You’d have to be an absolute autocrat to stay in power for four decades – unless, of course, you’re some kinda monarch – and that’s exactly what Cameroon’s Paul Biya, the world’s longest-ruling non-royal leader, is.
Biya, ailing and about to hit his nineties, is the classic ‘democratic dictator’, and the only head of state most Cameroonians have ever known.
His dictatorial powers have largely been exercised for personal gain, opponents say, but Biya could always point to that one time he made an arbitrary decision which elevated Cameroon’s image in international [sporting] circles.
That was in 1990, when the country’s senior national team, the Indomitable Lions, caused quite a stir at the FIFA World Cup, going on a run that started with a stunning defeat of reigning world champions Argentina and ended with a narrow loss to England; the first time an African side had ever advanced as far as the competition’s quarter-finals.
That Cameroon team, under Russian Valery Nepomnyashchy, cared little for aesthetics, instead placing greater emphasis on supreme physicality – borderline brutality at its worst – and fearlessness.
And there were a number of stand-out performers, too, one of those being Thomas N’Kono, whose excellence between the sticks at that World Cup in Italy inspired a young Gianluigi Buffon to make goalkeeping his life’s vocation.
At the other end of the pitch was another – older than N’Kono and surpassed in age by just one player at the entire tournament, way past his prime yet with a great deal of football left in his feet (and a wiggle or two in his waist) – who distinguished himself: Roger Milla… you may have heard of him.
Milla wasn’t supposed to be anywhere around the Cameroon team that summer. He was in the twilight of his club career, having also called time on international football only a few years prior, content with accumulating retirement money in Saint-Pierre, Réunion Island (hometown of Olympique Marseille’s Dmitri Payet).
Milla had, well and truly, had his day.
He was named African Footballer of the Year by France Football in 1976, also a two-time Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) winner and undisputed star of the 1986 and 1988 editions. Milla even had previous World Cup experience, scoring the most goals to power Cameroon to Spain 1982 and featuring at the showpiece itself.
By 1989, though, all those exploits seemed rather distant, with Milla regarded as something of a throwback – an elder statesman, at best – only visible in the rearview mirror. He’d make an improbable return to relevance, however, following an appearance in a game of otherwise little consequence towards the end of that year.
“I no longer had any ambition for my career,” Milla, as quoted by SuperSport, recalls his perspectives at the time.
“But in December before the World Cup, I took part in Théophile Abega’s testimonial match in Douala. There, the fans realised that I was still in good shape.”
Biya, then just seven years into his tenure as president, was present, and, like his watching compatriots, was impressed by what he saw of Milla – so impressed, in fact, that he moved to have the fading icon reinstated in the national team.
Milla soon received a call from Biya to that effect, and the latter also reportedly placed one through to Cameroon head coach Nepomnyashchy. Not that Biya needed much convincing to do so, but it did help that some of his officials spurred him on.
Milla explains: “Three ministers of his government told him that ‘we had to do everything to get Roger Milla into the squad, because he would be the only one to get us out of the trouble we were in’.”
That ‘trouble’ Milla speaks of was the failure of Cameroon to defend its crown as AFCON holders earlier that year; even worse, they won just one of three games, scoring only twice, and didn’t make it to the knockout phase.
Milla, on the latest evidence, appeared to be the answer Cameroon needed upfront. His edge had not blunted with age, though quite a bit of effort was required to get him World Cup-ready.
“I couldn’t believe it, but I went back to work. Within three months, I was back to my best physical level. I could run over everyone.”
Apparently, though, Milla’s claims of a return to peak freshness wasn’t enough to get him a starting berth when the tournament started. He only came off the bench in each of Cameroon’s five games, yet arguably none of his colleagues had a bigger impact on the team’s fortunes.
Milla scored both goals in the 2-1 win over Romania that secured Cameroon’s place as Group B winners. He also got the brace to see off Colombia in the Round of 16, before reprising his super-sub role once more against England at the last-eight stage.
On that occasion in Naples, he won the penalty with which Cameroon levelled a David Platt lead, and shortly afterwards assisted Eugene Ekeke to put the central Africans ahead. Bobby Robson’s England would still snatch victory, courtesy of two Gary Lineker spot-kicks, but Milla had proven his worth beyond all doubt.
No player, bar Salvatore Schillaci and Paul Gascoigne, did more to light up the tournament. You could even argue that Milla’s ‘invention’ of the art of goal-celebration actually makes him the defining player of Italia ’90, his colourful jigs by the corner-flag still emblematic of an otherwise bland tournament.
