It was the opening game of the 1990 World Cup, with holders Argentina, including the mercurial Diego Maradona who had just almost single-handedly taken his Napoli team to the Scudetto, pitched against an African team representing Cameroon populated by players that hardly anyone had heard of drawn largely from the ranks of the lower tiers of French club football and similar less celebrated leagues. It was a chance for a rousing South American performance to set the wheels of the tournament spinning as they hit the ground. What happened however was of far greater significance.
It would be wrong to say that the Africans were underrated by supposed expert pundits ahead of the tournament. Simply put, they weren’t rated at all. A hapless display in the African Cup of Nations was followed by pre-World Cup preparations that saw regular defeats to obscure club sides and a training camp riven by divisions and petty squabbling.
To keep things in balance though, things were hardly all sweetness and light in the Argentine camp; when were they ever of that benign disposition? Contentious selections by manager Carlos Bilardo were disputed by players, with Maradona to the fore in most things, of course. Regardless, whichever team the manager sent out was thought by almost everyone to be easily capable of getting the defence of the World Cup off to a robust start. When things got under way, however, ‘robust’ was certainly the word in vogue, but it related more to the agricultural challenges of the Cameroon players, particularly targeting the South Americans’ skipper.
If, for the rest of the footballing world, Cameroon had been allocated the role of dupes to the genius of Maradona and his team of world champions, someone had forgotten to pass a copy of the script to the Africans.
They were strong, fast and energetic. Too energetic for much of the time, as was illustrated by a caution to Benjamin Massing inside the first ten minutes. He would have a second visit into the referee’s note back at the game’s denouement. They marked tightly and demonstrated an appetite for the game that seemed strangely lacking in the Argentines. It was not just a matter of diligent defending however, when they pressed forward, the Cameroon forwards found space with alarming regularity, stretching the much-vaunted Albiceleste back line almost to breaking point. François Omam-Biyik’s willingness to drive forward with the ball at his feet clearly unsettled the champions and a retreating Argentine backline was often hard-pressed to keep the Africans at bay.
For all that, Argentina were world champions and with Maradona in their side, they were always going to create opportunities, regardless of the opposition. The Napoli superstar pressed and probed encouraging his team-mates to threaten, but in goal for the Africans, the young N’Kono rebuffed all of their thrusts. An early goal may have settled South American nerves and damaged the spirit of the Cameroon players, but as the game progressed and the goal didn’t come, one team fretted and the other grew in confidence and stature.
Burruchaga was called on to save the day as Omam-Biyik threatened, then a fierce shot from the same player nearly squirmed under Argentine ‘keeper Nery Pumpido’s body. The problem for the African’s was that with the tackles flying in and so many of them conceding free-kicks, the referee’s patience would eventually wear out.
Just past the hour mark, it did and Andre Kana-Biyik was dismissed. With Cameroon down to ten men, a goal would surely follow shortly. It did. But it was the Africans who scored. A free-kick was conceded by Lorenzo, and as the ball was flighted in, the same defender, challenged by Makanaky, deflected the ball on towards Omam-Biyik. The forward’s header was downwards and on target, but in nine games out of ten, Pumpido would surely have gathered it. This was the tenth game though and the ball found its way past him and into the net.
Up to that point, Cameroon had been inspired by the fact that they had matched the world champions and the scores were still level. Now, with 25 minutes or so to play, they had a lead and they would protect it with all means at their disposal. Tackles became even fiercer and marking was shirt-close. Maradona was targeted in rotation to keep him as quiet as possible and Argentine pressure turned to frustration as time ticked away.
Then, with just a couple of minutes to play, came an iconic passage of play. Argentine striker Caniggia, thrown on from the bench by Bilardo, ran through a tiring Cameroon midfield. A tackle failed to halt his progress then an attempt to bring him down also foundered. In a tournament infamous for player’s inability or desire to stay on their feet, here was a forward intent on doing so as the sands of time tricked through Argentine fingers. Finally, a scything attack worthy of inclusion in WWE from Benjamin Massing felled the blond-haired striker. It was a ‘brook no argument’ challenge characterised by a ‘they shall not pass’ mentality. Massing took the inevitable red card as the cost of doing business, and a few minutes later it was all over. The remaining nine African players celebrated an improbable victory. “No one thought we could do anything here against Maradona, but we knew what we could do,” the goalscorer, Omam-Biyik, said after the game. But they had indeed done something. African football was now taking its place in the world football map.
Cameroon would go on to entertain and flourish in the tournament. Roger Milla would give hope to Dad Dancers the world over and only a brace of England penalties in the quarter-final would eliminate them. For Argentina, the fates were mixed. In the next game, goalkeeper Pumpido, who many blamed for the goal he conceded against Cameroon, would break a leg and never turn out for Argentina again. Without him, the team would progress scrappily to a final where, in one of the dullest of all such occasions, they would lose out to Germany. For all Milla’s antics and Cameroon’s run to the last eight though, the abiding memory of the team would be the day they achieved the most improbable of triumphs, and beat the world champions with nine men.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘Improbable Triumphs’ series on the ‘These Football Times’ website).