generations. “My next venture is to set up an academy for up-and-coming centre-forwards in my country. I want to unearth and nurture the Samuel Eto'o of tomorrow," Milla said of his forthcoming plans. It would seem a fitting end to say that the next cycle of hip-wiggling goalscorers awaits us; but it’s unlikely that Milla’s career, nor his celebration, will ever be replicated.

If you would like to read more from Matt, please visit his blog 'When Footballers Tweet'.

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