This was supposed to be a vultures' banquet for world champion Argentina, feasting on the prime rack of Cameroon, but the curtain-raiser to Italia `90 World Cup produced arguably the greatest upset in soccer history with Cameroon absolutely deserving winners. Sun Sentinel - Fort Lauderdale June 10, 1990
Exactly 20 years ago on June 8, 1990 at the Giuseppe Maezza Stadium in Milan, Italy, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, “a humble team with an insignificant past” to quote the Miami Herald, defeated Argentina, the star-studded defending World Champions led by Diego Armando Maradona, in a thrilling Italia ’90 World Cup opening game that came to be known as the “Miracle of Milan.”
Before the game, the international media, football enthusiasts and bookmakers had written off the Indomitable Lions even though eight years earlier they had exited the Espana ’82 World Cup unbeaten, including a memorable 1-1 tie with eventual World Cup winners Italy.
When the game finally kicked off before 73,000 spectators at the Giuseppe Maezza Stadium, the Argentines dominated a visibly nervous Cameroonian team which was still trying to find its bearings. However the tide soon began to turn as the Lions steadily regained their confidence. The game became a tough as nails duel in which “Cameroon used an aggressive, sometimes brutal defense, to thwart Argentine star Diego Maradona and counterattacked brilliantly throughout (St. Paul Pioneer Press (MN) - June 9, 1990). Cameroon’s take-no-prisoners approach earned the team a record 30 bookings, 11 of them against Maradona. By the time the game ended 2 Cameroonian players, Kana Biyik and Benjamin Massing had been sent off.
Cameroon's unforgiving marking of Diego Maradona on display
Cameroon’s breakthrough came in the 66th minute after a foul on Makanaky. Emmanuel Kunde took the resulting free kick which was headed backward by Makanaky to Omam Biyik who then glided up into the air to head the ball past Argentine goalkeeper Pumpido – a goal that reverberated around the world and forever changed the World football order.
Omam Biyik ran to the corner of the field and hurled himself face first onto the turf. The entire Cameroon team rushed to him, but instead of diving into a pile, the players reclined onto Omam Biyik as if he were a favorite Sofa. Even goalie Thomas N'Kono came the length of the field to offer congratulations (Jere Longman, Press news services, June 9, 1990)
William Gildea wrote in the Washington Post the next day that after Omam’s goal, “the Lions didn't simply purr. They charged Argentina. They pressed while playing with only nine men against the 11...”
The Lions ran to the middle of the pitch and jumped in each others' arms and fell to the ground in weary, joyous embrace. One fan lumbered out of the stands and waved the green red and yellow flag of Cameroon until he was escorted away by security. As the crowd flushed out of the stadium, all of a sudden everybody not wearing the pale blue and white of Argentina seemed to be a fan of the victorious African underdogs. (Jere Longman, Press news services, June 9, 1990)
All over the world, particularly in Africa, delirious fans joined the lions to celebrate this historic win. However, it was a very different story in Argentina:
Argentines were plunged into gloom after their world champion team was humiliated 1-0 by Cameroon... Grown men whimpered during television interviews or cried out in anger on the streets..."This was the most humiliating defeat for Argentina in all its world cup history," commentator Antonio Carrizo lamented on State-owned television station ATC. Not only did we lose to Cameroon, they beat us with nine men. (New Straits Times - Jun 10, 1990)
The victory over Argentina was merely the beginning of Cameroon’s Cinderella story which came to an end only after England ousted the Lions in an epic quarterfinal game that is also part of World Cup folklore. Cameroon’s brilliant run in Italia ’90 in general and its historic win over Argentina reverberated around the world and changed the Football World Order forever. One football enthusiast remembers that:
Previous Sub Saharan African qualifications for the World Cup had been viewed as jokes or worse through a racist lens in the western press. In 1974, Zaire’s qualification was met with articles about cannibalism and eating monkeys. In 1982, Cameroon was mocked as being unfit to compete in a World Cup. One English tabloid wrote "this shitty nation go out without being too horribly embarrassed by bigger countries."
However, by the end of Italia 1990, the long-held and universal perception of Africa as a football laughing stock or the inconvenient stepchild of world football was jettisoned forever. In fact, Cameroon’s World Cup run foretold a New World Order in which African players would be sought after by the most prestigious clubs and leagues in the World.
The aftershocks from that memorable Friday afternoon at the Giuseppe Maezza Stadium would be felt years later first with FIFA increasing the number of African teams taking part in the World Cup from two to five, then with the “browning” of European leagues which opened their doors to players from the continent and in the process unearthed African football prodigies such as “King” George Weah of Liberia, Same Eto’o of Cameroon and Didier Drogba of Cote d’Ivoire. It is noteworthy that while Cameroon’s 1990 team had only six professionals playing in minor European leagues, the Indomitable Lions heading off to South Africa have only one amateur in their ranks and a slew of professionals playing in top flight European clubs such as Inter Milan, Ajax Amsterdam, etc.