- It was billed as a battle between an old African Lion and a Geordie cub
- A pulsating game swung one way then the other then back again
- 'Let's all have a disco,' rung out at the end
Few games at the 1990 FIFA World Cup ™ captured the imagination like the epic quarter-final between England and Cameroon. This roller-coaster encounter brought together an England side inspired by the exuberance and artistry of playmaker Paul Gascoigne and a Cameroon team who, with an opening-match win over Argentina and ensuing rush of goals from the 38-year-old Roger Milla, had already written their name in the tournament's history books.
Prior to Italia '90, few would have predicted Cameroon becoming the first African side to reach the quarter-finals. Yet after stunning world champions Argentina, the Indomitable Lions had only gotten stronger, earning further wins against Romania and Colombia (both 2-1) to land joyously in the last eight. England, by comparison, had rode their luck in the second round against Belgium, but were now dreaming of the semi-final place denied them by Argentina's Diego Maradona in 1986.
The San Paolo stadium had been kind to Cameroon in the last round, when Milla left Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita red-faced, yet the Africans went into this match without the suspended quartet of Andre Kana, Emile Mbouh, Victor Ndip and Jules Onana. Once again the veteran striker - with four goals to his name - started on the bench yet Russian coach Valeri Nepomniachi would send him on to make another telling contribution before the evening was out.
A full-strength England had all the ball in the opening moments yet on 12 minutes, it was Cameroon who crafted the first chance as Louis Mfede played in Francois Omam for a one-on-one with Peter Shilton. The England keeper blocked Oman's first shot and was relieved to Mdfede's follow-up effort fly past his left-hand post.
Cameroon took this as their cue to dominate. Mfede was everywhere and had two more chances in quick succession: one going over the bar, the other turned around the post by Shilton. Then, against the run of play, England responded with the game's opening goal after 25 minutes. Terry Butcher sent Stuart Pearce tearing down the left wing and the full-back delivered an inch-perfect cross to the far post, straight onto the head of David Platt, England's saviour against Belgium. Veteran goalkeeper Thomas Nkono was helpless as Platt buried the chance.
Save for a Thomas Libiih header that failed to trouble Shilton, Cameroon created no openings of note in the run-up to half-time and soon all eyes were on the running track where Milla, sporting a new-look shaven head, was warming up. The veteran entered the fray after the restart and on 61 minutes, shortly after Lineker had sent a shot flying just over, Milla helped create the equaliser. Running on to a Omam pass, he was felled in the box by Gascoigne and Emmanuel Kunde duly converted to level the scores.
With the Naples crowd having adopted the Cameroon team as their own, the atmosphere in the stands was now electric. Omam was next to surge towards goal, slipping the ball to Cyrille Makanaky whose shot shaved the woodwork. Robson's men barely had time to regroup before they were behind. Milla drifted past Gascoigne, Mark Wright and Platt before sliding the ball to substitute Eugene Ekeke. The striker had only been on the field a couple of minutes but finished in style, lifting the ball over Shilton and into the roof of the net. Cameroon were in dreamland.
England discarded their sweeper system but the real turning point came when Cameroon missed the chance that would have made the game safe. Omam was the culprit, failing to hit the target after a delightful one-two with Milla and he was made to pay almost immediately. The ball went up the other end, Wright played in Lineker and the striker was brought down by Benjamin Massing. The striker dusted himself down and made no mistake with the penalty, firing high to Nkono's left. With seven minutes remaining, England were back in it.
Yet on a humid Neapolitan summer's night, they continued to live dangerously. Shilton saved low from the outstanding Omam and extra time brought more of the same. Omam again, Makanaky, and then Milla all threatened but England survived. And then, in the 105 th minute, they struck at the other end. Lineker raced on to a Gascoigne through-ball, only to be sandwiched by Nkono and Massing. Another penalty. This time Lineker, Golden Shoe winner in Mexico four years earlier, shot down the middle to make it 3-2 with his third goal of the tournament.
Cameroon's players did not have the legs to respond and England, second-best for long spells, had booked a place in the semi-finals for the first time since 1966. "Let's all have a disco," sang the England supporters as Robson wiped away a tear of joy before looking ahead to another titanic confrontation in the semi-final against the old enemy, West Germany. As for Cameroon, they found the energy to take a lap of honour around the stadium - the least they deserved having illuminated a low-scoring tournament with their high-thrills football.