Today marks the 30th anniversary of one of the biggest ever upsets in World Cup history as defending champions Argentina fell to a shock 1-0 defeat to Cameroon in the opening game of Italia ’90.
Between 1974 and 2002, every World Cup opened with a match featuring the reigning champions and Argentina’s defeat, courtesy of a glaring goalkeeping error by Nery Pumpido, continued a remarkable trend where on each occasion since that format change, the holders failed to open their title defence with a win.
Under the leadership of their coach Valery Nepomnyashchy, Cameroon followed their opening victory with another win over a strong Romanian side, featuring the likes of Gheorghe Hagi, Florin Răducioiu and Giga Popescu, a result which meant they topped their group despite a heavy defeat in their final match against the Soviet Union.
After beating Colombia in the last 16, with a bit of help from René Higuita, the Indomitable Lions became the first ever African team to reach the quarter-finals of a World Cup, setting up a clash with England who were looking to secure a place in the last four for the first time since 1966.
Using data from Stats Perform’s World Cup archive, we take a closer look at the underlying numbers behind Cameroon’s Italia 90’ performances – featuring a centre forward adept at creating chances for others, full backs responsible for getting the ball forward and perhaps the most influential super sub in the history of the competition.
Omam-Biyik Shocks Maradona & Co
Before we get onto the events of that opening night in Milan, it is worth remembering how tough it was in the early 90s for an African nation to reach the World Cup.
With only two spots available, Cameroon, who started the qualification campaign as reigning African Cup of Nations champions, had to finish top of a qualification group featuring Nigeria, Angola and Gabon just to progress to a two-legged play-off with another group winner for a chance to secure one of Africa’s places.
Sitting second in their group with a game to go, they had to beat Nigeria to make the final stage, which they did courtesy of a goal from François Omam-Biyik. The subsequent play-off turned out to be a more comfortable affair, with Omam-Biyik again amongst the scorers in a 3-0 aggregate victory over Tunisia.
As the focal point of the attack, Omam-Biyik’s all-round play is often overlooked as a result of the exploits of Roger Milla. As well as posting the most shots per 90 (3.7) and highest non-penalty expected goals output in Cameroon’s squad, the then 24-year-old also ranked in the top 10 for total chances created during the World Cup (10). This ranked him second behind Maradona for chances created by players whilst playing in the centre forward position. Not bad for a player who at the time was plying his trade in the second tier of French football.
Omam-Biyik scored that winning goal in the victory over Argentina, with a header that went straight through Pumpido. Despite his ability to find high-quality locations, that turned out to be his only goal of the competition. However, it’s clear he brought more to his team than just offering a goalscoring outlet.
Progressing the Ball Forward via the Full Backs
When we look closer into Cameroon’s general approach in possession during the competition, it is noteworthy that Omam-Biyik, who typically occupied the half space in central areas to link-up play, received substantially more passes from right back Stephen Tataw than from any other player during the competition (29).
According to the Stats Perform Sequence Framework, Cameroon utilised the right hand side of the pitch more than any team other than Costa Rica, with their average sequence width from the right hand touchline being 32.5 metres, compared to the competition average of 33.9.
Compared to the other nations who reached the quarter finals, they were pretty direct. Despite the Cameroon centre backs being quite content to pass sideways or back to the keeper inside their own half, only Argentina and Czechoslovakia were more direct in getting the ball forward quickly. Cameroon also recorded a large volume of sequences comprising of just one or two passes – only Ireland recorded a higher per 90 volume amongst the teams to make the last eight.
Operating as a sweeper at the back, Emmanuel Kundé attempted more passes per 90 than any other player in the Cameroon squad (51), but less than a quarter of them ended in the opposition half. Similarly, neither of their regular centre backs, Jules Onana and Victor N’Dip, looked to move the ball beyond the halfway line. Between them, they only played a combined 14.6 passes per 90 into the attacking half.
