If ever people doubted football’s ability to be a force for good in the world, they could do worse than look at the Cameroon side of World Cup 1990 in Italy. Inspired by their talisman Roger Milla, the Indomitable Lions captivated a global audience with their audacious slayings of Argentina, Romania and Colombia – not to mention their romantic near miss against England in the quarter-finals – and confounded many long-held stereotypes about African football along the way.

Perhaps it was the Scottish nature of their defeat to England that enraptured my six-year-old self; more likely it was the sheer élan with which Roger Milla played his football. Whatever the case, the summer of 1990 was spent running about my back garden in Linlithgow, robbing invisible René Higuitas and rolling my tiny, Coca-Cola-branded Italia 90 football into my dad’s not-so-empty strawberry net before running off to shake my hips at the corner flag (the gate).

At that age, I didn’t see skin colour; stupid adults taught me to see that later. Back then, I saw only skill and felt only vicarious joy from footballers that celebrated with a smile rather than a snarl. I wasn’t the only one: a 12-year-old Italian kid called Gianluigi Buffon was so captivated by Cameroon’s goalkeeper Thomas N’Kono that he decided he didn’t fancy being a midfielder any more and pulled on his first pair of goalie gloves.

But wait: African goalies aren’t as good as their European counterparts, right? And their defences are disorganised, and they can’t concentrate, and they’re a bit naïve, and they sacrifice chickens before matches. By God, they’re athletic, though, aren’t they? Look how high they jump! In the modern day, these prejudices were famously coined as the “Papa Bouba Diop template” by Manchester United’s African scout Tom Vernon: the big, athletic water-carrier whose honest toil allows his more talented (white) team-mates to get on with the clever bits.

Had there been an equivalent term in 1990, it would have been the Mwepu Ilunga template. Ilunga was the Zaire player who, in the 1974 World Cup in West Germany, charged from his side’s defensive wall to hammer away a Brazilian free-kick before an opposition player had had the chance to play the ball. Cue behind-the-hand titters amongst the Western chattering classes for years to come. “Did you see that brute? They really are stupid, aren’t they? Don’t even know the rules!”

Zaire were reigning African champions at the time and clearly couldn’t have won the tournament while being ignorant of the rules of football. The real story behind Ilunga’s clearance was that Joseph Mobutu, Zaire’s despotic leader, had told his players that none of them would be allowed to return home if they suffered a defeat of 4-0 or greater to Brazil. When Ilunga made his intervention, Zaire were 3-0 with five minutes to go and panicking: Ilunga was looking to disrupt and waste time wherever he could.

But it was more convenient for Westerners to laugh at the Africans’ perceived naivety. In 1974, when Scottish six-year-olds were running about their back gardens pretending to be Kenny Dalglish – we had players worthy of imitation then – their parents were inside listening to ITV’s Hugh Johns and Alf Ramsey commentate on Zaire’s first game in the ’74 World Cup, against Scotland. To listen to Ramsay and Johns, the pair of them establishment to the bone, is to go back to a time in Britain when Enoch ‘Rivers of Blood’ Powell was a respectable politician and a young Ron Atkinson was making his way in the game as manager of Cambridge United.

“Zaire seem to have lost what little real organisation they had … They are beginning now to chase and run around after the ball like an excited bunch of kids on a Sunday morning in the park,” said Johns after Scotland had taken a 2-0 lead. The second-half introduction of Joseph Kibongé prompted the cryptic observation: “Well, they do find them, don’t they?”

Zaire’s perceived shortcomings had lingered long in Western memory to the extent that, despite a respectable showing at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, Cameroon still had to deal with all the usual post-colonial stereotypes heading into the World Cup in 1990. “We hate it when European reporters ask us if we eat monkeys and have a witch doctor,” said François Omam-Biyik, Cameroon’s influential midfielder, at the time.

Omam-Biyik’s will to prove the world wrong delivered Cameroon their winning goal in the opening match of Italia 90, against Diego Maradona’s Argentina. Straining every sinew, he beat Nestor Sensini to the ball with a prodigious leap, although the resultant header should have been saved by Nery Pumpido, the Argentina goalkeeper, who could only help the ball pathetically over the line.

Aside from Omam-Biyik’s goal, the match was notable for the cynicism with which Cameroon went about stopping their more illustrious opponents. Cameroon had two men sent off; Benjamin Massing calmly putting his right boot back on after it had been dislodged by Claudio Caniggia’s midriff had all the deliberation of an assassin cleaning his weapon in the aftermath of a hit. Such moments of ugly pleasure, the kind that commentators tut-tut over and fans revel in, would punctuate the 1990 tournament as much as moments of sublime skill.

