Cameroon is hosting the African Cup of Nations until February 6. Roger Milla, legend of the Indomitable Lions, opened the memory box for France 24. He looked back on the highlights of his long career and delivered his vision of African football. Interview.
One hundred and two selections, 36 goals, two African Cups and a World Cup quarter-final… Roger Milla’s record with Cameroon places him in the Hall of Indomitable Lions, alongside Samuel Eto’o, Rigobert Song and others Samuel Mbappe Leppe.
While the CAN in Cameroon is in full swing, the “Old Lion”, as he is sometimes nicknamed, returned for France 24 on his long career. After addressing the controversies surrounding the current African Cup, he also opened the memory box of his rich career. At nearly 70 years old, he has lost none of his dynamism and his passion, which have traumatized a generation of defenders. And has no regrets, not even that of not having played a CAN at home, since Cameroon never organized the competition during his long career as a player.
Roger Milla on the controversies that have enamelled the CAN
“We don’t change our destiny. God had decided that I would win my CAN away. I will not regret. On the contrary, now, we are here to encourage our little brothers, even our sons for some”, smiles Roger Milla, philosopher.
The Indomitable Lions, “spirited players”
Roger Milla played his first match with Cameroon in 1973. A year earlier, a constitutional referendum gave birth to the United Republic of Cameroon, and the country hosted its first CAN. It was at this time that the Cameroonian selection took the nickname “Indomitable Lions” on the initiative of the Minister of Sports at the time.
“I think it represents the character of Cameroon. Since 1972, the players who have played for the Indomitable Lions, the Rigobert Song and others, they are fiery players with the aggressiveness, the niaque… Without wanting to hurt whoever it is”, affirms Roger Milla, who concedes all the same that a small physical attack on the opponent at the start of the match allowed his team to win more than once.
At the time, Cameroon was not yet a continental footballing power. He has yet to win a title, or even play in the World Cup. Lions aren’t scary yet.
“We already had a very good team. Mbappé Léppé, Mbété Isaac and so on … The players were present technically, physically, we were already strong but we lacked this desire to win trophies”, recalls-t -he.
Three finals and two African Cups in four years
The 1980s will change everything for Cameroon. The Indomitable Lions, with Roger Milla in the lead, chained the performances. In 1982, they qualified for the World Cup for the first time. Then they won their first African Cup of Nations in 1984, went to the final of the next edition in 1986, before lifting the trophy a second time in 1988. A click that the “Old Lion” explained by the extraordinary solidarity of the team: “The group was united. We were fed up with losing. We therefore decided to work twice as hard to offer victories to our compatriots”, recalls Roger Milla, who sums up the state of mind at an anecdote. “In many African countries, when the players who played in Europe arrived in their country, they were accommodated in hotels and those ‘from the region’ were accommodated elsewhere. I said: ‘I sleep with you, I work with you and together we will win.’ It marked the coach and all my compatriots.”
From the height of his 69 years, there is no question for the former star of Cameroon to sort through all the successes of his career. “For a player, all victories are beautiful,” he smiles. But, insisting, he concedes all the same that the 1990 World Cup was the competition that marked him the most. Cameroon also left its mark in the history of football that year, when Roger Milla took his team to the quarter-finals. A first for an African team.
“The game against Romania was something extraordinary [lors du deuxième match de groupe du Mondial-1990, le Cameroun bat les Roumains 2 buts à 1 pour se qualifier au tour suivant, NDLR]. We had just beaten Argentina and we had to win this match to qualify. When you see the two great goals I scored, it proves that we had the punch to go as far as possible”, notes Roger Milla.
Mondial-1990: a message from African football
“We did something that African countries were unable to do. Some have experienced disappointments, such as Zaire [désormais la RD Congo, qui avait encaissé 14 buts en trois matches au premier tour du Mondial en 1974, NDLR]. All of Africa was a little tense. We, we said to ourselves that we had to put a team in place, be united and fight on the ground so that we could erase this episode and try to bring Africa as far as possible. I think that was a strong message. He could have been stronger if we hadn’t screwed up against England [en quart de finale, perdu 3-2 après prolongation, NLDR]“, Roger Milla laughs today. His Makossa, the dance step with which he celebrated his goals, became legendary during this World Cup-90.
The victories are not the only memories that marked the “Old Lion”. The defeat in the CAN final against Egypt in Cairo in 1986 is one of them, and he recalls a tense context, with an attack the day before and the political unrest in the country: “I knew the referee well and he asked me several times to avoid scoring a goal and that it was better if it went to the penalty shootout. So we slowed down a bit in the second half. We then lost on penalties Everyone was happy like that! And I remember the Egyptian supporters who did us the honor of accompanying us to the hotel. It was very strong”, says the Cameroonian legend.
Two years later, in 1988, Roger Milla, then 36 years old, announced his (first) retirement, celebrated by three huge jubilees, the last of which organized at the Ahmadou-Ahidjo stadium in Yaoundé, saw 120,000 people attend his farewell football. A match where Roger Milla, surrounded by all his player friends who came to Cameroon for the occasion, had shown that he could still largely hold the road. “The jubilee, for me, was the consecration of all the work done on all the terrains of Africa. My friends wanted to celebrate me and it was a great celebration,” he recalls.
“The African Cup is our World Cup”
But he made a winning comeback in 1990, before doing it again in 1994, with less success but a record for the oldest player to score at the World Cup, before finally hanging up his crampons. First ephemeral honorary president of the Cameroonian Football Federation (Fecafoot, between 2008 and 2012), he became in 2000 itinerant ambassador for Cameroon, appointed by President Paul Biya himself. Always close to the world of football, he continues to look at the younger generations. He also believes that the question of a successor to George Weah, the only Ballon d’Or of African origin to date, has no reason to be: “Eto’o could have won one, Salah would have could have won one, Mané could have won one… Me, I always tell them that the important thing is not to win the Golden Ball. The important thing is his country. Many tend to forget that they have a nation and that this nation needs to win trophies”, notes the former striker.
As for an African victory at the World Cup, he prefers not to get carried away: “It will be difficult for an African country to win a World Cup, but let’s take our African Cup as our World Cup and have fun with it. The World Cup is very difficult, with big countries. Let’s not think that we will always compete with them. During these last thirty years, it could have happened. If we had gone to the semi-finals of the World Cup-90 , we would have lifted the trophy”, begins to dream Roger Milla.