Roger Milla’s star turn at the 1990 Fifa World Cup was a pretty big deal.
It was the first time an African footballer had stood out as an undisputed icon of the global showpiece, giving everyone something to talk about for weeks, months, and even years afterwards; the first African to light up the big stage, to be concise.
There haven’t been many like him since, have there?
That’s partly because not many African teams have left the sort of mark Cameroon made; only two, in fact, have advanced as far at the World Cup as the Indomitable Lions did at that tournament in Italy.
Senegal were the next to reach the quarter-finals, doing so at the 2002 edition. But while that team had some brilliant individuals — the mercurial El Hadji Diouf being the pick of the bunch, arguably — even the brightest of them only functioned as a mere cog in Bruno Metsu’s well-oiled, well-drilled unit.
Eight years would pass before another African team, Ghana, caused a stir at the World Cup.
The Black Stars also progressed to the last four, only to lose out narrowly to Uruguay — as Senegal did to Turkey, and Cameroon to England, years before — and while they were as much a collective as their famous predecessors, Ghana, like Cameroon, had a frontman who shone: Asamoah Gyan.
Gyan — free-scoring and free-dancing, just like Milla — got three of Ghana’s five goals at that event in South Africa; just one more, and he’d have secured for his country the distinction of being the first from Africa to become World Cup semi-finalists.
Missing that decisive penalty against Uruguay, though, made Gyan no less iconic a figure than converting it would have. When Gyan, at Brazil 2014, eventually overtook Milla as the top-scoring African in World Cup history, the latter had nothing on him anymore.
Cameroon, though, have had to wait a while before seeing a player of theirs carry themselves at the World Cup as remarkably as Milla did all those decades ago. The Central Africans have been a fairly regular presence at the Mundial in the aftermath of that landmark achievement, but their presence has barely been felt.
Until Qatar 2022, they’d won just one game from 15 at the World Cup since 1990. They’d been, to put it mildly, rather unspectacular; the team hadn’t caught the eye (except when they, rather infamously, turned up in those retro-fitted sleeveless shirts), and no player — not even the legendary Samuel Eto’o Fils — was able to rise above the cloak of mediocrity.
That miserable record appeared to persist at the latest World Cup, ongoing in the Gulf, after Cameroon suffered a 1-0 loss to Switzerland in their opening group game.
About an hour into their second match, Serbia the opponents, Cameroon seemed destined for another unceremonious first-round exit — enter veteran forward Vincent Aboubakar, subbed on by head coach Rigobert Song in hopes of a revival.
Song’s hopes weren’t unfounded.
Only months earlier, Aboubakar had played a starring role at the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) hosted by Cameroon. His goals got them to the brink of the final, before their hitherto unfettered run was halted by Egypt.
Rested for the third-place match, Aboubakar was sent on-field — by Antonio Conceicao, the trainer at the time — mid-game, with his team in the very place he found them against the Serbians last week: two goals down, and requiring salvation.
And that’s exactly what Aboubakar provided, contributing two goals that helped Cameroon push the game into a penalty shootout from which they emerged with bronze medals.
His introduction at the World Cup in the aforementioned game proved inspired, too, even if there was no silverware on offer on this occasion. Aboubakar scored one goal — an exquisite chip that would, almost certainly, make the tournament’s highlights reel — and laid on another for strike partner Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting to secure what finished as a 3-3 draw.
He wasn’t done yet, though.
Before the World Cup kicked off, there was a lot of talk back home about whether Aboubakar, the Afcon hero, was in any shape to start, especially with Bayern Munich’s Choupo-Moting looking the more in-form — never mind in-shape — striker; how quickly football forgets, eh?
There were hardly any dissenting voices, though, when Aboubakar was picked to lead the line against Brazil, in Cameroon’s final group game, which they had to win to stand any chance of qualifying for the Round of 16.
The Brazil team was tinkered all over by Tite, the manager, with qualification already secured, but they still constituted formidable opposition, such is the depth of the Selecao squad.
Cameroon ultimately prevailed, though, when Aboubakar — who else? — popped up with a brilliant header past Ederson just minutes from the end. And the celebration that immediately followed — Aboubakar peeling off his shirt and holding it up à la Lionel Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo — wasn’t one he could really be faulted for, was it?
Aboubakar’s goal against Serbia didn’t quite get the celebration it deserved, having been initially ruled out for offside before VAR fixed that erroneous call, by which time the adrenaline coursing through his veins had already been drained.
This time, though, there was little doubt about the validity of the goal — against a stronger team, needless to say — and Aboubakar went the whole nine yards, sparing no effort, and not caring for a moment that he was just a booking away from receiving his marching orders.
The referee, Ismail Elfath, handed those out almost as an afterthought — not until he’d had a handshake with Aboubakar, anyway.
In receiving that red card, Aboubakar found himself in exalted company — albeit for reasons that aren’t altogether flattering — as only the first player to score and then be sent off in a World Cup match after Zinedine Zidane in the 2006 final.
But while Zidane walked off in shame that day, Aboubakar marched with pride, knowing with near-certainty that his goal, even if not enough to get his team into the knockout stage, had secured a first World Cup win for an African side against the record champions.
Great as Zidane was, however, the player Aboubakar would be prouder to draw parallels with is one from his own homeland — another striker in his 30s who showed a keen eye for goal, proved himself an impact sub, and came up with a celebration that had the world talking.
You know who.
Enn Y. Frimpong — Ink & Kicks