A marching band are trooping across the pitch as the fierce blue Neapolitan sky shines under the roof of the San Paolo’s ring of stands and glistens off the tubas. The band’s military uniforms don’t really look in place. It’s midsummer, it’s the World Cup. The group stage has been and gone.
The weakest eight of 24 teams have packed their bags. It’s really starting now, with Italia 90’s first knockout tie. Cameroon are playing Colombia, and for anyone following the tournament, it’s a thrilling prospect. It might just be for plenty not following the tournament, too.
You would have struggled to go anywhere that summer, after all, without hearing about Cameroon’s giant-killing of Argentina in the opening game or seeing Roger Milla wiggle at a corner flag. Nor could you realistically avoid noticing Colombia’s King of the Frizz, Carlos Valderrama, or eccentric goalkeeper René Higuita.
The two sides deserved much more than to be reduced though to a couple of exotic outfits with some outlandish hair and eye-catching celebrations. Their meeting would be a clash between two distinct, thrilling styles. The ambitious, expansive possession-based play of Colombia against the direct, speedy and athletic approach from Cameroon.
I leap onto the sofa. My mum sighs as my baby sister screams from her cot upstairs. “I need to go up, you can put your cartoons on can’t you?” I walk and press the TV’s silver on button. The cartoons are on another channel because of the football, but duh, the football’s been on every day for the past two weeks. Cameroon are on and I’m watching this.
Roger Milla and co’s exploits had long since become talk of the school playing field. I had spent a whole lunchtime throwing a scrap of bark around with a couple of friends to recreate the key moment of Cameroon’s win over Argentina, François Omam-Biyik header.
I jump onto a friend’s back to try to emulate the striker’s leap, sending him crashing to the ground a few times before I’ve headed the bark away to our satisfaction (balls were off-limits at the infant school outside of PE classes). I then repeatedly leap to the ground flicking off my shoe in acting out Benjamin Massing’s lunge at Claudio Caniggia. Our school shirts must have been blotted with horrendous grass stains as we lumbered back to the classroom, but what did we care? For a precious hour, we had been World Cup stars too.
Both sides made a purposeful start to the last 16 match, with Omam-Biyik sending a header towards goal within the first minute from a whipped free-kick. Colombia then dominated position for a while with their neat passing game, which was curiously mostly conducted in their own half before a series of quick balls forward tried to dissect the Cameroonian defensive lines.
Read | Roger Milla, Cameroon and the Africans that changed naive perceptions
Carlos Estrada had the first major chance in the seventh minute, when Leonel Álvarez played a gorgeous ball behind the defence to put him one-on-one with Thomas N’Kono in the Cameroon goal. He could only roll a hasty finish straight at the outrushing ‘keeper, though. The Indomitable Lions mostly amassed in their own half to neutralise the Colombians’ potent passing. The African side struggled to form cohesive attacks in the early stages, save for a few hopeful punts upfield.
There was something magnificently rhythmic about Colombia’s triangular passing – more akin to a well-drilled club side than an international outfit. That is indeed no coincidence, as six of the 11 who lined up that day played for the Atlético Nacional team that won the Copa Libertadores in 1989 under Pacho Maturana, who moonlighted by leading the national side at the World Cup.
A more direct sequence of passing chicanery led to another chance as Luis Fajardo flashed wide from the edge of the penalty area after 21 minutes. The chance came on the half volley after he had chipped the ball around a defender, having been teed up by Estrada, bamboozling Jules Onana with a step over.
The South American side were now close to their joyous and whimsical best. The kind of play that had earlier led to Freddy Rincón’s brilliant stoppage-time strike against West Germany that sent them into the knockout stages.
As Colombia became more confident they shifted further forward, playing a high line and putting Higuita on sweeper-keeper duty. The first warning of the dangers of this approach came after 30 minutes as Omam-Biyik broke free on the right and cut back to Makanaky, who fired over from inside the area.
