How England ‘pulled it out of the fire’ against Milla’s Cameroon at Italia 90

Italia 90’s accepted place in football history is that of a poor tournament where the crosswinds of geopolitics coloured a World Cup with a deeper cultural impact than any other. The final appearances of West Germany and Yugoslavia, a post-Ceausescu Romania throwing off the shackles and the Republic of Ireland’s days of heaven under Jack Charlton represent a small sample of myriad narratives.

When England take on Senegal in Al Khor on Sunday, further memories of 32 years ago will be conjured, for that was the first – and last – time England faced African opposition in a World Cup knockout match. Cameroon in Naples on 1 July 1990 in the quarter-finals ended the Indomitable Lions’ thrilling run as a 3-2 win forged English hopes of going all the way.

No African team has gone further than the quarter-finals and England have not breached the semis since. Naples proved a damn close-run thing for an England managed by Bobby Robson. “At one time I thought we were on the plane home,” he said. “They were the better team when they went ahead but it was a see-sawing saga of a match.”

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Despite being unfamiliar with each other, Cameroon and England shared at least one thing. They had introduced new dance crazes. For Roger Milla’s corner-flag jig, the striker’s hips undulating as his teammates joined him in celebration of his two goals against Colombia in the second round, read Terry Butcher and Chris Waddle leading the England fans through their “let’s all have a disco” routine after David Platt’s late volley had beaten Belgium.

Milla’s moves were notably lithe for someone past his 38th birthday, whereas Butcher’s and Waddle’s hand-jive resembled a pair of inebriated bricklayers, but both were indicators that the austerity of 80s football was at its end. Here was football as fun, the germ of an entertainment franchise the game, particularly the World Cup, would soon become.

“He had never done that before,” said Joseph-Antoine Bell of Milla’s dance. Cameroon’s reserve goalkeeper did not get on the field in Italy but as an established professional with Bordeaux was an influential voice among a group he told this writer in 2014 “was not like a professional team”.

By contrast with Senegal’s squad at the 2022 World Cup, stacked with players of Premier League and high-end European experience, including Chelsea’s Édouard Mendy and Kalidou Koulibaly, Cameroon’s squad had 11 home-based players; pretty much amateur footballers. Five played top-level football abroad, all in France aside from the first-choice goalkeeper, Thomas N’Kono, signed by Espanyol after Cameroon’s appearance in Spain’s 1982 World Cup, where a draw with the eventual winners Italy had signposted future heroics.

Milla was winding down his career with JS Saint-Pierroise in the French overseas department of Réunion but 1990 lent him a new lease of life. “At 38 I couldn’t have imagined I would play like that,” he said. He did not score against England, instead acting as supplier for both Cameroon’s goals.

After Platt’s headed opener, Milla was fouled by a blundering Paul Gascoigne for Emmanuel Kundé to equalise from the penalty spot. Then, by controlling the ball with the sole of his boot and spinning within one movement, Milla found space to play in Eugène Ekéké to put Cameroon 2-1 up.

“One of my great souvenirs is that we led England seven minutes from the end of the game,” he said.

A relaxed character off the field, for all his silky movement Milla played his best football within a permanent fug of annoyance. “He was angry at everything, angry at the opponent and angry about the referee,” said Bell. “We finally discovered that he needed to be like that to deliver.”

The chaos of Cameroon’s progress to the quarters via beating Argentina in the tournament’s bruising opening match, delivering one of the greatest shocks of the World Cup finals, then Milla bagging two while ransacking the Colombia goalkeeper René Higuita’s sweeper-keeper pretensions, had led England to seriously underestimate their opponents.

“A practical bye to the semi-finals” is a diagnosis attributed to Howard Wilkinson, then the Leeds manager, scouting in Italy for the English FA. Watching the game back, it appears Robson took “Sgt Wilko” and such dismissiveness to heart. England only just prevailed in a match that very nearly escaped from them. “Some fucking bye that,” a relieved, exhausted Waddle told Wilkinson in the immediate aftermath.

Gary Lineker goes down in the area to win England a penalty against Cameroon.
Gary Lineker goes down after being put through by Paul Gascoigne, winning England their second penalty. Photograph: Patrick Hertzog/AFP/Getty Images

Still, Robson had also believed England were not alone in carrying out an intelligence mission on the opposition. On the eve of the match, as Gary Lineker readied his usual penalty-taking routine, smashing the ball as hard as possible to the keeper’s left in repeated tried and trusted fashion, he was warned by his manager that Cameroon had a spy operating in the San Paolo stadium.

Instead, Lineker took all of his practice kicks to the keeper’s right, and Robson’s suspicions, unfounded or not, would prove crucial.

“I knew I was going to put it to the keeper’s left and, even as I hit it, I could see him going to his right,” Lineker said of the penalty he slotted past N’Kono to equalise for 2-2 seven minutes from time. “At the end of normal time, Bobby hugged me and said: ‘I told you.’”

Before that equaliser, England had ridden out a firestorm, 83 minutes with Gascoigne and Platt overrun in midfield and the attacking verve and improvisational attacking of Cameroon, “unbelievably smooth in their movements” as the BBC commentator Barry Davies put it, almost irresistible.

In extra time, England’s rocky path to the semis finally arrived, Gascoigne recovering his composure to ping Lineker through to be fouled by Benjamin Massing. From the spot, Lineker again aimed hard to N’Kono’s left to score. “We pulled it out of the fire and I don’t really know how,” Robson said.