- Cameroon's president ordered the retired Milla be taken to Italy 1990
- He broke Gunnar Gren's record as the World Cup's oldest marksman
- Milla then smashed his own record in California
"To be honest, I found it so natural that I'm not natural.”
This was how Roger Milla reflected on the extraordinary feats that punctuated his late 30s and early 40s. The Cameroonian icon made history at two separate FIFA World Cups™, becoming the tournament’s oldest-ever goalscorer in 1990 and then breaking his own record four years later at the ripe old age of 42.
In that latter tournament, he was playing alongside and against men who hadn’t even been born when, 21-and-a-half years earlier, he had scored his first international goal in a World Cup qualifier against Zaire. Some of those colleagues and opponents had still been in nappies, in fact, when Milla won his first African Footballer of the Year award in 1976.
But despite those early achievements, and a distinguished club career in France, it was only at an age when most players have long since hung up their boots that the striker became a household name.
When the Confederation of African Football (CAF) celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2007, the organisation polled the public for the continent’s best player over those five decades. Milla took home the prize.
Such an honour would have been unthinkable in the late ‘80s, when the journeyman striker – having failed to add to that 1976 African Football of the Year award – retired from the professional game to live and play amateur football on the island of Reunion.
But though Cameroon’s Russian coach, Valeri Nepomniatchi, understandably had no thoughts of calling on this 38-year-old retiree for the 1990 World Cup, that all changed when the country’s president, Paul Biya, issued a fateful order. Biya insisted that Milla be included and called the player personally to ensure his cooperation. “I think he (Biya) was not a bad coach,” a smiling Milla would later reflect.
Though controversial and far from universally popular in the Cameroon squad, the decision to enlist the veteran striker's services proved inspired. Despite not starting a single match at Italy 1990, Milla emerged as one of the tournament’s undoubted stars, with four goals – and the makossa dance celebration that followed them – propelling him to global stardom.
Such was his status after that tournament, in fact, that he was once more recalled to the national team in 1994 at the age of 42. Again, he responded as only Milla could.
When Milla bustled his way through to score against Russia in Cameroon’s final match at USA 1994, he eclipsed a benchmark that he himself had set just four years earlier. Previously, Sweden legend Gunnar Gren had held this particular record for over three decades, having scored for the hosts in their 3-1 semi-final win over West Germany in 1958 aged 37 years and 236 days.
It was remarkable enough that Milla became the first and, to date, only man over the age of 38 to score at a World Cup when his heroics inspired Cameroon’s quarter-final run in 1990. But it was truly astonishing that he returned four years later and, 39 days after turning 42, set a World Cup record that looks sure to be one for the ages.
He did so just a minute after coming on as a half-time substitute in a 6-1 defeat to Russia that also witnessed one of his opponents, Oleg Salenko, set a World Cup record by becoming the only player in the tournament's history to score five times in a single match.
Simply by taking to the field, Milla had become the first African player to appear in three World Cups and the oldest man from any team or continent to play at the global finals. That latter record was lost in 2014, though, when 43-year-old Colombia keeper Faryd Mondragon took to the field in Los Cafateros’ 4-1 win over Japan.
“The Cameroonian people pushed me to play in 1994 because they thought I was the only one who could score goals. They just didn’t have faith in any of the other players. At the time I was playing for Tonnerre Yaounde, a club in Cameroon, so I was fit and ready. Was I confident? Of course.
"I looked after myself physically. I never did anything to harm my fitness. I did not have a wild lifestyle but a very wholesome one. Half a glass of wine every so often would be as much alcohol as I would drink.
"[Becoming the oldest scorer] was an honour, but it's not hugely important to me. That goal remains a very fond memory but, as people often say, records are made to be broken. And why not by another Cameroonian player?”