When two worlds collide: Claudio Caniggia and Benjamin Massing at Italia 90

When two worlds collide: Claudio Caniggia and Benjamin Massing at Italia 90

Brutal assault or comic collision? Cynical professionalism or amateurish naivety? To laugh or to cry? Whatever your thoughts, whatever your emotions, the spectacular and unforgettable foul by the rugged Cameroon defender Benjamin Massing on the glamourous and galvanising Argentine speed merchant Claudio Caniggia gave the 1990 World Cup one of its most defining moments on the very first day.

This attempted tackle became the most enduring image of that match, but it was the match itself that was the biggest story of that day. The fact that the reigning world champions, Diego Maradona’s Argentina, were unexpectedly, astonishingly, humbled and beaten by the so-called no-hopers from Cameroon was beyond the imaginable. 

In spite of the improving standards and not insignificant achievements of African national teams over previous World Cup tournaments, the wide-held perception of African football among the established footballing nations was an overwhelmingly dismissive and patronising one. This was despite Algeria beating West Germany and Chile in 1982 only to be prevented from progressing by foul means rather than fair; Morocco winning their group in Mexico 1986, ahead of England and Portugal; and Cameroon themselves going unbeaten in 1982 including a 1-1 draw with the soon-to-be world champions Italy. 

The evidence to the contrary had done little to expunge the collective memory of the highest profile sub-Saharan African presence at the World Cup – the hapless Zaire team of 1974 – even though we now know there was more to that story than it initially had seemed to be the case. As far as both the mainstream media and the prevailing view of the general public were concerned, African teams were simply not credible.

All of that changed in the space of 90 remarkable minutes in the San Siro in Milan. Maradona may have been beyond his lofty peak, his body ravaged by injury as well as some more self-inflicted hindrances, but he still possessed the wherewithal to drag his country all the way to the World Cup final itself. For his Argentina to be beaten by an unheralded team that consisted largely of players assembled from either the domestic league or the lower reaches of French football was as unthinkable as it was unforgettable.

Bedecked in their colourful and instantly recognisable green, red and yellow, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon delighted and danced their way into the depths of a tournament for which they became one of the biggest stories. Roger Milla was up there with Toto Schillaci, Lothar Matthäus and Paul Gascoigne as the individual stars of the tournament. But there was a sting to this romantic tale. 

Cameroon were one-part delight and another part brutal. The world watched agog as the likes of Roger Milla, Francois Omam-Biyik and Thomas N’Kono swept many teams aside on their incredible run to the quarter-finals.  They delighted the neutrals with their style, their panache, and their corner flag celebrations. Amidst the heady haze of their glory, their dark side was at times overlooked and at others celebrated.

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This famous incident towards the end of that astonishing victory over Argentina is the perfect case in point. Had it been the other way around, the Argentines would have been universally condemned for their brutal, unsporting, cynical approach. But it wasn’t the other way around, and the world took delight in seeing the champions knocked from their perch in such a dramatic way. Nobody expected it. Nobody even considered it.  The prospects of nations from that continent were still considered laughable in 1990. They, and their fellow African representatives Egypt, who drew with both the Netherlands and Ireland, were no-hopers as far as much of the world was concerned.

Against that backdrop, what occurred that summer day in Milan was even more seismic at the time than it appears given the benefit of hindsight. Prior to kick-off, the talk was more about how many Argentina would win by than whether the underdogs could pull off a shock win. Maradona, all swagger and bravado, juggled the ball effortlessly from foot to knee to shoulder to head and back again. He was going to enjoy his day – it seemed almost certain.

And yet a header from Omam-Biyik and a slip from goalkeeper Nery Pumpido changed all that. Cameroon were already down to 10 men at the time thanks to the earlier dismissal of the goalscorer’s brother, Kana Biyik. With the clock ticking towards the end of the game, Argentina’s desperation veered increasingly towards their dynamic, pacey forward, Claudio Caniggia. As Argentina’s campaign unravelled and then reformed, he would become the key foil to Maradona’s more fleeting moments of genius. The likeliest source through which Argentina could rescue the game – and their tournament.

Known as El Hijo del Viento (The Son of the Wind), Caniggia had already become known for his rampaging, high-velocity style, tearing through the opposition defences at speed, with a noted ability to change direction on a whim, like the wind swirling around the befuddled defence. 

As a teenager in the small countryside town of Henderson, some 400km inland from Buenos Aires, Caniggia had not only shown glimpses of this prolific pace but had excelled as a sprinter. Regularly participating in the 100m in provincial athletics competitions, he clocked a decidedly impressive personal best of 10.70 seconds. This prowess meant that he had the raw speed to compete at national level in athletics, but the young Caniggia’s passions lay elsewhere, with his pace complementing his considerable football skills. 

