In 1977, Pelé predicted that an African team would win the World Cup before the year 2000, but this was widely met with scepticism by those who had seen the dismal efforts of African teams until that point. But, when Cameroon lit up an otherwise bleak 1990 World Cup in Italy, the possibility of an African World Cup winner became real, if a little ambitious in its timing.

As 38-year-old striker Roger Milla inspired the Indomitable Lions on their way to an unfortunate quarter-final defeat to England, the world was enchanted by the flamboyant skills on show, as well impressed by the physical power.

Cameroon became everyone’s second team and the fairytale was only ended by two penalties as the English won their last-eight clash 3-2 after extra-time. But the performance of the Africans was the logical conclusion to 15 years of steady progress since the 9-0 humiliation of Zaire at the hands of Yugoslavia in 1974.

When Pelé made his prediction, the world had seen Morocco and Zaire finish bottom of their groups as sole African representatives in the most recent World Cups. Zaire had lost three out of three in 1974, including that 9-0 defeat.

It was not surprising, therefore, that the prospect of a dramatic turnaround in fortunes in the final 25 years of the century seemed unlikely.

But 1978 saw Tunisia record the first victory by an African team at a World Cup – 3-1 over Mexico – and their 0-0 draw with West Germany provided further evidence that the continent was making progress.

If 1978 was a sign, 1982 made it clear that African teams were becoming a force to be reckoned with. The tournament had expanded from 16 to 24 teams, allowing a second representative from the African federation. Again, it was a North African team that made the biggest impression, as Algeria caused a huge upset by beating West Germany 2-1. Austria brought the Algerians back down to earth with a 2-0 win but Algeria were then denied progress to the second stage when, as they were winning 3-2 against Chile, the Germans and Austrians were playing out the infamous carve-up that saw both sides progress courtesy of a 1-0 victory for the Germans. Despite winning two out of three games, Algeria were out.

Meanwhile, Cameroon could point out their own hard luck story as they also had to return home, despite not losing a game. Three games saw three draws as the Indomitable Lions tied with Peru, future semi-finalists Poland and eventual champions Italy. The Italians’ progress came only as a result of having scored one more goal than Cameroon, despite finishing on the same points and goal difference. Things could have been different had Milla’s strike against Peru been awarded, instead of denied by a dubious offside decision.

An even more significant breakthrough came in 1986 as Morocco became the first African nation to qualify for the second round. The Moroccans won a group featuring England, Portugal and Poland, sealing progress with a spectacular 3-1 victory over the Portuguese.

West Germany ended the African side’s hopes in the second round but they were pushed all the way before Lothar Matthäus’ late free-kick sealed a 1-0 win. Algeria couldn’t match their 1982 heroics but they were drawn in a tough group – losing narrowly to Brazil and drawing with Northern Ireland before a 3-0 defeat to Spain sent them home at the first hurdle.

So going into the 1990 World Cup, African teams would be looking at the standard set by Morocco in 1986 and hoping to equal or surpass it. A look at Cameroon’s squad, however, did not really suggest that they would be the team to do it and the first round draw was not kind to them.

The side, managed by Russian Valery Nepomnyashcy, were drawn in a group with defending champions Argentina, 1988 European Championship runners-up the Soviet Union, and a talented Romanian team, featuring Gheorghe Popescu, Gheorghe Hagi and Marius Lăcătuș.

Cameroon were seemingly so short of talent that the country’s president made a personal plea with 38-year-old Milla to come out of international retirement. The talisman had enjoyed a solid if unspectacular playing career, much of it spent in France, where he starred for Saint-Étienne and Montpellier among other teams. But his playing achievements significantly surpassed most of his international team-mates, with only Thomas N’Kono, the Espanyol goalkeeper, having consistently played at a high level. Most other Cameroon players plied their trade in the domestic league or at one of France’s less glamorous sides.

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Up against the world champions in the tournament’s curtain-raiser in the San Siro stadium in Milan, it looked like a mismatch. Diego Maradona captained the Argentines, who could also call on the likes of Néstor Sensini, Oscar Ruggeri, Abel Balbo and Claudio Caniggia.

While the Cameroon fairytale featured much footballing flair, it also had a fair amount of brutality in a World Cup that is less than fondly remembered for the cynicism of the defending in the days before referees started giving more protection to attackers.

In a game full of niggly fouls and occasional flashes of skill, a determined performance from the underdogs kept the game goalless in the first half. The world champions had been given a couple of scares and been on the end of some meaty challenges. N’Dip Akem’s high tackle on Maradona would surely be worthy of a red in the modern game, but he was fortunate to escape with a yellow. Benjamin Massing had received an early booking for a tackle from behind, another challenge that would receive stricter punishment today.

