When current Cameroon goalkeeper Carlos Kameni tells the story of his favourite World Cup moment, it is evident that he still lives the experience every time he tells the tale “He rises so high off the ground!” He says in obvious wonderment, “He virtually gets his boots at the same height as the Argentinian defender’s chest, and heads the ball… It’s euphoria. An entire nation lives the moment, and Cameroon win.”
The moment Kameni is describing is the header which saw Cameroon cause arguably the biggest shock in World Cup history when they beat reigning World Champions Argentina 1-0 in the opening match of Italia ’90 at a packed San Siro Stadium. The Argentines were considered among the favourites to retain the title they had won in Mexico four years previously. Boasting stars such as Claudio Caniggia, Jorge Burruchaga and the great Diego Maradona, and teeming with experience, Argentina were expected to progress comfortably from a group containing Romania, the Soviet Union and Cameroon’s ‘Indomitable Lions’.
But from the first minute in the San Siro, things did not go according to plan for the ‘Albiceleste’. While the Argentines were clearly technically superior to their opponents, they struggled to deal with the physicality of a Cameroon side not short on skill themselves. While Maradona, booed and jeered throughout by a Milan crowd still hurt by Napoli’s Serie A victory in the previous season, pulled the strings early on to create early half chances for the Argentines, Cameroon looked extremely dangerous on the counter attack, and it was the Indomitable Lions who came closest to breaking the deadlock. Kana-Biyik broke down the left, leaving Argentinian defenders in his wake, before his dangerous ball into the box was almost turned into his own net by Lorenzo. But Maradona’s influence was not waning, and his lofted through ball just minutes later found Jorge Burruchaga, only for the Nantes star to be denied by Cameroon goalkeeper N’Kono. Just before half time, another swift break from the Africans saw Omam-Biyik’s powerful drive parried away by Pumpido in the Argentina goal.
But the second half saw things start to go wrong for Cameroon. Despite their continuing threat, Argentina were swift to capitalise on any opportunity to raid forward, and they soon controversially got their reward. A rapid breakaway led by Burruchaga and Maradona saw Claudio Caniggia flying down the left, only to be taken down by the recovering Kana-Biyik. Fans and players alike expected referee Michel Vautrot to produce a yellow card, only for the Frenchman to stun the crowd by producing a straight red card. The Cameroonians could have been forgiven for surrendering to what seemed to be the inevitable. But inspired by the injustice, they continued to fly forward, bewildering the Argentinians with their pace, and in the 67th minute came the game’s defining moment.
Cameroon were awarded a free kick 18 yards out on the left hand side. The ball delivered was tame, but the Argentinian defence, which had looked suspect throughout the encounter, were only able to clear the ball high above their own heads. As the ball looped back towards the ground after being suspended in the air for what seemed like an age, defenders jostled for position with a solitary figure in green. Francois Omam-Biyik lurked, and then, when the time was right, leapt. The Cameroon number 7’s jump left his marker Roberto Sensini rooted to the ground, and as his header squirmed through the grasp of Pumpido, a wave of euphoria rippled through the San Siro.
Yet there were still 23 minutes left for Cameroon to hold on against a now desperate Argentina. Chances fell to Maradona and Sensini, before Cameroon saw red again, with Massing punished for a brutal challenge on Caniggia in the 89th minute. But still Argentina couldn’t break down the men in green, and they held on to secure a most famous victory. Omam-Biyik’s header had lit the touch paper on what was to be recognised as one of the greatest ever World Cups. Cameroon would go on to the quarter finals, beating Romania and Colombia, before being beaten by Bobby Robson’s England in an exhilarating extra time battle in Naples.
“If we had beaten England, Africa would have exploded. Ex-plo-ded. There would have been deaths. The Good Lord knows what he does. Me, I thank him for stopping us in the quarter-finals.” Roger Milla
But Omam-Biyik’s header on a day he described as “the best of [his] life”, was supposed to be a spark for more than a fine run for Cameroon at a major tournament. For this was supposed to be the moment that African football, so long the poor relation of their South American and European cousins, came of age, the moment Pele’s prediction that an African team would win the World Cup by the year 2000 came to fruition. Even in 1990, when African stars such as Roger Milla, who had returned to star for Cameroon at Italia ’90 after an intervention from President Biya, and George Weah of Liberia were gracing the upper echelons of European club football, there was a stigma attached to African football that it simply couldn’t shake. Even as Cameroon went toe to toe with the world’s best, they were still being described as a “happy, go lucky bunch of fellas” by the BBC’s commentator for the game. In the eyes of many, African sides were plucky and passionate but ultimately lacking in quality.
For at least a few weeks, Omam-Biyik’s Cameroon threatened to change all that. The Guardian’s football correspondent David Lacey wrote that African football had “long since threatened to arrive on the wider footballing stage in style, but nobody seriously expected Cameroon to make the entrance they did”, before going on to say that such was the superiority of the Africans, they “still finished looking as if they had more men on the pitch than their hapless opponents”. People had started to take these standard bearers for African football seriously, and those involved in the Cameroon setup were under no illusions as to the impact they could have upon the tournament. Before the tournament even began, Cameroon’s Soviet coach Valery Nepomniachi told the New York Times that his team had “decided to change the tradition” of African sides not competing strongly on the biggest stage. Cameroon had become representative of a new era for African football, and a whole continent was behind them.
