We root for ghosts.
On Friday I’ll be cheering on Cameroon, blithely hoping a team that had to borrow money just to get to Brazil can pull the first of a series of upsets. But while it’s Alex Song and Samuel Eto’o I’ll be watching, it's Roger Milla I'll be thinking about. It's been twenty-four years since the Indomitable Lions (is the adjective really necessary; are normal lions such rank quitters?) made their improbable run in the 1990 World Cup, shocking Argentina on their way to the final eight.
The great Cameroon striker Roger Milla was already 38 then. He wouldn’t even enter matches until the second half. Presumably, he was off somewhere eating soup, or taking a nap, when the trainers would slide him into his boots and push him out onto the pitch so he could score in extra time, dance in the corner, and make it back to the Senior Center for the 4:30 dinner.
My favorite Milla moment came against Colombia in the round of sixteen. Like every squad Cameroon played, the Pablo Escobars were prohibitive favorites. It was a scoreless snoozefest when Milla entered late, and in the 106th minute, emerged from a pack to drive the ball just inside the near post and put Cameroon up 1-0.
The Colombian goalkeeper at the time was Rene “El Loco” Higuita, the man who would later invent the scorpion kick. (The scorpion kick is in my Needless Innovation Hall of Fame, next to wisdom tooth transplants and the Segway.) El Loco often wandered away from goal like an escaped mental patient, presumably to extend the defense or take PKs, but really, I think he just got lonesome.
The other great thing about El Loco: He had the hair of Donna Summer. So here comes one of the Pointer Sisters, dribbling up the pitch to join his teammates, half-to-midfield when Roger Milla streaks in, takes the ball from him, and plops in his second goal in a 2-1 win. He had four goals total in that 1990 World Cup, and in the quarterfinal, drew a penalty that had Cameroon equalizing and nearly defeating England. He would finish as the oldest player to ever score in a World Cup, until four years later when his record was broken…by Roger Milla.
In 1994, Milla was 42 when he scored a World Cup goal against Russia. (If someone offers to wager you on unbreakable records, a 42-year-old scoring a World Cup goal seems pretty safe.) But Cameroon didn’t advance out of group that year and hasn’t really made any noise since then.
I believe all of that is about to change. In my endless desire to see the unlikely, I have Cameroon emerging from Group A. This shocking run will begin on Friday, when, in a scoreless match, the spirit of Roger Milla, now a spry 62 (and actually, still alive) will enter in the 89th minute, inhabit the body of Eto’o, glide through the defense, put one in the net and then dance at the corner post. And I, a creaky-kneed 48-year-old who still stubbornly plays basketball twice a week and have always rooted for the impossible, will rise from my couch in Spokane, Washington, and dance alongside him.