Omam-Biyik’s leap and Massing’s lunge induced the usual stream of stereotypes from hacks’ fingers: white men still couldn’t jump and African defending was still naïve (as Simon Kuper notes in Soccer Against The Enemy, challenges by non-African teams, such as that by Uruguay’s José Batista’s infamous reducer on Scotland’s Gordon Strachan at the 1986 World Cup are always referred to as cynical, never naive.) A few journalists saw the game differently, though. David Lacey of The Guardian said presciently: “This was no fluke, the better team won … They won, moreover, after finishing with nine men on the field.”

Roger Milla, meanwhile, had played only the last nine minutes of the Argentina game and had had no time to indicate what was to come. With Cameroon struggling against a very good Romania side featuring Gheorghe Hagi, Marius Lăcătuş and Gica Popescu, Thomas N’Kono had kept his side in the game with a string of excellent saves, as a young Gigi Buffon watched agog from his living room.

Milla, who had retired from the professional game three years previously and had most recently played for Saint-Pierroise on the tiny African island of La Réunion, had been included in Cameroon’s squad at the behest of the country’s president Paul Biya and was eventually summoned from the bench in the 58th minute to provide Cameroon with a much-needed outlet. Eighteen minutes later, Italia 90 had truly begun.

Contesting a high, bouncing ball with Ioan Andone, Milla simply smashed through the Romanian central defender, a challenge that would have almost certainly been deemed illegal today. Regaining his composure, Milla slotted the ball past goalkeeper Silviu Lung and ran off joyfully towards the corner flag, where he debuted the hip-wiggling celebration that would come to define the tournament as much as Gazza’s tears, Toto Schillaci’s bulging eyes and Rudi Völler’s phlegm-drenched mullet.

Milla wasn’t finished there. Taking the game by the scruff of the neck, he powered his way into the box and thundered the ball home to make it 2-0 before reprising his dance. Romania’s late counter was missed by this writer and no doubt millions of other children across the world who had already abandoned the television for the back garden, shaking their hips at make-believe corner flags as their bemused parents looked on.

From a group that had seemed insurmountable at the beginning of the tournament, Cameroon had guaranteed qualification after just two games. After a 4-0 battering by the Soviet Union in the dead-rubber final group game, Cameroon prepared themselves for the biggest game in their country’s history, in the round of 16 against Colombia.

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Their opponents, chivvied by Milla’s former Montpellier teammate Carlos Valderrama, had themselves come through a tough group including West Germany and Yugoslavia. The game against Cameroon turned on two decisions: Cameroon’s to bring on Milla in the 54th minute – whether it was coach Valery Nepomniachi or President Biya who made the call is a moot point – and René Higuita’s to stake the hopes of a nation on his inflated sense of ego.

The game followed a weirdly similar course to the Romania game, with Milla coming off the bench around the 60-minute mark to make the difference, though this time we would have to wait until extra-time for him to take centre stage. In the 106th minute, a beautiful piece of work from Omam-Biyik allowed Milla to turn Luis Carlos Perea before leaving Gildardo Gómez for dead, hurdling the Colombian defender’s scything lunge before cajoling a finish past Higuita with his left foot. Three minutes later, Milla took advantage of Higuita’s outside-the-box dithering – he’d heard all about it from Valderrama at Montpellier and was waiting, ready to pounce – to put Cameroon 2-0 up and in dreamland. As in the Romania game, a late counter could not stop the Africans’ advance.

And so to England, Gary Lineker, the quarter-final and all that.

In a World Cup often maligned for its overall lack of good football, England-Cameroon had a kind of iconic, cinematic feel typical of Italia 90, a quality described so well by The Guardian’s Amy Lawrence in her paean to the tournament. It was a feeling enhanced for BBC viewers by Barry Davies’ reliably eloquent commentary.

England were heavy favourites, and justifiably so. Viewers of Italia 90 would have laughed at subsequent talk of the Lampard-Gerrard era being England’s golden generation; England lined up that day with a front five of Paul Gascoigne, David Platt, Chris Waddle, Gary Lineker and John Barnes. The outstanding Glenn Hoddle had been left to kick his heels in Monaco, having been deemed surplus to requirements.

By contrast, Cameroon’s players, with the exception of Espanyol’s N’Kono, came from either their domestic league or the lower reaches of French football, but it was they who carved out the first genuine chance of the game after 12 minutes with one of the great “if only” World Cup moments. Louis-Paul M’Fédé’s gorgeous outside-of-the-boot pass was dummied gloriously by the leaping Makanaky, but Omam-Biyik’s heavy first touch and bludgeoned finish allowed England goalkeeper Peter Shilton to get down to block.

