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A morning with Roger Milla

Posted by Admin on May 28th, 2010 and filed under Featured, Sports. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Anjali Nayar| Friday May 28, 2010| CBC|

Anjali Nayar with Roger Milla, outside his house in Yaounde, Cameroon.

Yaounde, Cameroon – I became giddy when I first heard I might be able to interview Roger Milla.

For those of you not obsessed with African soccer, Milla is a legend here, just like Pele in Brazil or Maradona in Argentina. He was one of the first African players to reach international recognition.

In 2004, he was chosen by Pele and FIFA as one of the top 125 living soccer players; and in 2006 as the best African soccer player of the last century by the African football association.

Now an ambassador for Cameroon, Milla spends most of his time jetting around the world. But, lucky for me, he was in Yaounde, Cameroon’s capital, for a friendly between former-national players, as part of the celebration for Cameroon’s 50th anniversary of its independence.

Even at 58-years-old and subdued by a knee injury, Milla was a delight to watch. Though his speed and force is fading, you can still see that spark, that skill and familiarity with the ball. I could imagine that Milla, just a few years go, would have taken those passes and, arms flailing, dribbled through the defence to score.

The crowd was out of control, cheering him on, hoping for a goal so he would reprise his trademark corner-post dance (see it here at 00:15).

A couple days later, I was waiting for him at 7 a.m. in his courtyard. It was the only free time he had in his busy schedule. It happened to be his birthday and Cameroon’s Independence Day. Not great timing for me, I admit.

But somehow I still didn’t expect the cool reception I received. He walked out casually and barely glanced in my direction as he greeted me. As I introduced myself and told him about my journey, he intermittently checked his phone messages. Only during a few questions (about the force of the Indomitable Lions), did he emerge from what seemed to be a state of annoyance.

Regardless of the tension – on paper, the interview reads great. You can check out a transcript of it here. And you can see my photo essay.

Great expectations

I guess I had a lot of expectations of what Milla would be like. Maybe it was because of all the file footage I’d seen over the years of him grinning after victories, or the goofy celebration dances. Maybe I’d spent too much time in the cheerful company of Ngando Pickett, the national team’s mascot. Or I’d just gotten used to the warmth of Cameroonians in general.

Unlike in Europe or North America, I generally find that African sportsmen leave fairly normal lives. I’ve met up with top Kenyan runners Robert Cheruiyot, Tegla Leroupe and Lornah Kiplagat on dirt tracks, out in the open, or in city centres without a problem.

Paul Tergat, the former world-record holder for the marathon, must be one of the most friendly and gentlemanly sports superstars in the world. Last time I interviewed him at his home, he invited me and my crew in to share the massive (post-run) breakfast feast he has with his family.

This was different. Towards the end of my interview with Milla, I felt almost apologetic asking him if he would juggle the ball with me on the tiny strip of grass lining his house (the strip was covered in shrubs carved to spell his name). Our juggling session was about as poor as you could imagine. I was so nervous. And at the end, he went through the motions of signing my ball. He left without shaking my hand.

The experience got me reading and researching why – why Milla is the way he is. I’ve read many times that as a player he had a fierce temper – many of the top Cameroonian players do (that drive and conviction is why the players are so successful). It turns out that when you mix a fierce temper with frustration, you get an explosive mix.

Anjali’s trip across Africa

View Anjali Nayar – Destination: South Africa in a larger map

After an amazing run in Cameroonian leagues as a young man, Milla essentially toiled in the French leagues without much credit during the 1980s.

“He was known as one of the most lethal strikers in both Africa and France but it was impossible for an African with a big mouth to shine in France in the 1980s,” my football-obsessed Cameroonian friend Christian tells me.

It really wasn’t until 1990, three years after his retirement from international soccer, that Milla was able to really show the world what he could do. It’s said that before the 1990 World Cup in Italy, the Cameroonian President, Paul Biya, called up Milla and requested him to come out of retirement to join the team.

At the age of 38, Milla scored four goals in the World Cup, leading Cameroon to the quarter-finals. You can see one of his brilliant goals here. He basically stole the ball from Columbian goaltender Rene Higuita around 35 yards from the goal and went on to score.

According to Stanley Kuper, in his book Football Against the Enemy, Milla said afterwards: “I’ll tell you something: if we had beaten England, Africa would have exploded. Ex-plo-ded. There would even have been deaths. The Good Lord knows what he does. Me, I thank Him for stopping us in the quarter-finals. That permitted a little pliancy.”

But the comfortable house and row of cars that I saw during that morning interview never came from his years of playing ball. He finished his career essentially broke, and was living in a modest apartment in a middleclass neighbourhood of Yaounde.

It was only later, when the President picked him as an Ambassador, that the money and endorsements started flowing in. Today, for example, his trademark goal celebrations at the corner post are the main ingredient in Coca Cola’s World Cup advertising campaign.

I guess it’s not surprising then that Milla seems to find it difficult to sit by and watch players with half of his talent get the fame and rewards that he deserved. He makes his displeasure well-known, most recently criticizing Samuel Eto’o:

Samuel Eto’o? For now, he has brought a lot to Barcelona and Inter Milan, but never to the Cameroon team. He has never met the expectations. It is also a question of discipline: he has mistreated other players during the 2010 African Nations Cup – we had never seen anything like that on the national team! Cameroon is waiting for him to perform!”

If Milla were playing with his moves now, he might have been at the top of the Champions League or the English Premiership, earning several million a year. It’s unfortunate that it wasn’t possible in his day. But Milla should also take pride in the fact that he made possible for players like Eto’o to make a living through soccer.

The link is more direct than you may think. Milla’s 1990 World Cup run made every young Cameroonian boy dream of being a top soccer player, which created a huge demand for training facilities that could make young Cameroonian players competitive on the international stage. One such training centre, the Kadji Sports Academy (a kind of soccer/school academy that opened in 1994), directed by Milla’s 1990 World Cup assistant coach, Michel Kaham, recruited Eto’o from his poor neighbourhood in Douala and trained and schooled him for free.

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