Old age is when you begin to say, I've never felt so young. The words of French writer Jules Renard could have been composed especially for Roger Milla, the Cameroon striker and African football icon, who exploded on to the international scene at the ripe old age of 38. A veteran blessed with enduring bursts of pace and an unerring eye for goal, Milla took Cameroon into uncharted territory for an African team as they reached the quarter-finals of the 1990 FIFA World Cup™ in Italy. Incredibly, he also played four years later in the United States.
His father's job on the railways meant that the young Milla and his family were forever on the move but throughout those itinerant early years, football was a constant. Milla emerged from the barefoot games of his boyhood with a nickname, Pele. His excellent technique and scoring touch were already evident and by the time he was 18, he was playing first-team football at one of Cameroon's leading clubs, Leopard de Douala. After winning the league championship there in 1972, Milla moved on to Tonnerre Club de Yaounde the next year and further success followed.
In 1976 Milla's career on the international stage got off to an auspicious start as he helped Tonnerre capture the CAF African Cup Winners' Cup and collected the African Golden Ball for the continent's best player. He thought his ship had come in 12 months later when French club Valenciennes lured him across the Mediterranean to Europe. Milla struggled to make his mark at Les Athéniens, however, and he fared little better after heading south to AS Monaco, spending half his time on the bench and the other half injured. A spell at Bastia did little to enhance his reputation either, his impromptu trips to Cameroon antagonising the coaching staff. "People judged me on what they heard and read about me in the media," he explained later. "The big clubs didn't have faith in me."
Saint-Etienne, newly relegated to the second division, proved his salvation when they signed the now 32-year-old in 1984. There he rediscovered the path to goal, scoring 22 times in 31 appearances over two fruitful seasons. He flourished even further after moving to Montpellier, a club where he felt at home, and where his dribbling and scoring ability came to the fore. By the time he called time on his professional career in France, in May 1989, he had 152 goals to his name.
Remarkably, Milla's best was yet to come. He had already achieved plenty with Cameroon, making history as part of the team that qualified for the FIFA Word Cup in Spain 1982. It was the Indomitable Lions' first appearance on the world stage and despite a first-round exit they more than held their own, returning home unbeaten. After winning the CAF African Cup of Nations for a second time in 1988, Milla announced his retirement from the international stage and after memorable testimonials in Douala and Yaounde, attended by almost 100,000 spectators, he moved to Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean to live out what he thought would be a peaceful semi-retirement.
Playing in the FIFA World Cup seemed nothing but a distant memory - until, that is, with the Italy 1990 finals looming and with the national squad riven by conflict, the Cameroonian press began bidding for his return. The clamour grew until Milla received a phone call from the President of Cameroon himself, Paul Biya, pleading with him to come out of retirement and answer his country's call. How could he refuse?
So it was that at the age of 38, Roger Milla enjoyed his finest hour as a footballer. He lit up Italy 1990 with his bursts of pace, his jinking runs, his clever passes and, of course, that hip-wiggling Makossa dance around the corner flag with which he celebrated each of his four goals. A late substitute in Cameroon's stunning 1-0 victory over holders Argentina in the tournament's opening game, it was in their second group fixture against Romania that he wrote his name into the FIFA World Cup record books. Coming off the bench after 58 minutes, he became the oldest goalscorer in the tournament's history when breaking clear of the Romanian defence to fire Cameroon in front with 13 minutes remaining. Ten minutes later he struck again.
That victory assured Cameroon a place in the second round where Milla proved the hero again, his two goals in extra time against Colombia sending the Indomitable Lions to the quarter-finals, the furthest an African nation had reached. The first was sublime, the old man carrying the ball past Luis Carlos Perea and Andres Escobar before driving it beyond Higuita with his left foot. The second a gift from the goalkeeper, whose attempt to dribble round Milla ended up with the Cameroonian finishing into an empty net. "He wanted to dribble past me. You don't dribble past Milla," said the hero of the hour.
Even in the subsequent 3-2 quarter-final loss to England, Milla shone, winning the penalty from which Emmanuel Kunde struck their first goal, then putting Eugene Ekeke through for their second. Milla, who had always craved recognition as a footballer, could be proud: not only would he be crowned African Footballer of the Year but the performances of his team, along with Egypt at Italy 1990, led to the announcement that there would be a third African team at future FIFA World Cups.
Four years later, and incredibly Milla was back for USA 94. Although Cameroon were eliminated at the group stage, he still managed to grab a goal against Russia, thereby setting a new record as the oldest scorer at a FIFA World Cup, at the age of 42. It is not his only record; he is also the first African to have played in three finals tournaments.
A man of great generosity and humanity, he now devotes his time to African causes. An itinerant ambassador for Cameroon and UNAIDS, he is tireless in his globe-trotting work, but don't ever ask him how many goals or caps he has. "I don't know. It never interested me. Football was all that mattered." The quote sums up the man.
Did You Know?
Roger Milla now passes on his experience as a player while working as a member of FIFA’s Football Committee and Technical Study Group.
Milla had been semi-retired for seven months, playing on the island of Reunion, when he returned to the Cameroon squad for Italia 90.
When 42-year-old Milla scored at USA 94™, Oleg Salenko set another tournament record in that game with five of Russia's goals in a 6-1 win.
Milla was twice an African Cup of Nations winner with Cameroon (1984 and 1988) and won the French Cup with Monaco (1980) and Bastia (1981).
Milla started all three of Cameroon's games at Spain 82 but did not have a single start at Italia 90 as he came on as a sub five times.