History was made for African football 25 years ago at the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™ when Cameroon, under inexperienced Russian coach Valery Nepomnyashchy, became the first team from the continent to reach the quarter-finals of the game’s flagship event. The Indomitable Lions shocked the watching world in the Opening Game with a sensational 1-0 win over reigning champions Argentina and followed that up with a run to the quarter-finals, where only Gary Lineker's prowess from the penalty spot allowed England to triumph 3-2.
The 72-year-old is still active in the game, currently coaching Siberian outfit FC Tom Tomsk as he spearheads their quest to return to the Russian Premier League. Nevertheless, Nepomnyashchy still remembers Italy 1990 as if it were yesterday. He recently sat down for an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, and reflected simply: “I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time. I found myself in a team with top-class players and all I had to do was fulfil their potential.”
FIFA.com: How much did you have to adapt when you first went to Cameroon?
Valery Nepomnyashchy: Honestly, I was shocked by the Cameroonian mentality at the start. I had a strict Soviet upbringing and I just couldn't imagine so many disorganised people. They would tell me all the time that any issue would be addressed “tomorrow”. When tomorrow? At what time? I was completely unaccustomed to the fact that there were never any fixed plans.
You couldn't speak French, so who translated for you?
My translator was a young man called Galius, but the problem was that he had never actually studied Russian. When he was younger he trained with the Russian boxer Stanislav Stepashkin and picked up a few words as a result. His Russian was no better than my French! Also, he was a really passionate fan and during games when I needed to pass on instructions to the players, I had to literally kick Galius into action. He was so absorbed in the match, sitting down with his eyes wide open. I'd shout ‘Galius’ at him, but he wouldn't hear me.
Roger Milla scored four goals at Italy 1990, but was only drafted into the squad at the very last moment. What was your role in bringing him back into the national team at the age of 38?
My role was minimal. After Cameroon's poor performance at the African Cup of Nations in March 1990, the papers kept banging on about how good it would be to bring Roger Milla back into the side and change the coach. I was then informed at the training camp in Yugoslavia before the World Cup that the President had appealed on behalf of his country to see if Milla could play in Italy. I said I didn't think there would be any problem with that, so he flew in and we had a training game the next day. He came on for the reserve team with 20 minutes to go and with his first touch he controlled the ball, beat two defenders and found the back of the net. I called him over and said that he didn't need to carry on playing because he'd already showed me everything he needed to. But Roger played the rest of the game anyway.
Any credit I deserve was purely for working out a plan with Roger on how we'd get him ready for the competition and how we'd use him. I told him that he couldn't play the first half against fresh defenders because he'd be flat out after 15-20 minutes. He said to me in response: ‘Sure, coach, I'll do whatever you say.’
The match against Argentina has gone down as one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history. When did you realise that you had the beating of the world champions and their star man Diego Maradona?
We got our hands on some footage of the last 15 minutes of Argentina's pre-match training session. The players noticed how Maradona and the other stars were taking it easy. The Cameroon players took this to mean that Argentina didn't fully respect them, so we decided to play as physically as possible.
The game really did turn into a battle with two of your players getting sent off. Was that your influence?
It was. I explained to the players that Argentina were aiming on reaching the final and were preparing themselves to play seven matches, so they were going to keep a bit back in the first game. When we saw the sense of alarm in their eyes, we knew we could win. Even when we went down to nine men, we didn't panic.
The 2-1 Round of 16 match win over Colombia is remembered most of all for Roger Milla's goal, when he seized on Rene Higuita's error as he rushed from his area. Had you prepared for the possibility that the Colombian goalkeeper might do something like that?
You might not believe me but Roger said to me before the game, ‘I’m going to punish this guy.' He knew how Higuita played and waited for his opportunity. This is yet more proof of Roger's genius. Personally, I'd put him up there with the greatest footballers in history.
You were so close to beating England in the quarter-finals. What were Cameroon missing in that game?
The disappointment from that match will stay with me for the rest of my life - it's like a dagger in my heart. I believe it was my professional slip-up because I wasn't able to get through to the players that we needed to re-group and stop racing forward when the score was 2-1. Cameroonians love to attack, but they're not too fond of defending. Neither of our central defenders were that quick and Lineker exploited this twice. We should have controlled our impulses and played tighter.
Senegal repeated Cameroon's achievement in 2002, followed by Ghana in 2010, but no African team have managed to go one better yet and reach the last four. Why do you think that is?
There's no question that African players are talented. I don't want to boast, but there were 11 professional players in my team and only one who played in the highest division of a European league. All the rest were amateurs. Since then, the level of African players has improved enormously and nowadays they're playing everywhere. Yet there is still something that is missing.
Was Cameroon's performance in Italy a miracle?
No. The potential of African teams is greater than the results they've produced so far.