Roger Milla: The lion, the magician, and the magic play

Before Cameroon’s first match in Qatar, FIFA President Gianni Infantino honored Roger Milla as the oldest player to score a World Cup final goal. And Roger has received numerous individual awards in his time and even became a prestigious Knight of the Legion of Honor. Finally, however, FIFA touched him – it’s not every day that the organization honors people who have made a difference in the most popular game on the planet. However, with the presentation of this award, we want to recall the brilliant career of one of the most famous athletes of the Black Continent.

Soccer as entertainment

Roger was born May 20, 1952, in a family of a railroader. His hometown was Yaoundé, the capital of French Cameroon. Eight years later, Cameroon became an independent country, and another year later, our hero’s parents moved to Douala, the largest city in the country and its economic capital.

Someone said that football is the sport of the poor who want to become rich. However, in the case of Roger, this was not the case – his family was middle class and could give him a good education. Moreover: when his parents noticed their son raced the ball after school and came back too late, they were unhappy – the child had to go home on time and help around the house. Especially since, in those days, Cameroon did not yet have excellent children’s soccer academies, well-maintained fields, and licensed coaches, so children had to play barefoot on a dusty court.

Milla did not think about a professional career: many years later, he said he played soccer with friends for fun and polished his technique during school vacations. However, at 13, he became a soccer player for Eclair de Douala’s junior team and participated extensively in school tournaments. The parents also agreed – seeing their son’s successes, they allowed him to play soccer.

First clubs, first victories

At 15, Milla made his debut for the club’s adult team in the second division of the Cameroonian championship. Even then, he began to score regularly. Interestingly, the young Roger managed to find time for athletics – at 17, he won the tournament in the high jump at a school in Cameroon. This victory added to the teenager’s self-confidence, and he decided to become a professional athlete.

In 1970 18-year-old forward Roger Milla signed a contract with the top division club Leopard Duala. He won the Cameroonian championship three times with this team and scored 89 goals in 116 games. Four years later, he moved to Tonnere from Yaoundé, won the African Cup Winners’ Cup, and scored 69 goals in 87 games. In 1976, he was named the best player in Africa. After these exploits, the French Valenciennes – an outsider of Division 1 (Ligue 1, which we know was established only in 2002) paid attention to him, and in 1977 Milla got a chance to prove himself in a robust European championship.

French adventures

At Valenciennes, Milla could feel like the genie in the Aladdin tale – the possibilities were endless. Still, they were disappointed by the small and uncomfortable accommodation the club gave him. He had to get used to the new partners, the coach’s requirements, the climate, and take care of his life. Finally, however, in the 1978/79 season, he played 29 games, scored 7 goals, and helped Valenciennes not to fly out of Division 1.

After that, Monaco noticed Roger. The team was among the five strongest in France at the time and regularly played in European competitions. With Monaco, Milla won his first trophy – in 1980, his team won the French Cup. In the decisive match with Orleans, the hero of Africa came on as a substitute at 55 minutes when the score was 2:1, and 10 minutes later, the legend of the club Delio Onnis scored the decisive goal.

That season Roger scored 5 goals in 25 league and cup games. He could have been on the field more often but received several serious injuries that season. As a result, the club’s management team decided to release the player, and Milla went to Bastia on the island of Corsica, which finished 16th out of 20 in the 1979/80 championship.

Roger came to Bastia as a mature master – perfectly reading the game, plastic, kicking with two feet, good speed and technique. He quickly became a player in the main squad, and in 1981 helped the team win the French Cup. In the final game, Bastia beat Saint-Étienne with a score of 2:1, and Milla scored the winning goal, elegantly defeating the goalkeeper and defender and rolling the ball into the empty net.

For a recap of the Bastia – Saint-Étienne match, click here:

With Bastia Roger played in European competitions for the only time in his career. And if in the Round of 32 of the Cup Winners’ Cup the Corsicans had no problems with the Finnish KTP (0:0 away and 5:0 at home), in the next round they had to play against Dinamo Tbilisi, the current holder of the trophy. At that time, the best generation of Georgian players in the club played for Dinamo, so Bastia had no chance (1:1 at home and 1:3 in Tbilisi). So Milla could console himself by doing everything possible to win, scoring 3 goals in 4 games, including 2 goals against Dinamo.

A review of the match Dsnamo – Bastia is available here:

The Old Lion spent four seasons in Corsica, played 133 games, and scored 42 goals. His stats looked very good, but in 1984 the forward turned 32 and was considered a veteran who was about to hang up his boots. So had Roger known at the time that he had 12 more years to play and the highlights of his career were yet to come.

