Inspirational Mauritian claims Milla's crown
© AFP

Playing football at international level is of course the highest achievement in the game, but to do so well into your 30s is a test of longevity and will. To do so into your 40s is bordering on incredible, but not so says Mauritian Kersley Appou, who on the weekend became Africa's oldest international footballer, when he played for Mauritius against Mauritania in a CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifier.

Appou spoke after the game, and he said he was aware of the mark and that he could be eclipsing a legend. “I knew before the game that I could erase [Roger] Milla’s record,” he said. “Milla is a reference for Africa – a legend for us all. So I thought of it when my coach told me to warm up as I was coming on. I had not expected that I would be playing, but I feel proud of myself when I think of Roger.”

Roger Milla, of course, is known worldwide for his impressive performances on the world stage, guiding Cameroon to the quarter-finals at the 1990 FIFA World Cup™ finals in Italy, after having been plucked out of semi-retirement in Reunion. He was then already 38 years old, but four years later, Cameroon again qualified for the World Cup, and Milla again make the trip to the finals. This time though, there was no fairytale ending as Cameroon crashed out in the first round.

Milla did, however, find the net in a 6-1 drubbing against Russia, which made him the oldest World Cup scorer. When he played his last international for Cameroon Milla was 42 years and 39 days. That was a record that was to stand for close to 20 years – until the weekend, when Appou broke it.

Passion and pleasure
Appou, who plays his club football for Pamplemousses in the Mauritian league, was very nearly 44 when he came on in Nouakchott. His birthday is on 24 April, which is just four days after the return leg in Mauritius in which the home side hope to overturn a 1-0 defeat from the first leg of the first preliminary round. He said that being able to play at international level for such a long time had not been easy. “I have loved playing football since my childhood, I simply never stopped. For me, it is a way of life. You have to be very disciplined to last so long. I still play, with passion and for pleasure. It becomes, however, increasingly difficult because of age and especially the need to continue to train and keep fit. It is not easy.”

He credits his family for helping him maintain his drive. “They have helped me stay fit. I have three kids - two girls and one boy - who are 17, 13 and 11. I hope they will all be at the stadium to support us next Sunday.” But he is honest enough to admit that he has also benefited from the fact that the Mauritian League was not so strong. “I must recognise the fact that it is not fully professional, and that has helped me remain competitive, even though there are good players and good games in that championship.”

Advice and goals
Appou said that he never has any problems with his team-mates, even though he is old enough to be father to most of them. “Even if the age difference is bigger than usual in football, I feel a real respect from our younger players. And as there is no prescribed age when people can become friends, we are all good.” And although he lined up for his first FIFA World Cup qualifying match way back in 1996, he has his eyes firmly looking ahead, mentioning next year's Indian Ocean Island Games as a goal, although his immediate task is helping Mauritius overturn their first leg defeat to advance to the next AFCON qualifying round. “We have a good chance. It is not easy to play against us in Mauritius," he said.

Appou's international team-mate, Jonathan Bru, said that the veteran was an important member of the team. “He gives a lot of very good advice, and he has a huge amount of international experience, which helps the rest of the team. At the moment, he is the best scorer in the Mauritius league. Despite his age, he remains very clinical in the box.”