We’ve all seen that clip from a World Cup match of an Argentinian player running down the wing, hurdling a pair of Cameroon challenges before being smashed by a third Cameroon defender, who was subsequently sent off and lost his boot in the process.
Well it was in the dying stages of the very first match of Italia 90, as Argentina, defending champions, took on rank outsiders Cameroon, desperate to avoid one of the competition’s all-time great shocks.
The Indomitable Lions were largely made of journeymen, featuring in sides from Cameroon and the lower French divisions, and were tasked with Argentina, still led by Diego Maradona, fresh off a 16-goal season, in which Napoli had won their second title.
Aside from the gulf of difference in talent within the two sides, Cameroon’s preparations had been far from perfect, with a manager in Valery Nepomniachi who spoke neither English nor French, and warm-up matches bore mixed results.
In an era where African sides were viewed with derision at World Cups, particularly following Zaire’s efforts in 1974, and almost none of their sides progressed past the group stage, few held any hope for Cameroon bucking the trend. Star striker Francois Omam-Biyik recedntly acknowledged that getting a point from the three games – and holding Argentina to just one or two goals – would be a big achievement.
But the underdogs had a gameplan. First off was ensuring Maradona received as little time and space as possible. The second was to rough the typically robust Argentinians up. Both were combined halfway through the first half when Maradona was on the receiving end of a chest-high challenge which brought about a yellow card.
And despite a series of half chances, this wasn’t an Argentina side at their best, unable to carve open a real opportunity to break the deadlock.
Maradona, wearing both shin pads and calf pads, was being tenderised by Cameroon defenders, who looked about as likely as their opponents to open the scoring.
The sides went into the break level, with Cameroon given a new belief that they could potentially get a result.
But that belief was dashed on the hour mark.
Referees had been told to clamp down on professional fouls prior to the tournament, and when Claudio Caniggia raced down the right wing, Kana Biyik in pursuit caught the Atalanta man’s heels. Caniggia if anything was racing towards the corner flag; it was certainly not the denial of a clear goalscoring opportunity, and the expected yellow card remained pocketed, with red being shown instead.
But just six minutes later, when a ball was hoisted high into the Milanese sky, Omam-Biyik leapt what must have been four feet into the air, heading down towards goal. The forward was actually a high-jumper at school, and in jumping for the header, his right boot collided with the chest of Roberto Sensini.
In truth, the header was so tame it could’ve been kicked away, but Nery Pumpido made one almighty mess of things, letting it slip through his grasp, and Cameroon led.
From there, Cameroon managed to see the game out, using the still-legal backpass to full effect.
Their physical nature stopped Argentina getting into any kind of rhythm, with Caniggia now bearing the brunt of most of the fouls.
While there were no more goals, it would be remiss not to mention two things that happened in the final 10 minutes.
First was the introduction of Roger Milla, who would become a cult hero all over the world throughout the tournament with his untucked shirt and his corner flag celebrations, scoring twice from the bench against Romania, before doing the same in the last 16 to secure a place in the quarter-finals. The second was the aforementioned foul, or series of fouls, which saw Cameroon reduced to nine men.
On the break, Caniggia hurdled one challenge, somehow staying up after the second, taking a total of nine steps in almost slapstick fashion to try and regain his balance, before being completely wiped out by Benjamin Massing, who lost his boot in the process.
While the first red card may have been harsh, they could count themselves not to have had more players in the referees’ book, and there was no contesting Massing’s dismissal.
But the Lions would hold on, and the world champions would be defeated.