Life is filled with memorable summers and among my first was that of 1990. I was nine at the time and for the past year or so a Liverpool supporter. But that was as far as my love of football went – they were the only team I cared about, the only team I wanted to watch, and games that did not involve men in red shirts with Candy across the middle didn’t interest me much. That, however, was about to change.
On Friday 8 June 1990 to be precise, and having sat down in front of the living-room television to watch Argentina versus Cameroon in the opening fixture of that year’s World Cup. Diego Maradona was key to my decision to do so. I had heard of him, how he was the best player of his generation and probably of all time, and here he was – on show at the start of a global tournament taking place across an entire month. I was intrigued by what lay ahead and there was to be no disappointment, thanks in large part not to Maradona but rather to the team with lions on their chests and stardust in their boots.
Cameroon’s World Cup campaign was magnificent and no more so than on day one when in beating Argentina 1-0 at San Siro they pulled off arguably the greatest upset in World Cup history and one that put African football on the map. Before then teams from the continent had been dismissed and derided, with Zaire’s farcical display at the 1974 tournament, particularly at free-kicks, doing much to shape opinions. Cameroon were not expected to change that, given they arrived in Italy as a squad largely made up of journeymen from France’s lower divisions who were in poor form and riven by division. There was no doubt – they were going to be blown away, and especially so by the reigning champions. But on a warm Milan evening, Cameroon torched the odds.
It was not a great game but it was a memorable one because of two moments: François Omam-Biyik’s goal on 67 minutes – a towering but weak header that somehow squirmed through the grasp of Nery Pumpido; and then, two minutes from time, Benjamin Massing’s foul on Claudio Caniggia.
Caniggia had evaded two Cameroon tackles as he went on a counterattacking surge but stood no chance of evading Massing’s intervention, given it was less a tackle and more an assault, waist-high and so strong that it sent Massing’s right boot flying in the air. The referee, Michel Vautrot, had no option but to dismiss Massing, having already sent off his teammate André Kana-Biyik for a far less heinous offence.
Massing’s foul on Caniggia is one of those things that lives with you and ever since it’s what has come to mind whenever I’ve thought about wildly brutal attacks. Roy Keane on Alf-Inge Haaland – Benjamin Massing. Ben Thatcher on Pedro Mendes – Benjamin Massing. The 2003 invasion of Iraq – Benjamin Massing. To an extent it characterised Cameroon’s approach to this game, yet it would be wrong to suggest Valeri Nepomniachi’s men only beat Argentina because they kicked them off the pitch. Cameroon were rugged and uncompromising (so much so that they kept Maradona quiet throughout) but they also performed with skill and ambition. As David Lacey put it in the Guardian: “The better team won.” That they did so with nine men only added to the scale of the achievement.
Cameroon would go onto reach the quarter-finals, where they were beaten by England, and returned home as heroes, no one more so than Roger Milla, their 38-year-old, snake-hipped striker who epitomised the wonder of that side. And for nine-year-old me what they did against Argentina was the hook – now I wanted as much football as I could get. And that summer I got plenty; Matthäus’s piledriver, O’Leary’s penalty, Schillaci’s eyes … Gazza’s tears. It was a feast.
Italia 90 may ultimately have been a poor World Cup but it changed my life, personally as well as professionally. And it began with a quite glorious shock.