As a result, it was left to their full backs to progress the ball into attacking areas. Down the right, Stephen Tataw played 8.6 passes into the attacking third, with left back Bertin Ebwellé making 8.1, ranking them first and second in Cameroon’s squad. Of the two, Tataw enjoyed a better success rate (53% vs 48%).
Unlike today’s modern-day full backs who look to penetrate the final third, both players looked to support play from deep areas, ensuring they were not exposed defensively. As shown by their heat maps below, their distribution into advanced areas tended to focus on playing the ball down the line, into wide midfielders, or diagonally into Omam-Biyik. They rarely switched play.
Despite their use of full backs to progress the ball, they were not a team who were prolific at crossing in open play, attempting only 10.3 per 90, compared to the competition average of 13.7. Nearly half of their crosses were delivered by the same player, Louis-Paul M’Fédé, from the left hand side of midfield and their total chances created from crosses, 1.2 per 90, was the second lowest of all the teams in the World Cup.
Enter the Super Sub
Although the winning goal against Argentina came through a degree of good fortune, the overall match stats demonstrated that Cameroon’s victory was well deserved. They restricted the World Champions to just two shots on target, whilst producing a higher expected goals output (0.8 to Argentina’s 0.3), getting away a higher number of shots in the box.
When they came to face Romania in their second game, they were up against a team who looked to keep possession. Coached by Emerich Jenei, the Romanians recorded the highest number of passes per sequence of any nation at Italia ‘90 (3.7) with the longest average sequence time (12.1 seconds).
After 55 minutes the match was deadlocked a 0-0, but the Romanians had created the better quality goal attempts according to xG. However at that point, their talismanic midfielder Hagi, who had created 40% of all their chances in the match, came off injured.
Just a few minutes later, Nepomnyashchy decided to send on veteran striker, Roger Milla, a decision which changed the game and kick-started one of the most talked about stories of Italia 90’.
Apart from a brief nine minute cameo against Argentina, the striker’s only previous World Cup experience, during Spain ’82, had been unmemorable. Despite three starts, he had only managed to get three shots on target during the tournament and had failed to score a single goal.
Milla, who at the time was playing his club football on the island of Réunion and had come out of international retirement to play in Italy, came on with the game finely poised to play behind Omam-Biyik. With 12 minutes of the match remaining, he outmuscled Ioan Andone in a duel following a long ball from Onana at the back, before coolly slotting the ball beyond an advancing keeper from just inside the box.
At 38 years and 19 days old, he became the oldest scorer in World Cup history and he marked the occasion with his now iconic hip shaking celebration at the corner flag. That celebration was seen again less than 10 minutes later, as he doubled their lead with a powerful left foot shot, beating Silviu Lung at his near post. Despite Romania pulling a goal back, Cameroon held on to another victory, which guaranteed them a place in the knockout stages.
Quantifying Milla’s All-Round Impact
Milla didn’t start a single game at Italia ‘90 and whilst his goals are what people remember 30 years later, there was much more to his cameo appearances than just putting the ball in the net.
Operating in a more withdrawn role to get onto the ball between the lines, he created 3.1 chances per 90 during the competition, more than any other Cameroon player. He was particularly strong at holding up the ball, as well as being adept at playing through balls behind the opposition defence. Of players to feature in at least 100 tournament minutes, only Carlos Valderrama and Maradona contributed more through balls per 90 during the competition.
Despite his advanced years, Milla was also someone willing to directly run at his opponent with the ball – and was pretty successful in doing so. He completed 4.6 take-ons per 90, the second highest output in the squad, with a success rate of 75%.
The impact of Milla’s substitute appearances is reflected in the threat posed by Cameroon during the second half of matches, compared to the first. They posted higher quality goal attempts during the second period of a match, something which is reflected in their scoring output.
Ecstasy, Followed by Heartbreak in Naples
Despite falling to a 4-0 defeat to the Soviet Union, Cameroon topped their group after Romania and Argentina drew with each other in their final game.
