Roger Milla: 'Ghana and Ivory Coast are the teams to spring surprises'

Never mind Gazza's tears – in Africa the lasting image of Italia '90 is the corner-flag dance of the Cameroonian striker. He tells Simon Hart why African teams can go further than ever

"Why not, why can't an African team win it?" The prospect of an African triumph at next summer's World Cup may seem sheer fantasy to some but not to Roger Milla, who knows all about making dreams real on football's greatest stage.

Milla made the world smile two decades ago when, aged 38, he came out of his semi-retirement on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion to help propel exuberant Cameroon to the quarter-finals of Italia '90.

No African team had ever got so far and Milla, the supersub who scored four goals, became a global icon. The African-born Just Fontaine and Eusebio had won the Golden Boot with France and Portugal in previous World Cups but here was a genuine African superstar, whose hip-shuffling corner-flag celebrations were arguably even more memorable than his goals. "It just happened, it was a spontaneous thing," he explains, 19 years later – and why not break into dance when you've just brought joy to an entire continent?

Milla believes there may be more reason for African celebration in 2010. He says the west African nations have made most progress in recent times: Ghana and Ivory Coast both performed well on their World Cup bow in 2006, the former making the second round, and should be stronger for the experience.

Both can call on stellar names: in Ghana's case Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari, while Ivory Coast boast strength down their spine in Kolo and Yaya Touré and, of course, Didier Drogba. The Ivorians were unbeaten in qualifying, as were Nigeria.

Though Milla cites Cameroon's traditional "collective strength", the Lions owed plenty to nine goals in qualifying from Samuel Eto'o, made captain by Paul Le Guen, the former coach of Lyons and Rangers, who replaced Otto Pfister in July.

Eto'o represents a key reason for optimism, according to Milla, who said the presence of players from Europe's leading clubs should help dispel any feelings of inferiority.

Of the 1990 Cameroon squad there were 10 based in France, the old colonial master, one in Spain and the rest with clubs at home. By contrast, Eto'o opened the scoring for Barcelona in two of the last four Champions League finals. "On the field, everyone is equal," Milla said. "It's no longer the Brazil, Italy or France we saw 10 years ago. It's 50-50. The English, French, Italian players play in the major championships in Europe alongside African players. It will be the teams with the best preparation who go furthest."

African football's original dream-maker is living in hope. "The African teams have as good a chance as anybody."

Such a triumph would inevitable revive memories of Cameroon's run in 1990. "To get to a quarter-final was something extraordinary for Africa, something unthinkable. It opened the door to a lot of other countries," says Milla, a guest at today's draw in Cape Town.

Cameroon made a stunning start that summer, with victory over Argentina in the opening match at San Siro thanks to François Omam-Biyik's towering headed goal. The holders were bashed as well as beaten – two Cameroon players were sent off – but "it made us 120 per cent self-confident," recalls Milla.

Confined to the bench against Argentina, Milla made amends by scoring two late goals as a substitute when the Lions beat Romania to seal a last 16 berth. Even today he bristles at the word substitute – "that was the coach's choice" – yet nobody in Cameroon complained when he repeated the trick with another against Colombia in the second round.

For his second goal, he famously stole the ball off the South Americans' maverick, poodle-permed goalkeeper Rene Higuita during an ill-advised sortie upfield.

Milla explains that Colombia's captain Carlos Valderrama had unwittingly briefed him on the goalkeeper's eccentricities during their time at the French club Montpellier. "I had the good fortune to see a video of Higuita that the Colombia captain Valderrama showed me at Montpellier.

"I looked after him when he arrived at the club, I used to take him to training and he had some videos from Colombia. He showed me Higuita's trick. I was quite a cunning player and I took the ball off him and scored," says Milla, who now divides his time between homes in Montpellier and his birthplace Yaoundé.

Twice African Footballer of the Year, he was voted the Best African Player of the last 50 years in a poll to celebrate CAF's half-century in 2007. In the past decade he has assumed a number of ambassadorial roles: supporting the fight against Aids in Africa with Unaids, serving on Fifa's Technical Study Group at Germany '06 and last year becoming honorary president of the Cameroon FA.

Milla, who also played for Monaco and Saint-Etienne in France, is matter-of-fact about his achievements. "It proved simply that I'd been a very good player and I still was." As if to underline the point, he became the World Cup's oldest ever scorer at USA '94.

Cameroon's run ended at England's hands in the quarter-finals, but only after Milla had come off the bench to create the two goals that meant they led 2-1 with seven minutes remaining. Then Gary Lineker forced extra time with the first of two spot-kicks that sent Bobby Robson's men into the last four. "In the second half we dominated. If it wasn't for the two penalties, Cameroon would have been in the semi-final," Milla says.

He asks after the well-being of Paul Gascoigne, whom he remembers as "the player who caused us the most damage. He is a player we all liked. And everyone in Cameroon hopes he will get better."

Cameroon's 1990 exploits meant a third World Cup place for Africa (which first gained one only in 1970) – "we showed that Africa had very, very good footballers" – and Senegal have since followed their lead by beating the holders France in the 2002 opening match en route to the quarter-finals. Milla is optimistic about the home continent's chances in South Africa. "Today there are no small teams," he says.

Africa's World Cups: The highlights

Algeria 1982

Stunned West Germany with a 2-1 group stage win before exiting on goal difference after the Germans notoriously played out a 1-0 win with Austria that took both sides through.

Cameroon 1990

Opened the Italian tournament with a surprise 1-0 win over the world champions Argentina. Made it to the last eight before losing to England.

Senegal 2002

Mirrored Cameroon in beating champions (France) 1-0 in opening match en route to the last eight.

Ghana 2006

Upset odds to beat dark horses Czech Republic in group stage.

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