DAN WILLIAMSON looks at the shocking opening day defeat of the world champions by Cameroon, and its impact on African football and the sport as a whole
The majority of the pitch’s surface at Milan’s San Siro was covered by shade, only the odd slither of the dipping sun penetrating the stadium’s iconic structure. The vivid colours of the two kits – Argentina’s sky blue and white versus Cameroon’s green, red, and yellow – juxtaposed sharply during the opening fixture of the 1990 World Cup as the reigning champions began their defence against the African underdogs.
After 67 goalless minutes the 74,000 in attendance, and millions watching on television sets around the world were left astounded. Argentina’s Néstor Lorenzo kicked out at Cyrille Makanaky, the French referee Michel Vautrot becoming increasingly frustrated with the levels of cynicism on display in what was supposed to be the curtain raiser for the world’s showpiece football event.
There appeared to be little danger as a seemingly poor free-kick was hit low into the Argentine box and flicked speculatively high by Makanaky towards teammate François Oman-Biyik, who sprung high to outjump an uninterested marker and head the ball tamely towards the centre of Nery Pumpido’s goal. The goalkeeper, who played a key role in the victorious World Cup campaign of 1986, bizarrely parried the ball into the corner of his net when it seemed easier to catch. “Disaster for Pumpido, and the Guiseppe Meazza stadium is an unbelievable sight!” proclaimed Barry Davies, commentating on the BBC broadcast.
Despite being reduced to 10 men six minutes before the goal, and finishing the match with only nine players following a late red card issued after Benjamin Massing’s outrageous tackle on Claudio Caniggia, the Indomitable Lions held out to win 1-0 and create one of the biggest shocks of World Cup history. In the 1982 World Cup Argentina became the first champion to lose their opening match in 32 years, and they repeated the trick in 1990.
Although they displayed high levels of cynicism during this game – including three cautions and two red cards – Cameroon won hearts-and-minds during the rest of the tournament thanks to their flamboyance, goal celebrations of veteran forward Roger Milla, and a run to the quarter-finals where they were eliminated by England by the odd goal in five after a thrilling 120-minute encounter. Their performance was the best from an African side in the history of the World Cup and changed the perception of the continent from a footballing perspective. Previously seen as somewhat of a joke, Cameroon’s heroics led to the CAF being granted one more qualifying space for the next World Cup, a figure eventually increased to five.
Argentina, painted as the victims of Cameroonian brutality, ironically went on to have the worst disciplinary record of all 24 participants, receiving three red cards and being shown a mammoth 14 per cent of yellow cards during the whole tournament. Argentina regrouped after the Cameroon debacle to reach the final, although they were unable to repeat the heroics of 1986 and lost out to West Germany by 1-0, in a drab game settled by a penalty kick. Argentina reached the final having only scored five goals, progressing twice in the knockout phase courtesy of the lottery of a penalty shootout.
This opening game seemingly set the tone for Italia ’90, fondly remembered in England perhaps for nostalgic reasons rather than for the high quality on show. The low goal output and poor discipline at the San Siro were mirrored throughout the rest of the tournament, with records broken for low goals, negative tactics, and a high level of red and yellow cards. In fact, the tally for expulsions was double that of Mexico in 1986, a tournament which itself had broken records for bad behaviour. It was ironic, given that the Fair Play initiative was launched at this tournament, with a large yellow flag displayed before each game. It appeared that the players on show hadn’t received the memo.
The legacy of this game, and the World Cup as a whole, was that the back pass rule, and three points for a win, were introduced in 1994 in an attempt to create a more positive, free-flowing game of football. It was the beginning of the end of Argentina’s Maradona-era, and Cameroon gave African football credibility on the world stage.