In the 61st minute, it appeared that the game might be up for Cameroon when André Kana-Biyik was shown a straight red for clipping Caniggia from behind. It was certainly worthy of a booking but it seemed an over-reaction from a referee who had run out of patience with the West African side’s persistent fouling.

Incredibly, six minutes later, the 10 men took the lead through the brother of the player who had just been sent off. A free-kick from the left was hooked high into the air by Cyrille Makanaky. François Omam-Biyik kept his eye on the ball and made an incredible jump to head the ball goalwards. It should have been a straightforward save for Nery Pumpido but the Argentine keeper let the ball squirm from his grasp and roll over the line.

Celebrations were wild but the Indomitable Lions still had about 25 minutes to see out with just 10 men. Milla was introduced to the action with 10 minutes remaining and played a key role as he used all his experience to help hold up the ball and let the clock tick down.

There was still time for the Cameroonians to pick up a second red card as Massing’s brutal challenge on Caniggia received the punishment it deserved. But the underdogs held on to complete one of the greatest upsets in the history of the tournament.

Cameroon had won with a combination of flair, dogged determination and some questionable tackling but they were off the mark against the group favourites.

Romania were next up and N’Kono made some fine saves to keep out the Romanians before Cameroon showed an improved performance in the second half. While Milla’s introduction against Argentina had helped protect a lead, his performance against Romania would be decisive.

The veteran came on with just over half an hour remaining and gave his side the lead when he outmuscled a defender to break clear and sidefoot the ball home. At the same time, the world was introduced to his iconic celebration featuring a dance by the corner flag.

If the first goal had been slightly scrappy, the second was a beauty. Milla seized upon a loose ball on the right side of the penalty area, skipped past a challenge and struck a ferocious drive into the roof of the net from a tight angle.

Romania responded almost immediately through Gabi Balint but Cameroon held on to make it two wins from two, sealing their qualification for the second stage. Roger Milla’s name was on everyone’s lips with most of the world wondering how it had taken him to the age of 38 to showcase his considerable talents.

A tired 4-0 defeat to the Soviets followed in the final group game but Argentina’s draw with Romania ensured that Cameroon matched Morocco’s achievement in winning the group.

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The second-round opponent would be a promising Colombia side that featured big-haired playmaker Carlos Valderrama and eccentric goalkeeper René Higuita. The South Americans had drawn 1-1 with eventual champions West Germany in the group stage so they would be a tough opponent.

Ninety goalless minutes followed until Milla wrote another memorable chapter in World Cup history. In the first minute of the second period of extra-time, the striker picked up the ball 25 yards from goal. A smart turn took one defender out of the game and quick feet and a turn of pace took him past a second. Now through on goal but facing a difficult angle on his weaker left foot, Milla opted for placement instead of raw power and struck a firm shot high into the net.

If Milla’s first effort was a wonderful combination of skill and composure, the second was a gift from the famously unpredictable Higuita. The Colombian goalkeeper had advanced about 40 yards from goal and miscontrolled a pass from one of his defenders. Milla pounced and raced through to stroke the ball into an empty net. As against Romania, Cameroon conceded late when Bernardo Redín pulled one back with five minutes remaining but, again, they held on, in the process becoming the first African team to reach a World Cup quarter-final.

It was widely expected that the fairytale would come to an end against England – a side accustomed to reaching this stage of the tournament – as they had in 1986. The form of the English had been patchy in the tournament so far and they had been somewhat fortunate to come through a second-round clash with Belgium, David Platt’s spectacular last-minute volley proving the difference.

But, on paper, this was a strong England side. The likes of Peter Shilton, Terry Butcher and Stuart Pearce brought defensive experience, Paul Gascoigne, Chris Waddle and John Barnes brought considerable flair in midfield, and up front, Gary Lineker was a deadly predator.

Despite the disparate abilities, Cameroon had the better of the opening stages and Shilton had to come to England’s rescue when he came out to smother an Omam-Biyik effort before Platt gave the English a 1-0 lead with a powerful header in the 25th minute.

The goal did not change the course of the game and Cameroon remained the better team until the break. Neponmiachi recognised the need for something special and Milla time came earlier than in previous games, with the striker unleashed for the second half.

It didn’t take long for Milla to have an impact, and just after the hour mark he won his side a penalty when his run into the box was ended by a clumsy challenge from Gascoigne. Emmanuel Kundé struck the ball home confidently past Shilton to bring a potential semi-final into view again.

