The header that rocked the world

At Italia 1990, Cameroon pulled off the greatest upsets in football in the history of the World Cup--against Maradona's Argentina.

In 1990, we were one of a handful of Anglophone families in Yaoundé’s Nsam neighborhood.  Situated on the flanks of the Yaoundé-Douala highway, our fenced pink house–like other such new homes popping up in Nsam–must have seemed like symbols of the steady encroachment of Cameroon’s French-speaking capital city into the turf of the Ewondo-speaking indigenes of the neighboring villages.

1990 was the first February 11th, National Youth Day, I spent in boarding school.  Dressed in our white shirts and black pants, we were walking in small groups on the dusty road that linked our manicured campus to the festive grounds when we heard the news of Nelson Mandela’s release.

But I also remember 1990 as very schizophrenic year—even for Cameroon.  It was the year Bamenda’s City Chemist Junction was renamed Liberty Square after six civilians were shot by Cameroon’s security forces during the launch of the Social Democratic Front (SDF), the first post one-party rule opposition party.  It was the year Petit Pays released his third album, ‘Trouver la vie.’

It was also in 1990 at the World Cup in Italy where Cameroon faced reigning World Cup champions Argentina in the opening game of the tournament; a match that remains one of the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history.  

Leading up to the tournament, rumors of discord in the Lion’s den pitting the team’s star goalkeepers, FC Girondins de Bordeaux based Joseph Antoine Bell and RCD Español based Thomas N’kono had kept fans on edge.  

For us, it did not matter that President Paul Biya had made a last minute personal call to Roger Milla pleading with the veteran striker to end his international retirement and join the squad heading to Italy.

Just months earlier, we had watched the Indomitable Lions, defending champions, eliminated from the group stage of the 17the edition of the African Cup of Nations hosted in Algeria. Drawn in Group B with Kenya, Senegal and Zambia, the Lions only win came at the expense of Kenya’s Harambee Stars.

If Milla’s return was meant to calm the nerves of the country’s hardened football heads, it did not. Instead it reinforced the notion in the minds of some fans that the squad’s early elimination in Algeria was a prelude to their faceoff with the Argentinian juggernaut. In the minds of even the most diehard fans, the outcome of the showdown against the Diego Maradona-led squad was a foregone conclusion. One could only hope they didn’t trounce us.  

While I waited for opening game on June 8th, my eleven year old mind lingered to the late-night meetings my father hosted in our house with other founders of the Social Democratic Front a few days before the start of the World Cup, on May 26th, also a day on which security forces in Bamenda killed six civilians attending the launch.

On game day, once my older brother flicked the record button, I found a spot on the rug closest to the TV set. As the anthem played, even as I watched the poise on veteran defender Emmanuel Kunde’s face, the hunger in N’Kono’s eyes, the calm resolve projected by team captain Stephen Tataw, I could not imagine the Lions could draw the game.  

I hadn’t forgotten how Maradona had broken through the Belgian and English defenses in the 1986 Mexico World Cup like he was invisible. And if the occasion called for it, I knew he could always summon the hand of god like he did in his mid-air faceoff with English goalie Peter Shilton.

After the coin toss and ceremonial handshake between captains Maradona and Tataw, I watched the Argentinian striker pull the ball from the center mark with his left foot and let it bounce on his right foot back to his left foot. Then, I watched him juggle it once, lift it to his left shoulder, and let it bounce a four times to the elation of spectators inside Milan’s Giuseppe Meazza stadium.

Within the first minutes of the game, after the Argentines lost possession to the Lions, the latter kept it sufficiently enough to reveal hints of a coherent and confident squad.  About twenty-minutes or so minutes into the game, the Lions had come close once to scoring once; defender Ndip Akem seeing Maradona leading a counter offensive run, ran towards the moving ball, lifted his right foot and planted his studs on Maradona’s chest, earning him the game’s first yellow card.

For fans watching from home, the defender’s kick was at once a warning shot to the star striker and us that this game was bigger than football.  And it was.

After a goalless first half, the lions entered the second half with the swagger of a team that had deciphered its opponent’s codes. Suddenly the Argentines seemed to have lost their invisibility.

Then at the sixty-seventh minute of the game, barely minutes after his older brother Kana Biyik had been sent out with a red card for fouling Claudio Caniggia, striker François Omam-Biyik elevated himself almost five feet up to nod in the ball past Pumpido’s cage, from a Cyrille Makanaky’s flick from Emmanuel Kunde’s set-piece cross.

Before Biyik’s actual goal could register, not to talk of its magnitude, my cousin had already run out of the front door, jumped down ourveranda staircase, opened the gate, and joined the rest of the neighborhood in screaming their lungs away.  

“Buttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttt.”

I was so blinded with joy that as clear as of other events of that day appear, my reaction at that moment remains lost in my vault of forgotten stupors.  However, I remember not being able to sleep because the game’s highlights kept replaying like a movie reel in my mind.

Despite losing defender Benjamin Massing to another red card, the Lions ended the game without conceding a goal thereby denying the Argentines even an honorific draw.  

Nsam, Yaoundé, and the entire country will erupt in joy.  A few days later, the Lions will walk over a solid Romanian team (thanks to Milla’s timely entry), fall to Russia, and then proceed to the second round to face a much favored Colombia.  

Though Milla’s legend as a world class striker will be sealed after the Colombia encounter—after all who can forget the steal he made from goalie José René Higuita —and the dance that followed each goal, it was Omam’s goal against Argentina that sealed Cameroon’s place in the pantheon of great football nations.

1990 was the year the Lions stood on the biggest stage in world football facing a formidable foe with the world’s greatest player in its side and did not flinch.  It was the year when the notion that the lions were indomitable was reinforced. It was also the year the pledge of lifelong devotion was made by some of the team’s fans.

I hesitate to consider what would have happened to the Cameroon football or the country for that matter if Biyik hadn’t propelled himself as high as he did, met that ball in midair, and headed in the goal.

For the rest of the world, while Omam’s header might have seemed like an underdog’s triumph, for us back home, it was more than a game won, it was a gift for a country in mourning of six; it was the precursor for the validation a football loving continent needed.

It was always bigger than the game.

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