Milla’s next club was Saint-Étienne – one of the strongest teams in France, a finalist of the Champions Cup in 1976, and 10-time champion of the country. In 1982, the club was accused of creating a “black box” for bribery, and the president of Saint-Étienne, Roger Roche, went to prison. The club had to sell its strongest players and return to the second division, and it took two seasons to return to the elite of French soccer. Again, one of the success creators was Roger Milla: in two years, he played for 69 games for the Greens, scoring 36 goals.

As the Old Wizard already knew how to pull a team out of a predicament, he received an invitation to play at Montpellier, where he was paired with the young Laurent Blanc and became an absolute nightmare for defenders. In his first season, Milla secured the result: his 18 goals in 33 regular season games allowed the Paladins to return to Division 1. Roger stayed with the team for two more years, scoring relentlessly before leaving with 103 games and 41 goals.

National team career

Roger joined the national team in the early 1970s. In 1982 he was part of the national team which played at its first World Cup, making an excellent impression in three group stage matches. The Indomitable Lions didn’t lose once (but did not win a game) and got a productive draw with Italy – the future champion. Then the team failed to make the playoffs: Cameroon missed out on the goal difference ahead of the Squadra Azzurra and finished the tournament.

Subsequently, Milla twice won with Cameroon the African Cup of Nations – in 1984 and 1988. After that, he ended his career in the national team, played a farewell match, packed his bags, and left to play in the club St-Pierroise, on the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. You probably need Google Maps to find this paradise.

Unforgettable 1990s

Thousands of articles and films are available about the brilliant Roger Milla and the whole Cameroonian team’s performance at the World Cups in Italy and the United States. So we will tell only about the facts that you may not know.

1. Milla was not going to go to the World Cup. However, everything changed after a call from the President of Cameroon – Paul Biya, who personally asked the Old Lion to help the national team. Naturally, Milla could not refuse the president. This call could be called the most successful intervention of the authorities in staffing the soccer team.

2. After the first training session, Roger came up to the national team’s head coach Valery Nepomnyashchiy and said that he was leaving: “Coach, you want to kill me” (the 38-year-old player had to pass the standards for shuttle run). The coach responded that it was a test. He could see the player’s physical condition and would let him get into the game gradually. But then, when the coach said that Milla would not be in the lineup, he changed his mind and said: “Coach, it’s your decision. I’ll do it”. And he did it!

3. Roger was not sure if he was physically ready for the World Cup games. But the forward was used to succeeding at the expense of his intelligence and knew that if he got himself in shape, he would surely get his chance.

4. At that 1990 World Cup, Milla scored four goals, gave one assist, and earned a penalty kick. It was enough to make him the title of Best African Footballer in 1990.

5. The Old Lion never played a full match in the 1990 World Cup – the coach of the Cameroon team, Valery Nepomnyashchy, took care of his leader and released him only as a substitute. In four out of five games, Milla appeared on the field in the second half and only once in the first one.

6. Cameroon became the first African team to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup and get into the eight strongest national teams on the planet.

7. After the Italian triumph, the quota for participation in the World Cup finals increased to 3 teams.

8. Roger’s victory dance near the corner flag forever changed the celebration of scoring goals in world football – until 1990, the most creative festival was considered a somersault performed by Hugo Sanchez, a Real Madrid and Mexican national team player. Note that the Old Wizard did not rehearse his dance, as he was not sure if he would enter the field.

9. The legendary forward scored his last World Cup goal in 1994. At that time, he was 42 years old.

10. Only one African footballer managed to surpass Roger Mill’s achievement in the number of goals scored in the final parts of the World Cups. That man was Ghanaian forward Asamoah Gyan.

What happened next

After the World Cup in Italy, Roger played for Yaounde-based Tonnerre for four more seasons. Then he spent two more years (we’re not exaggerating) in Indonesia – the goals he scored in the local championship surpassed the number of matches played! Then, in 1996, the Old Lion decide to retire. At that time, the great athlete was 44 years old.

After the end of his career, Milla could have lived the life of a folk hero and everyone’s favorite. Still, he was not idle – he coached French and Cameroonian clubs, worked to protect the environment, and even opened two companies for recycling plastic into paving slabs. But whatever this smiling 70-year-old gentleman did, he will always be a superhero for Cameroon and Africa.

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