Eight minutes later, a place in the last four was within reach as Cameroon took a 2-1 lead with a superbly worked goal. Eugène Ekéké, another substitute, picked up the ball just inside the England half and found Milla with a pass. Milla was 30 yards out and had his back to goal but he was given time to turn, advance a couple of paces and prod the ball into the path of Ekéké, who had continued his run and was now clean through on goal. The Cameroon striker showed nerves of steel to dink the ball past the advancing Shilton and put the Indomitable Lions in dreamland.

Shilton then kept England in the game when he saved Omam-Biyik’s backheel with his leg, after Bobby Robson’s side were opened up once again. It proved to be a decisive moment as England were to draw level with seven minutes remaining. As Lineker turned in the box, he was felled by a high challenge and the striker picked himself up and slotted home the penalty.

Having fought so hard to turn the game around and having been so close to victory, it was a real kick in the teeth for the Africans. But they wouldn’t give up and Omam-Biyik again brought a save from Shilton before the 90 minutes were up.

Cameroon continued to take the game to the English in extra-time but England found the decisive strike when Gascoigne released Lineker and the striker was adjudged to have been brought down by N’Kono. Replays suggested that Lineker was on his way down before the keeper got to him, but it was a rash challenge.

While England let out huge sighs of relief, the rest of the football world mourned the passing of their new favourite team in such cruel circumstances. This had been Cameroon’s best performance of the tournament and they outplayed England for long periods, succumbing only to two penalties.

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Italia 90

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Observers everywhere marvelled at the talents of the Cameroon players and wondered how so many had gone through their careers unnoticed. Miller was well known throughout Africa and in France but this was his introduction to the wider world. Omam-Biyik’s talents were also noted and he continued to flourish in the French top tier, with moves to Rennes, Cannes and Lens.

France had been importing players from its former colonies in Africa for years but the rest of Europe was spurred into action after seeing the talents on display in Italy. Having come within a whisker of a semi-final with a semi-retired 38-year-old as the star man, Africa was suddenly seen as the future of football.

But, while many world-class talents have since emerged from the continent, a World Cup winner seems as far away as it was back in 1990. Cameroon failed to build on this success and performed miserably in 1994. They started with a promising 2-2 draw with Sweden but then lost 3-0 to Brazil and capitulated in a 6-1 defeat to Russia.

Incredibly, the then-42-year-old Milla was present in the USA and scored the consolation goal against the Russians to become the oldest World Cup scorer of all time.

Africa’s top team was now Nigeria and they came within two minutes of a quarter-final before Roberto Baggio turned things around and gave Italy a 2-1 win after extra-time.

African hopes again lay with the Nigerians in 1998, fresh from an Olympic gold medal in 1996. They duly progressed to the second round after winning their group, as they had done in 1994. Celestine Babayaro, Taribo West, Finidi George, Jay-Jay Okocha and Sunday Oliseh were in the side that defeated Spain 3-2 and the country’s golden generation looked good for a place in the last eight when they faced Denmark in the second round.

But a nightmare performance saw the Danes win 4-1 and Nigeria failed to reach the second stage of a World Cup again until 2014, where their hopes were ended by France.

Senegal became only the second African side to reach a World Cup quarter-final. In 2002, the Senegalese beat holders France and drew with Uruguay and Denmark to make it to the second round. A strong Sweden side was defeated 2-1 after extra-time before Senegal fell to Turkey in extra-time in the quarter-final.

Ghana performed impressively in reaching the second round in 2006, beating the USA and the Czech Republic before running into Brazil. This side was arguably better than the Black Stars that came so close to the semi-final breakthrough in 2010. Ghana had a penalty to beat Uruguay in the last minutes of their quarter-final, but Asamoah Gyan, whose goals had taken Ghana this far, missed the spot-kick and the Uruguayans went on to win in a shootout.

The Ivory Coast had an exceptionally talented squad in 2006 and 2010 but unkind draws saw them fall at the first hurdle on both occasions. The combined talents of Didier Drogba, Yaya and Kolo Touré and Didier Zokora were not enough to see them past Argentina and Holland in 2006 and it was a similar story in 2010 when Brazil and Portugal proved too strong.

Nigeria were the only one of four African representatives to reach the second round in 2014 and it remains unclear where the continent’s next challengers will come from.

Africa continues to produce some of the world’s best footballers but their countries continue to fail to live up to their potential as a team. With the region still some way behind most of the world in terms of economic development, mismanagement and corruption remain hugely problematic and explain why rows over bonuses seem to be frequent among national sides in Africa.

Cameroon’s 1990 adventure, when they took the world by surprise, seems to belong to a more innocent time. If that represented Africa’s coming out party in football, we are still waiting for the continent to provide a team that can rule the world as Pelé predicted they would.

By Paul Murphy. Follow @PaulmurphyBKK