As a series of Colombia attacks broke down towards the end of the first half, Cameroon launched further breaks. The African side exhibited their deadly pace as the tie became delicately poised – a position it remained in at half-time despite a Rincón deflected free-kick smashing into the woodwork.
You could see N’Kono was worried by the way he shouts at his defenders. I’m sure they could hear him but they couldn’t see him as they’re making a wall. The Colombia player hits the shot really hard. The ‘keeper must have known he could do that, just like you know at school exactly who can kick hard and who can’t. Luckily for N’Kono, the shot bounces off the post and away. A lot of people in the crowd scream “uuuuh!” and the commentator gets really excited.
That’s good for Cameroon. I’ve never really thought about who I want to win the World Cup. Maybe that’s because we haven’t got to that stage yet, and I don’t really know what winning the World Cup would look or feel like. My parents seem to want England to win. We live in England so that kind of makes sense.
Read | The masterful heroism of Colombia legend Carlos Valderrama
I’ve never seen them, though – all their matches have been on after my bedtime. Gary Lineker scores lots of goals and is a nice man, I know that. My mum says David Platt always smiles. I’m not sure if I want Argentina to win – Diego Maradona is really good but he scored a goal with his hand once upon a time. Everyone knows you just can’t do that.
It’s annoying when you’re playing football and someone picks the ball up for no reason. West Germany are good too, people say, and they might be getting even better when they join with East Germany – even though they didn’t qualify. I don’t know about North or South Germany, I don’t think they qualified!
The first of the two yellow egg timers that come up on the screen now and again to show how much time has passed is full. That means it’s half-time.
The Turning Tide
Those who remember the clash between Cameroon and Colombia only for the legendary moment featuring Milla and Higuita can be forgiven. The haphazardry of Higuita’s famous error was matched only by how quixotic by modern standards this clash of individual stars of the World Cup was.
Thirty-eight-year-old Milla, who was playing his club football on the tropical island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, was deemed so unlikely to feature at the World Cup he was left out of the Panini sticker book of the tournament. Higuita was a young goalkeeper who may have shot to prominence in South America with Nacional but he was well off the radar of European football followers.
One of a multitude of striking things about Higuita is how positive his distribution was in a tournament when negative play from goalkeepers in picking up back-passes forced a change in the game’s basic rules. He needed to get the ball out to his defenders as quickly as possible for Colombia’s attempts to dizzy their opponents with their sharp passing to work. He was equally happy to kick long when a quick attack was possible, or hoist a throw into midfield.
There’s an invisible buzz breaking out across the pitch and around the ground as a guy in a red training top sips from a water bottle as he prepares to come on. The graphics sent out around the world from Italy announce him as Roger Miller. This isn’t the singer of King of the Road, though, it’s the striker who put Cameroon on the road to history with two goals against Romania in their second group stage match. An African side has never been as far as the quarter-finals of the competition, something Cameroon can change with a win today.
As Milla comes on, Cameroon are finding more of a rhythm of their own, putting some of their own passing moves together in the Colombia half and also posing more of a threat on the break. Milla gets his first shot in on Higuita after 65 minutes – and he could have done better after being headed clear of the defence. He sends in another shot drilled from left of the area after 69 minutes. Milla’s directness is already causing a headache as the biggest stage of all drives his 38-year-old legs into a furious pace. He is proving to be the explosive ingredient making the Indomitable Lions start to roar.
Read | René Higuita: the dribbles, the flair, the controversy and the scorpion
Colombia continue to spread and switch the ball about, but it’s now a little less like pinball and more like they are hoisting a heavy object around. They struggle to get through the masses of Cameroonian defenders swarming over them and lack movement up front. Valderrama, an extraordinary ball player, shrugs his shoulders in the 78th minute after being hustled into giving the ball away.
The game fizzes out into a low-risk encounter in the final stages of standard time as Colombia decline to commit enough men forward to complete their passing moves and Cameroon appear content to sit back and hope to pounce on the break.