This winning combination meant that he earned a place in the prestigious River Plate youth academy where, in 1985, aged 18, he burst into the first team for the Buenos Aires giants. He developed into a key player, with finely honed dribbling skills to complement his explosive pace, and was an important part of the Millonario squad that made history in 1986 by winning a treble of the league, Copa Libertadores and Copa Interamericana. 

His three successful seasons in the white and red of one of Argentina’s biggest teams also led to international recognition for the burgeoning star. He was first capped in the squad for the Olympic Games qualifiers in early 1987, before becoming an established part of the senior national team later that same year.

Such was the impact of his performances for club and country, he soon came to the attention of clubs in what was at the time the pre-eminent league in world football: Serie A. He was offered a prestigious move to Hellas Verona in 1988, before moving on to Atalanta a year later. It was in Bergamo that his career really took off and he began to come to the attention of the wider world. 

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Caniggia was always a stand-out character. The flowing blond locks, the rock star looks and a love of chain smoking and the high life ensured he was never short of attention. That he could also deliver the goods on the pitch, and in such an electrifying way, merely added to the mystique. This winning combination ensured he became something of a cult hero figure at most of the clubs he played at in an itinerant career, but it was for his exploits in the 1990 World Cup that he will be most remembered.

It was a tournament that would see some unforgettable highs and devastating lows for Caniggia. From scoring a fabulously well-taken winner in the second-round clash with near neighbours Brazil, rounding off a magnificent run by the mesmeric Maradona, to scoring the late equaliser in the semi-final against Italy, Caniggia, all pace, skill and hair, was one of the stars of the tournament. And then an innocuous handball during extra-time in that match that was ruled deliberate by the referee saw Caniggia pick up his second yellow card of the tournament, ruling him out of the final that Argentina subsequently reached on penalties.

In contrast to the tears of Gascoigne, when faced with the same personal catastrophe the following night, Caniggia carried on playing to the best of his ability and was scheduled to take the fifth and final penalty in the shoot-out. Italian misses meant that was never required and Caniggia, like Gascoigne just 23-years-old at the time, was left disconsolate in the changing room afterwards while his teammates celebrated. 

He would watch the final from the bench, unable to take part in what he understandably admitted was the biggest disappointment of his career. His omission severely affected the approach Argentina took, having lost their key attacking threat. To this day, Maradona maintains that Argentina would have won that 1990 final against West Germany had Caniggia been able to play. We’ll never know, but their chances would certainly have been far improved had he been involved.

Despite that, he didn’t start the fateful opening match against Cameroon a month earlier. Jorge Burruchaga, the match-winning hero from the 1986 World Cup final, and striker Abel Balbo were preferred by coach Carlos Bilardo instead. By half-time, with Argentina misfiring, though not yet trailing their African opponents at that point, Caniggia got the call to start the second half. His impact was noticeable from the off, bringing a degree of directness to the Argentine play, but it wasn’t until the game was ebbing away from La Albiceleste that he really fired up the jet burners and came to prominence. Having been stopped in his tracks on a couple of occasions already, as the game neared stoppage time, with Argentina desperate to find an equaliser, the moment arrived.

A forward foray from Cameroon had been snuffed out. Caniggia picked up the ball deep inside his own half and hurtled up the right and into Cameroon territory as though having ignited the rockets in his feet. Hurdled might have been a more apt description, as he just about evaded two lunging attempts to bring his galloping run to a halt. The second of those saw him stumble badly, teetering on the brink of collapse, but just about retain his balance to keep going, with his nations best hopes lying with his continuing this pacey burst into a disorganised and out of place defence. There was no question of looking for a free-kick. Time was almost up and he only had eyes for the distant N’Kono and Cameroon’s goal. Caniggia was hopelessly off balance now, though, and while trying to maintain his footing and momentum, he never saw Benjamin Massing coming. 

There was nothing subtle about Benjamin Massing, who sadly died recently aged just 55. Standing six feet tall, all muscle and ungainly aggression, he was one of just 11 of the Cameroon squad in 1990 to ply their trade outside their homeland. Aged 27, he was earning a modest living with US Créteil-Lusitanos, based in a south-eastern suburb of Paris and playing in Ligue 2, having begun his career back home with Diamant Yaoundé.

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Five years earlier, Massing had earned his first call-up to the national squad by then manager Claude Le Roy and his rugged, no-nonsense style meant that he became a regular part of the set-up, as Cameroon built from the failure to reach the 1986 World Cup. Under Le Roy, Massing and Cameroon would win the 1988 Africa Cup of Nations. The bulk of this squad would remain together through the next two-year cycle, with Massing retaining his place through the qualifiers for the 1990 tournament to fulfil what he would later describe as “a dream” to play in the World Cup finals.

It was a close team of players who had developed together for some time. They knew each other well and had become an effective unit under Le Roy’s leadership. But after the successful Nations Cup campaign of 1988, Le Roy left for pastures new in Senegal. His replacement was a bizarre choice.