But the revolution everybody had anticipated, ultimately failed to happen. The Cameroon of Italia ’90 became little more than an anomaly, as African football withdrew back into the shadows of Europe and South America. While Nigeria impressed in the USA in 1994, topping a tough group including Argentina and a Hristo Stoickhov inspired Bulgaria before being knocking out in extra time in the second round by eventual finalists Italy, Cameroon and Morocco, Africa’s other representatives, only mustered 1 point between them. France 1998 told a similar story, with Tunisia, Cameroon and South Africa knocked out comprehensively. While Morocco were unfortunate not to progress, and Nigeria again topped a tricky group before being outplayed by European Champions Denmark in the Second Round, the new dawn promised by Cameroon’s 1990 cavaliers seemed a distant memory. Omam-Biyik’s header had lost its symbolic significance.
Africa’s failure to make good on its promise to compete with world football’s elite nations was also reflected in the fortunes of Omam- Biyik himself. After showing huge promise at Rennes, where he had scored 13 goals in 38 games for a team which only avoided relegation due to financial irregularities at Girondins Bordeaux, Stade Brest and OGC Nice , the then 25-year-old was given his big chance with a move to champions Marseille. But with Jean –Pierre Papin and new Ghanaian star Abedi Pele the preferred partnership at L’OM, Omam-Biyik’s chances were incredibly scarce, and by the time he left in October 1992, just 3 months after his big move, Biyik had made just 1 appearance for the club. While he went on to boast strong scoring records at RC Lens and Club America in Mexico, the man who would go on to become the captain of his national team at the 1994 and 1998 World Cups never made an impact on the biggest stage.
So what happened to the African Revolution? Why is it that since Cameroon’s great feat, only Senegal in 2002, and Ghana in 2010, have been able to emulate Milla, Omam-Biyik and co.? There is no question that the continent has been able to produce some phenomenal footballers since the age of Weah and Milla. Abedi Pele, Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure, Michael Essien and Samuel Eto’o have all excelled on the biggest stage, with Eto’o and Drogba key players in Champions League winning squads at Barcelona and Chelsea respectively. Furthermore, the under 23 squads of Nigeria and Cameroon clinched Olympic Gold in 1996 and 2000 respectively, beating prestigious European and South American nations along the way. So why have Africa’s superpowers repeatedly failed on the big occasions in the senior ranks?
While there is no definitive answer to this question, it is hard to dispute that at least part of the issue is a lack of finance for African football. While huge leaps have been made in this respect, with the CAF (Confédération Africaine de Football) increasing their development budget from a measly $100,000 per year to $2 million, and introducing other programmes such as the $1.3 million , which focuses upon encouraging growth in grassroots football and improvements in infrastructure across the continent. Despite this investment, the gap between African and European football remains huge, and this is due in no small part to the rampant corruption and political interference which has beseeched African football for decades.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to name an African FA which hasn’t become embroiled in a corruption scandal in recent years, but perhaps the most glaring example of how African football is robbed of its ambition by its FAs came in Kenya in 2004. According to Brian Oliver of Kenyan Government investigations showed that KFF (Kenyan Football Federation) officials had “repeatedly ignored or broken 12 of the 21 articles in the KFF constitution, repeatedly failed to produce annual audited accounts for four years, and refused to allow member clubs to inspect the accounts.” Additionally, officials “allegedly stole more than $700,000 from their own body’s and Fifa’s funds” leaving clubs, players, referees and coaches in a developing footballing nation in dire straits. When presented with the evidence, FIFA banned the Kenyan national team until the KFF officials which had been proved to be corrupt were reinstated, citing “Government interference” as the reason for their intervention. With millions of dollars at stake, the Kenyan Government backed down.
While the Kenyan case showed how deep seated corruption can be within African FAs, the consequences of such corruption can run far deeper than the starving of football development. The failure of the Ghanaian and Ivorian football authorities (both of which have been investigated for corruption in recent years) to impose sufficient safety regulations at their stadia, has led to 2 of the worst stadium disasters in recent times, with stampedes in Accra and Abidjan killing a combined 145 people. If funds intended for infrastructural improvements had been allocated as such, such catastrophes may never have happened. If funds intended for football development had not been pocketed by greedy, corrupt officials, footballs long-awaited African uprising might just have happened. Instead, Africa’s strongest national teams are still the plucky outsiders, still a “happy, go lucky bunch of fellas”.
As for Omam-Biyik, while his goal did not prove the catalyst for an era of African dominance, his header will always live on in the hearts of Cameroonians. Now the manager of Gabon Championnat side US Bitam, Omam-Biyik still remembers his defining moment with startling clarity. One of his most vivid memories is the welcome the team received when they landed in Douala after their defeat at the hands of England. “When we arrived at Douala airport, the aeroplane had to pull up and come around again, because the runway was totally flooded with people” recalls Omam-Biyik. A national holiday had been proclaimed by President Biya and the players were showered with honours. A nation was celebrating the long-awaited apparent emergence of Africa as a footballing superpower. 24 years later, it is painfully clear that Francois Omam-Biyik’s header was the catalyst for nothing more than a false dawn.