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A gentleman and a player

Guest Brian M
Eton Blue at the Chelsea Megastore

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Guest Brian M

The 1990 world cup is apparently regarded as not such a great world cup, by fans of the beautiful game. But for me, the 1990 world cup was the best world cup I've ever seen. I watched EVERY MINUTE of EVER GAME through that world cup. Hardly slept a wink. My girlfirend at the time nearly left me. But it was ALL WORTH IT! England were fantastic. Especially THAT quarter final.

And, England players aside, one of the players who I loved watching, was Roger Milla. A man with magic in his feet and an eye for goal. A man who - if he was playing in England today - would be a big star, and an even bigger crowd favourite.

Here's a nice little article on him that brought it all flooding back...

A gentleman and a player

Brian Oliver

Sunday February 10, 2008

The Observer

It becomes clear after only three or four questions that this is going to be a difficult interview. Roger Milla does not want to be here, sitting poolside in a five-star hotel in Accra, when he could be shopping, or playing tennis, or just relaxing. He has spoken to too many journalists already in the past couple of days and is in no mood to engage.

For weeks, I have been looking forward to meeting the most famous African footballer of them all, the man who might have had a World Cup named after him, so memorably did he leave his mark on Italia 90. Milla, who is still mobbed everywhere he goes on this continent, is in Ghana to lend his support to Cameroon in the Africa Cup of Nations, which they will win if they defeat Egypt in this evening's final, and to work as an ambassador for Puma. The sportswear company, who sponsor Milla, the Indomitable Lions and eight other teams who competed in the Cup of Nations, are using Milla to promote a global 'peace for a day' initiative later this year, in which football plays a leading role.

Milla, who speaks English in a harsh, gruff voice, is grumpy about some travel arrangements later in the day. He punctuates his answers with long pauses, more than 10 seconds, while he distractedly thinks about his career, the future of African football, the next World Cup or whatever else he is asked about. Many of his responses are too short to make a proper sentence. This is hard work.

Then his phone rings. It is the sort of phone you might expect to see in Miami Vice. Sleek, stylish, and gold. He interrupts the interview for a three-minute chat with his mate, Mett, in French. 'Yes, shopping would be good. Go to the supermarket maybe, then the boutique. We had a kids' game last night, that was OK. See you later.'

He returns to his subject - why he does not want to be a coach. 'No no, it's a very dangerous job,' he says. 'Not for me. You can be a top, top player for 10, 20 years, then you become a coach, lose two or three games and you're out. Very, very bad.'

What about today's players - do they earn too much money?

'Oh too much, too much. One player will have maybe four or five sponsors, they have much, much more money than before Bosman [the European Court of Justice ruling was in 1995]. We played because we liked football, we didn't want to do it just for money. We were sportsmen. Now, if you don't give them what they want, they won't play.'

He is about to elaborate when the golden phone rings again. Another conversation about shopping and making arrangements to meet later, to catch up with some old friends. While he talks, I root through the questions I have prepared, mostly based on a résumé of Milla's remarkable 29-year playing career provided by one of Cameroon's top sports journalists. Milla - whose name means 'fast man' in his native Douala language - does not seem to want to talk about his favourite games, favourite memories. It is time to try a different tack when he ends the call.

Did he keep in touch with René Higuita after that goal in 1990?

Suddenly Milla sits upright, becomes animated and talkative. Mention of the madcap Colombia goalkeeper has taken his mind away from the boutique and back to his glory days. That goal in Naples, he says - one of the most famous in World Cup history, when 38-year-old Milla dispossessed Higuita 25 yards out of his penalty area and scored to send Cameroon into a quarter-final against England - was not what it seemed. Spontaneous, opportunistic, exotic, no. It was, he explains, just good tactics, a planned strategy.

'Before we played against Colombia in 1990, I had played with their captain, [Carlos] Valderrama, at Montpellier. When he arrived he didn't know the city and I showed him around, we became friends.

'One day - more than a year before the World Cup - he gave me a video tape of Colombia games, which had TV footage of Higuita and his tricks [the scorpion kick, the dribbling, the excursions from his goal to the halfway line] and I told Valderrama then, "If Cameroon play Colombia in the World Cup, he can't do that. We have fast players, intelligent players."

'When we were drawn against them I noticed Higuita was up to his tricks. I saw a chance to dispossess him and took it. It was good tactics, good planning.'

It also made Higuita look a complete fool. Had they discussed it since? 'I have seen him a few times, in America and Madrid, and we have each other's numbers. He is not angry - we talk like brothers. He told me, "That's football, well played." He is a gentleman.'

Milla also has fond words for Gary Lineker - 'another gentleman' - and Paul Gascoigne from that famous quarter-final against England, which Cameroon lost 3-2. By now he is reminiscing happily and names that match as one of his two favourites from a career that started in the Cameroonian second division in 1967 and ended, after a 13-year stay in the French league, in 1996 in Indonesia. The other game that stood out was Cameroon's 1-1 draw with Morocco - Milla scored in the 89th minute - in the 1986 Cup of Nations in Egypt. His favourite coach? Michel Mézy, a former France international, at Montpellier in the 1980s.

And, by the way, how did he end up in Indonesia?

'It was 1995, I was director of all the national teams in Cameroon and we played a friendly in South Africa. These guys came to the game and they asked me if I would come out of retirement [for the second time] to play in Jakarta for two seasons.

'It was a good contract. There were good players there, from Yugoslavia, Italy, France. I can't remember their names but it was good standard, good crowds, good money. I stayed for the whole two years. I enjoyed it.' He was 44 when he finally stopped playing.

Much of modern football saddens him. The agents, the players' attitudes, the lack of flair, the money. Did he not have his own 'money moment', though, when he failed to appear for Cameroon at Wembley in a 1991 friendly against England? The talk was that he had demanded an appearance bonus from Guinness, the match sponsors, and refused to play when he was not paid.

Milla is happy to talk about the incident. He says Guinness were keen to pay him, but the deal was blocked by his own federation. 'I regret it, but it was the Cameroon Federation at fault,' he says.

Will we ever see anything like that Cameroon team again, when Milla and others earned worldwide fame, and fans, by defeating Argentina in the World Cup's opening game, then becoming the first African side to reach the last eight?

'No team could ever do again what we did in 1990,' he says. 'The element of surprise is not there. Everybody knows everything about all the teams now.'

He also feels there are too many inexperienced players in national teams nowadays, that older players are undervalued. Nevertheless, Milla believes an African team can go farther than ever before - none has been past the quarter-finals - in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

'Organisation is the biggest problem. Planning, preparation - you have to get that right first. But if they can do that, with good coaching, yes.

'Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Nigeria... if they arrive in the quarter-final they must not think, as we did in 1990, "It's great just to be here." They must believe. Then they can do it, they can play in the final.'

Back to 1990 and other names from the past. We talk about the number of European coaches in African football, about the problems of a local coach trying to exert power over millionaire players from the world's richest clubs. Cameroon themselves had been coached by a Russian, Valeri Nepomniachi, in Italy. Did Milla keep in touch with him?

'I have seen him once, years ago, but I can't remember where. But I believe we may be in touch soon. Ask that guy over there.' Milla points to a tall, young man who looks out of place in his shorts, sandals and white socks. He is a Russian sports writer who bears gifts from Nepomniachi back in his homeland - an original Cameroon 1990 shirt, signed by the coach, and a set of Russian dolls.

Milla smiles, poses for a picture. But you can see in his eyes that he knows the Russian wants more than a photograph. Oh no, not another interview.

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