A little over 30 years later, Milla’s Indian summer has popped up as a reference point for Asamoah Gyan – another acclaimed forward who shares the former’s passion for scoring goals and celebrating them with intricate dance moves.
The Ghanaian veteran has already broken one of Milla’s records at the World Cup, becoming the competition’s top-scoring African in his country’s last game at Brazil 2014. The goal – of limited consolatory value in a 2-1 defeat to Portugal that sealed a first-round exit – was Gyan’s sixth, a tally he is now keen to add to.
Ghana missed the last Mundial but have qualified for the next, and Gyan is relishing the prospect of being in Qatar at the end of the year for a chance to etch his name even deeper into World Cup folklore.
There’s one small problem, though: Gyan is no spring chicken.
“Talent-wise, everything is there already, so I just have to prepare physically,” he told the BBC World Service earlier this week.
“The World Cup is every footballer’s dream. I think I’ve got a bit of energy left in me to prove myself once again.”
Gyan knows, though, that the odds aren’t at all in his favour – but, more importantly, he also knows an example of someone who defied those odds to the wonder of the watching world.
“Anything can happen, you know. It’s happened before, talking about Cameroon in 1994, with Roger Milla coming back from retirement to play in a World Cup.”
You’ve got to applaud Gyan’s belief, really, but you’ve also got to point out the flaws in his attempt to liken his situation to Milla’s – and not just the fact that the World Cup he seeks to cite was actually the 1990 edition (not that at which Milla, a grand old 42 years of age, played four years later but couldn’t light up quite as much).
Gyan does point out that, unlike Milla, he hasn’t yet “announced [his] retirement” from the national team, never mind the fact that he’s spent the last couple of years doing the very stuff – helping out with draws, doing punditry, working on his coaching badges – that one would typically associate with ex-footballers.
He has, in fact, played very little [meaningful] football in that period. Gyan returned to Ghana ahead of the 2020/21 Premier League season and turned out for Accra-based Legon Cities, but was only involved in a limited number of games, delivering next-to-nothing in terms of substantial contributions during that brief stint.
While Biya and fellow Cameroonians had reason to believe Milla’s clock – even if based solely on his performance during the aforementioned game in honour of Abega – still had some more to run, hardly anyone would have had those same sentiments watching Gyan play for Cities.
Sure, he had a presence on the pitch – as Ghana’s all-time leading scorer, it was no great surprise that opponents were almost constantly in awe of him – but Gyan posed very little threat, if any at all, in front of goal. Clearly, he had lost his touch, that streak which once made him such a potent force.
Gyan looked – still looks, especially after missing an entire season of football – badly out of shape, but another factor hard to ignore is the extent to which he has been ravaged by injuries for the best part of the last decade.
All that time spent on the sidelines has obviously taken a toll, in a manner that Milla never really had to suffer in his own ‘old age’.
The latter was still playing very regularly in Réunion – even if football on the French department isn’t of the highest grade – at the time he was summoned back to the national team, and would, in fact, eke out a few more years of club football after his renaissance in 1990, including a remarkably productive spell back in Cameroon with Tonnerre Yaounde.
Milla, really, was a rarity, and Gyan needs to accept that he isn’t anywhere as robust a physical specimen as he once was. Even if the 36-year-old stubbornly believes he could make a timely recovery, he’s still quite a long way off.
“It’s an eight-week programme,” Gyan says of his efforts to stage what would be a dramatic resurgence, “and according to my physical instructor I’m improving faster than he thought.”
It’s actually admirable that Gyan wants to gear up again, gruelling though the process of working his way back to full fitness and top form may be, but you don’t suddenly become a Milla because you’ve put yourself through the mill, do you?
That he seeks to recover in two months what he’s lost in over two years is quite a stretch, and he’s at least sincere enough to admit he’d still have to assess how his battle-worn, injury-ridden, hardly-used-of-late body “reacts to playing competitive football” at the end of that rigorous training regimen.
Realistically – and this would take no little honesty to admit – the farthest his now-viral interview would get him (and, indeed, has gotten him) is in the news, not in the plans of Ghana head coach Otto Addo.
The Black Stars find themselves in a position similar to the circumstances which necessitated Milla’s return to that World Cup-bound Cameroon side, following their AFCON misadventures earlier this year and a deeply concerning struggle for goals.
Desperate as that need may be, however, Gyan – though eager to offer himself as a ready-made, tried-and-tested fix on a stage he has admittedly made his own over the years – is not quite the asset Milla was for Cameroon all those years ago.
Someone’s gotta tell him, right?
Yaw Frimpong – Ink & Kicks