The tension continues to build in first period of extra time, with only Cameroon going close to a breakthrough thanks to a flashed shot from Emmanuel Maboang from the right of the area after Omam-Biyik floated a ball across the defensive line in the 12th minute. Otherwise, the familiar throbbing drained feeling of extra time prevailed, with the play clunky and the players prone to breaking down.
The two sides are given an inevitable accidental break in play – a precious extra chance to have a breather – as a Colombia player hits the deck and André Kana-Biyik strolls over to the touchline to have his strapped left knee sprayed.
The heavy prospect of penalties is weighing on the players’ shoulders by the time the second period of extra-time starts. Then it gets blasted away. Cameroon stroke the ball back to N’Kono in goal. Milla gets the ball between the lines following a punt downfield and turns it out wide to Omam-Biyik, who picks out Milla again, allowing him to charge at the Colombia defence.
After sprinting past Luis Carlos Perea and evading a desperate lunge from another defender, he deals a deadly blow by firing over the outrushing Higuita within a minute of the restart. The wiggle is on as the Cameroon substitutes mob him at the corner flag. It’s a pristine goal befitting of the occasion. The next one, though, isn’t.
To try to stop Cameroon pouncing on another long ball and keep enough teammates forward to hunt for an equaliser, Higuita goes into full sweeper-keeper mode. He charges off his goal line shortly after the restart and successfully intercepts a deep ball before Milla gets it. Cameroon have no reason to drop this tactic, though, and they ping another ball that strays way past the Colombia defence in the 109th minute.
Higuita comes out calmly to receive it. He knocks it sideways to Perea, who, having not eyed any targets further forward, passes it straight back. A poor first touch with his right boot, after the ball took a couple of bobbles on the dry pitch, left Higuita open to the charge out of nowhere from Milla – a pressing move that would not be out of place at Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Higuita attempts a backheeled twist to retain position but is dispossessed, embarrassed, and Milla knocks the ball away, takes it to the edge of the area and slams into the empty net.
A beautiful strike from Bernardo Redín after completing a double one-two with Valderrama is a consolation for Colombia. The sharp technical move proved another reminder of what they were capable of. In a tournament remembered largely for its stodgy football, it was a shame one of these zesty sides had to exit. Such is the nature of knockout football.
Order | World Cup X
The intense, tactically fascinating game was deserving of its own small place in history, which Cameroon provided by becoming the first Africans to reach a quarter-final.
You could hear the puzzlement in the commentator’s voice as the Colombia goalkeeper runs way out of his goal: ‘What is he thinking? You’re not supposed to do that. Is he bored of standing in goal for so long?’
He kicks the ball away, but a minute or two later he does it again. Then he’s passing it to his defender and getting it back outside his own area. I don’t really know why they’re passing it there instead of closer to the Cameroon area where someone can shoot. Uh oh! He’s been tackled and Roger Milla gets the ball. Now it’s like a real life episode of Bugs Bunny as Higuita runs back after Milla. I’m bouncing on the sofa now as Higuita desperately chases in the Elmer Fudd role, attempts a sliding tackle from behind and falls on his back as Milla scores.
What a match. Cameroon have won again.
A week later, I’m munching breakfast. “Guess what?” my mum asks. “There’s a big match on tonight, England v Cameroon. The quarter-final. It’s on after your bedtime but we’ll tell you who wins as soon as you wake up.”
She looks at me in shock as I say I want Cameroon to win. I climb out of bed the next day as soon as the July morning sun threatens to overwhelm the curtains. “It was very close but England won 3-2,” she says.
Milla was never going to be a topic of discussion at the playground again. The cartoons were back on the normal channels as the afternoon matches dried up at the tail end of the tournament. Eventually, the steamy nights when you could hear Nessun Dorma drift across the open windows in our road finished too.
What stayed were the memories of endeavour, of unscripted drama, the beauty of some things coming together on the pitch exactly as planned and the embarrassment of some things going horrendously wrong.
By Dan Billingham @D_Billingham