Roger the lion still roaring
© AFP

A two-time winner of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations, the African Golden Ball, the French Cup and the CAF Cup Winners Cup, not to mention a Cameroonian league title, Roger Milla has more than a little silverware to his name.

Add to that his status as a member of the FIFA 100 (the select band of greatest living footballers), African and Cameroonian player of the century and Knight of the Legion of Honour and you start to appreciate the impact Milla has made on the game.

"I can't say I have a favourite accolade," he tells FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. "Throughout my entire career it always gave me great pleasure to receive these awards."

The Old Lion, as he is affectionately known by the people of Cameroon, started earning plaudits almost as soon as his career began, bursting onto the national scene as an 18-year-old and quickly establishing a reputation as one of the best players in the league.

"When you start out as a professional footballer it's a bit like a journey into the unknown," he explained. "I didn't know what kind of obstacles I would face in my career. But right from the off I was able to develop my game alongside some great players, which helped me progress quickly and start picking up titles."

So rapid was the prodgy's ascent that Saint Etienne, a major force at the time, made a bid. The country's football chiefs turned down their approach, however, and young Roger would have to wait seven more years before making the journey to France, where Valenciennes was his first port of call.

"I got a great reception from the African community in the north," he smiled. It was the start of a love affair with the fans that would last the rest of his career in France, a country with close links to his native Africa. "Without the fans you are nothing and they are the source of my happiest memories."

One regret
During the course of his stints with Valenciennes, Monaco, Bastia, Saint Etienne and Montpellier, in which time he scored 111 goals in 312 matches, Milla became one of the finest centre-forwards on the planet. Even so, he was never able to showcase his finishing skills elsewhere.

"There were no such thing as agents back then, and it wasn't easy to get a move abroad. It's something of a regret for me, that's true. But while I would have loved to have played in Germany, Spain or Italy, the trophies made up for it."

He took part in his first FIFA World Cup™ finals in 1982, but within six years his relationship with the Cameroon FA had deteriorated to such an extent that he announced his retirement from international football. However, as Italia 90 approached, the entire country implored their beloved son to return to the fray.

One of the things I'm proudest about is the fact that the people of Cameroon urged me to make a comeback.
Roger Milla on returning from the international wilderness

Although he was 38 at the time, Milla answered the call. " When I returned to the national side I got a warm welcome from the younger players. But the older ones, who had ganged up against me, were not so happy to see me back. Everything was fine after I'd scored though. The older guys even came up and said sorry, but I couldn't hold anything against them."

Fox in the box
Quite apart from the fabulous success the Indomitable Lions enjoyed in Italy, the Round of 16 clash with Colombia in Naples proved to be one of the highlights of Milla's glittering career. After a tough, uncompromising encounter had gone into extra time, Milla opened the scoring for the Africans before famously stealing the ball from Cafetero keeper Rene Higuita to seal Cameroon's place in the quarter-finals.

"Before the World Cup I'd played with Carlos Valderrama at Montpellier and so I took an interest in the way Colombia played," reveals Milla. "I'd paid particular attention to Higuita's game and I decided I'd always try and pressurise him in case he made a mistake. So when he made one I was able to pounce on it, like a real fox you might say (laughs)."

I hadn't planned on doing that makossa dance at all . I just wanted to come up with a celebration that I could share with all the people who had always supported me
Roger Milla on his iconic corner flag celebration at Italy 1990

Milla hit the back of the net four times in the tournament in all and the sight of him doing a celebratory dance at the corner flag became a familiar one in homes around the world. " ."

The Old Lion appeared in three FIFA World Cup finals in all and still has fond memories of the first of them, Spain 1982.

"That was our best World Cup if you ask me. Yes, we were knocked out in the first round, but we did manage to get three draws against Peru, Poland and Italy, with the Poles going on to finish third and Italy becoming world champions. I loved the way the Italian people got behind us in 1990, but we didn't play as well and I didn't get quite the same enjoyment from it."

Raising awareness
Today, the inimitable Milla derives pleasure from helping others. A travelling ambassador for Cameroon and UNAIDS (the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS), the ex-footballer is helping to raise awareness among African youngsters about the risks the virus poses.

"All our teams and resources need to understand that this pandemic exists, that lots of people have died and more will do so in the future. We need to get as many people as possible to protect themselves because the continent really needs its children."

The former goalgetter is also channelling his energies into promoting South Africa 2010, an event that will have the eyes of the world trained on Africa.

I'm trying to show that Africa can stage a World Cup that is just as good as the previous ones
Roger Milla on his work promoting South Africa 2010

"In my capacity as an ambassador . We also need all the people of the continent to come together for this event."

Modest and committed to a fault, this giant of world football devotes whatever spare time he has time to helping others less fortunate than himself.

"There's my Heart of Africa Foundation, which comes to the aid of pygmies in the east of Cameroon and the orphans and children of the streets of Yaounde," he says. "We are also looking to help former Cameroonian sports stars reintegrate into society. It's so sad to know that many of them have now been reduced to living rough. I would also like to thank President Blatter for coming over last year and helping us set up training courses for coaches."

But having now turned 56, is there any chance of Milla slowing down one day and enjoying some well-deserved rest and relaxation?

"Oh no, I don't think so," comes the answer. "I've got too many projects in my head. My next venture is to set up an academy for up-and-coming centre-forwards in my country. I want to unearth and nurture the Samuel Eto'os of tomorrow."

But no matter how successful the Cameroonian legend's new academy is, it is sure to be a long, long time before another Roger Milla emerges to grace the world stage.