After 25 minutes, England took the lead with a well-worked goal involving Waddle and Terry Butcher and ending with Platt heading home a Stuart Pearce outswinger to cement his place alongside Paul Gascoigne as England’s golden boy of the tournament; 1-0 to England at half-time.

In the BBC studio, the talk, predictably, was of naivety. This time, however, it was England rather than Cameroon who stood accused of recklessness that was leaving gaping holes at the back. With pundit Jimmy Hill urging England to shut up shop and play for the 1-0 that would see them into the semi-final, there surely wasn’t a football fan in the world that didn’t know what the next move would be for Cameroon (or “The Cameroon”, as Hill would have it).

“His side are in need of him now and England will have to watch him very closely indeed,” said commentator Davies as the sides prepared to start the second half. Roger Milla had entered the fray.

Dropping deep to play between the lines, Milla was an instant nuisance to England with his subtle touches and on-a-sixpence turns. On 61 minutes, as England’s lead hung “from a withering thread”, as Davies put it (imagine Guy Mowbray saying that), a delightfully fluid Cameroonian move ended with Milla being upended in the box by Gascoigne, whose instant proclamation of innocence proved unequivocally his guilt. The penalty was flicked home nonchalantly by Emmanuel Kundé. 1-1.

Milla had made his mark, but he and Cameroon weren’t content with just giving England a ruddy good game. After Argentina, they were getting used to shocking the world and they wanted to do it again.

On 65 minutes, just four minutes after Cameroon’s equaliser, there arrived a moment of football utopia that remains carved into the memory of all who witnessed it. Eugène Ekéké, introduced for M’Fédé two minutes earlier, fed Milla 35 yards out and with his back to goal. The 38-year-old seized his moment with the kind of unhurried insouciance that made him seem to be playing a different, easier game to everyone else.

A quick drag-back has him facing the goal, and then the old master knows it’s just a matter of waiting; waiting for Ekéké to ghost unchecked through England’s rear-guard, waiting for Mark Wright to commit, before tickling a perfectly weighted through ball into Ekéké’s path. It was the kind of pass a lesser player would have over-complicated. As Milla’s pass tempts Shilton from his line, time seems to stand still, the only sound in the football universe Davies’ extended “Ekékééééé!” as the Cameroon number 11 dinks the ball over the onrushing Shilton. The mixture of excitement and dread in Davies’ voice is palpable as the ball finally nestles in the top corner: “And Cameroon lead!” Cue bedlam on the pitch and in the stands.

Besides his ability to illuminate proceedings with words, Davies’ TV commentary differed markedly from the patronising haughtiness of Hugh Johns and the definite-articling of Jimmy Hill. Davies acknowledged Cameroon’s different style of football in the same way that an observer might acknowledge the difference between a European player and a South American. “They are unbelievably smooth in their movement,” he purred, voice cracking. England’s players looked statuesque in comparison; a huge upset seemed to be on the cards.

As everyone knows, however, the fairy tale ended soon after, Gary Lineker’s ability to both induce and convert penalties carrying England to the semi-finals after extra time. Milla, ever the wise old owl, later claimed Cameroon’s exit was for the best. “If we’d beaten England, Africa would have exploded. Ex-plo-ded. There would have been deaths. The good Lord knows what he does. Me, I thank Him for stopping us in the quarter-finals.”

As Cameroon embarked on their lap of honour after giving a master class in gallant defeat that even a Scottish football fan like myself, steeped in the subject, has rarely seen bettered, few people talked of eating monkeys or of African naivety. As their kids did the Milla dance in the garden, dewy-eyed parents raised a glass to a Cameroon side that had lit up a World Cup like few other sides before them.

For one young fan watching at home in Douala, though, there had been something quintessentially African about Cameroon’s displays.

“Milla set a whole continent on fire with his goals and his dances,” said Samuel Eto’o, who was nine-years-old at the time of Italia 90. “It’s a fire that still burns today … We Africans love stories in which the impossible becomes true. And we like to make them a little more heroic in the telling than they really were.”

No-one is so naïve – that word again – as to suggest that racism no longer exists in football. Recent events in Russia, Spain and the Balkans prove that beyond doubt. But the story of how one team – and one man in particular – captivated the world and shattered long-held prejudices is one African folk tale that needs no embellishment whatsoever.

By MJ Corrigan. Follow @corriganwriter