This resulted in a last 16 tie with Colombia in Naples. Colombia were another team, like Romania, who looked to retain possession and force teams to come out of their shape. The game finished 0-0 after 90 minutes, however the South Americans had a marginally better xG output.
With the first period of extra-time also goalless, it seemed that penalties were looming, but once again Cameroon’s super sub had other ideas. A minute into the restart, Milla received the ball in the half space and opened up his body, catching one defender off balance, before going on a mazy run into the box and evading a challenge before putting his side ahead. Cue more hip shaking.
If that finish was sublime, what happened a couple of minutes later was something that would give any goalkeeper nightmares. Colombia’s keeper, René Higuita, known for bringing the ball out well into his own half, was well off his line to pick up a long aimless ball played forward by the Cameroon defence. However, after playing the ball to teammate Luis Carlos Perea, he mis-controlled a return pass when trying to turn away from a pressing Milla, resulting in him being dispossessed and the grateful veteran put the ball into an empty net.
The 2-0 victory meant they now faced Bobby Robson’s England, again in Naples, with a potential semi-final place at stake.
England selected a bold line-up, dropping their holding midfielder Steve McMahon and playing with two full backs who got high up the pitch. However, despite leading 1-0 at half time courtesy of a David Platt header, it was Cameroon who had dominated possession (61% vs 39%) and created twice as many chances by the break.
Cameroon then started the second half brightly and the introduction of Milla had a major impact on events. Firstly, he won his side a penalty following a poor challenge by Paul Gascoigne, which Kunde converted. Then a few minutes later he assisted Eugène Ekéké, playing a give and go with the substitute who put the Indomitable Lions ahead with one of his first touches of the entire tournament.
Perhaps the most pivotal moment in the game occurred in the 79th minute, when at 2-1 Omam-Biyik was thwarted by Peter Shilton when presented with an opportunity to give his side a two goal lead. Minutes later, Gary Lineker equalised from the penalty spot to take the game to extra time.
During extra time itself the pattern established in normal time continued, with Cameroon enjoying more possession and creating better open play opportunities, based on xG. However, a foul on Lineker by the Cameroon goalkeeper Thomas N’Kono when clear through on goal resulted in another penalty, and the striker gleefully converted the winning goal.
Whilst England could celebrate, Cameroon were left to rue what might have been. As highlighted by the shot maps below, the African side created a far higher number of chances in the box, but were unable to convert these opportunities.
If we take the penalties out of the equation, Cameroon’s xG output over the course of 120 minutes was 1.4, compared to England’s 0.5. To reinforce the disparity, Omam-Biyik had more open play shots in the opposition penalty area, five, than the entire England team combined.
Milla created five chances during the game, more than any player on either side, bringing his competition total up to eight. Excluding penalties, he ranked joint second in the tournament’s rankings for combined goals and assists, demonstrating the impact he had on the tournament.
The Wait for an African Semi-Finalist Goes On
Cameroon’s numbers from the quarter-final shows just how close they came to reaching the last four 30 years ago, but despite the prevalence of African players across the big-five European leagues, the run of Nepomnyashchy’s side is yet to be surpassed.
Senegal reached the same stage in 2002, and, like Cameroon, beat the holders in the tournament’s opening game (on that occasion France). Ghana also reached the quarters in 2010, but like both Cameroon and Senegal before them, were eliminated after extra time, denied a place in the semis as a result of an infamous handball on the goal line by a certain Luis Suarez in the closing stages.
Of the Italia ‘90 Cameroon squad, twelve went on to be called up again for USA 94’. However, they were unable to repeat their heroics, failing to win any of their games and progress beyond the group stage. Milla was able to further extend his record as the World Cup’s oldest scorer though, netting against Russia at the ripe age of 42 years, 39 days.
Five African teams will get another opportunity to go one better in Qatar 2022, but they will have to go some way to generate memories as vivid as those created by 22 men from the West Coast of Africa who made World Cup history 30 years ago.