A couple of years earlier, the president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, had asked the Soviet FA for some coaches to assist with their various youth squads. One of the first to arrive was Valeri Nepomniachi, whose only senior coaching experience was in the Soviet third tier with a team from Turkmenistan. And yet Biya was sufficiently impressed to install Nepomniachi in the national hot seat once Leroy had gone.

He spoke no French or English, with all team talks translated by a man whose regular job was as a driver at the Soviet embassy. Legend has it that the driver added his own tactical thoughts into his translations, or delivered his own message entirely, ignoring the coach’s instructions. Things could have descended quickly into farce, but the togetherness and understanding fostered over the preceding years served the team well through the successful qualifiers for the 1990 World Cup.

Early in 1990, after a two-month training camp, Cameroon travelled to Algeria to defend their continental title.  Naturally, the mood in the camp was one of confidence – or more accurately, over-confidence. With so much going their way, a mood of complacency had seemingly set in; a “superiority complex” as Massing described it.  Where Cameroon had been so focused and unified previously, suddenly things began to unravel. 

Losing their first two group games – to Zambia and Le Roy’s Senegal – meant that Cameroon were eliminated with a game to go. They beat Kenya to salvage some pride, but the damage was done. Just months before what would prove to be Cameroon’s finest footballing moments, they were in turmoil, with their coach only just clinging on to his job amidst media calls for his sacking and a Francophone replacement.

Massing was one of those lucky enough to come through this unorthodox preparation to make it into the final squad. He would win 34 caps for his country in all, but it is the two that he earned in the World Cup that sealed his place in football folklore. His “mission”, as he called it, on that day was to stop not just Maradona, but any Argentina forward threatening their goal, by any means necessary. In a tough tackling team, Massing was the arch enforcer. It was a role and an occasion he relished: “A moment of celebration, a party,” he would call it later. 

Bemused by the sight of Maradona returning to the dressing room while the teams were lining up to come out into the cauldron of the opening match of the World Cup – in order to have his hair restyled – Massing’s nerves were calm as he focused on his destructive mission. As the team overcame a nervy opening period which saw Argentina’s most prolonged positive phase of the match, the underdogs began to settle and set the tone. 

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A booking in the 10th minute for a foul on Maradona did nothing to dilute Massing’s approach as he kept kicking anything and anyone that approached at almost every opportunity. While many of his teammates were impressing with their style and attacking intent, Massing’s performance was a brutal, old-school hatchet job. He was excelling in his own way, doing the job asked of him and keeping Argentina increasingly frustrated.

He would perform in a similar way in his other World Cup performance – after serving a suspension of course – in the quarter-final with England where he bundled uncompromisingly into Gary Lineker for the game’s decisive spot-kick. With Maradona unable to escape the roughing he was receiving, most of his teammates appeared unable to positively influence the game. They too were kicked should they have the temerity to attempt much of an incursion into Cameroon territory. 

None of this is to say that Cameroon solely kicked their way to victory. That would be doing a terrible disservice to what was a terrific all-round display and a thoroughly deserved victory. Cameroon were the better side in terms of skill, attacking creativity as well as defensive nous. Maradona said as much himself in the aftermath, but as much as the silky skills of Roger Milla and others would light up the tournament, there was also a level of steel that would equally define this team. Massing was very the embodiment of that steel. Against this, the one star who was able to have an impact was Caniggia, who had launched several high tempo forays before setting off on that dramatic fateful surge.

Racing across the pitch, Massing was intent on stopping Caniggia, on succeeding where his teammates had failed, on snuffing out any threat to Cameroon’s fragile lead. Careering at speed on a direct collision course, he launched himself feet first, waist-high, into Caniggia’s path. The collision was as gruesome as it was enthralling. As wonderfully described by Pete Davies in his peerless book, All Played Out, “The general intention seemed to be not so much to break Caniigia’s legs, as actually to separate them from the rest of his body.”

The Argentine forward came to a remarkable, juddering, halt. Taken out at waist height, his spectacular, spinning fall owed everything to the speed he was running at and the reckless assault by Massing than to any exaggeration. He was nearly cut in two, in what remains one of the most memorable, eye-watering, brutal challenges ever seen in the World Cup.

To many of those watching, it was both shocking and hilarious. With most of the world willing the Africans on, seeing the most dangerous threat to them clinging on to their lead unceremoniously stopped in his tracks, it was further fuel to their celebratory mood. Argentina didn’t see things that way of course, although their protests to the referee were unnecessary on this occasion as the second yellow card for Massing, and the subsequent red, that Michel Vautrot produced seemed like a minor punishment for what had just happened.

Massing, who had lost a boot in the challenge, still managed to look surprised and disappointed to see red. But his job was done. As he trudged off the pitch to the joyous acclaim of the vast majority of the crowd in Milan, he allowed himself a satisfied smile. Destiny beckoned for Massing and the Indomitable Lions. Thanks to his intervention, Cameroon were no longer threatened on this unforgettable occasion. The game was won, and history awaited.

By Aidan Williams @yad_williams

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