Cameroon 2-3 England: Indomitable Lions Push Bobby Robson's Men to the Brink in World Cup Classic

Gary Lineker of England
Gary Lineker of England | Getty Images/Getty Images

Everyone remembers Italia 90 as the pathos-ridden scene of England's most glorious of failures, the melodramatic Mediterranean stage which gave us Gazza's tears and Chris Waddle's fateful penalty in the World Cup semi-final against Germany.

It is often forgotten, however, that England's failure might have been a lot less glorious just three days before the defeat against Die Mannschaft which is now a deeply rooted in our national sporting psyche.

If the Germany game was a romantic melodrama, England's meeting with Cameroon, a team with one World Cup group stage exit to their name prior to this quarter-final, threatened to turn into high farce.

Cameroon players celebrate World Cup, 1990
Cameroon players celebrate World Cup, 1990 | Inpho Photography/Getty Images

The pivotal actor in a dramatic night for Bobby Robson's side? A 38-year-old Roger Milla, a talisman for the Indomitable Lions as they shocked the world by finishing top of their group.

What looked like a routine day at the office for England after tournament revelation David Platt headed home Stuart Pearce's looping cross was turned on its head after Milla, who had been playing football since before England even had a World Cup to their name, entered the contest at half-time.

Things began to unravel after Paul Gascoigne brought Milla down in the box, with Emmanuel Kunde converting the subsequent penalty, before Cameroon opened up the Three Lions with a slick passing move, with Milla freeing up fellow substitute Eugene Ekeke, who deliciously chipped Peter Shilton.


Cameroon were sadly all too ready to give England a hand in sparing their blushes - first, Gary Lineker was brought down with minutes of regulation time left and converted his spot kick, with Shilton smartly stopping François Omam-Biyik minutes after to carry England through to extra time.

In extra time and with Mark Wright bleeding all over the place after a cut to his head, the finishing touch to the Not-so-Great Escape came, with some great work from the penitent Gascoigne freeing up Lineker, who was again fouled, and again faced with the most important penalty of his career, and again...did not miss.


Key Talking Point

Anyone who says they knew that Cameroon would be here before the tournament started either has hidden psychic powers or is a dirty liar.

Not only were they a team with very little previous in the sphere of international football, but they'd also be expected to duke it out in the group stages with Gheorghe Hagi's Romania and an Argentina side featuring the most gifted footballer on the entire planet.


Yet Diego Maradona and co were shocked by the then two-time Africa Cup of Nations champions in the first game of the tournament, Cameroon showing that this tournament football lark was like riding a bike by finishing top of their group.

Then came the first ever World Cup knockout win by an African country, with Milla at the heart of it, his second goal against Colombia coming after goalkeeper Rene Higuita decided to go on holiday at a quite inconvenient point in the match.

It might be a bit of a cliche to say that Cameroon were 'representing an entire continent', but here was a chance to go one step beyond for an effervescent underdog against an England side that were no more fearsome than any other opponent.

Cameroon Player Ratings


Starting XI: N'Kono (5); Kunde (7); Tataw (6), Massing (5), Ebwelle (5); Libiih (6), Maboang (5), Pagal (7), Mfede (6); Omam-Biyik (6), Makanaky (7).

Substitutes: Milla (9), Ekeke (8).

Roger Milla

Roger Milla
Roger Milla scores Cameroon v Romania 1990 FIFA World Cup | Getty Images/Getty Images

Though Benjamin Massing's tendency to leave more than a bit in will live long in the memory (especially Claudio Caniggia's), it couldn't really be anyone else, could it?

The then-oldest player to ever play at a World Cup, Roger Milla had already enjoyed his retirement party in 1988, a jubilee attended by 150,000 spectators.

But the dancing genius had one more in him, and when the Cameroonian FA came calling he showed them that you're only ever as old as you feel, with no back problems for this old geezer as he carried his country to sporting immortality.


Key Talking Point

This was a gateway towards (slightly more arbitrary) unknown territory for England too, who in typically parochial fashion had never reached a World Cup semi-final outside of their own country.

England had been held back from semi-finals via a heartbreaking choke-job against West Germany in Leon in 1970, and Maradona's infamous antics in Mexico City in 1986 in tournaments past (side note, what's the deal with all these World Cups being held in Mexico?).

But lads - it's Cameroon.

Bobby Robson, Paul Gascoigne
England manager Bobby Robson and Paul Gascoigne 1990 | Getty Images/Getty Images

With a squad including such footballing luminaries as Chris Waddle, John Barnes, Lineker and Peter Beardsley, even an injury to captain Bryan Robson in the group stages couldn't hide the fact that this was the game where England really had a chance to stamp their authority on the tournament.

But then again they probably said that about the game against Belgium in the previous round - one that England weren't leading until the 119th minute.

England Player Ratings

English forward Gary Lineker is tripped
English forward Gary Lineker is tripped | PATRICK HERTZOG/Getty Images

Starting XI: Shilton (8); Wright (5); Parker (5), Walker (5), Butcher (6), Pearce (7); Waddle (5), Platt (7), Gascoigne (6), Barnes (5); Lineker (8).

Substitutes: Beardsley (5), Steven (7).

David Platt

David Platt of England
David Platt of England | Getty Images/Getty Images

Lineker was lethal, Gazza was dazzling, but without this man who knows where England might have ended up.

Before he was extremely good at Sitting Next to Roberto Mancini, Platt was extremely good at Scoring Clutch Goals and, with Bryan Robson injured against Ireland, England were forced to turn to the future Sampdoria midfielder, coming off the back of a barnstorming season with Aston Villa.

His mind-bending volley against Belgium assured England of the privilege of facing Milla and co, and he was one of the few players who could muster up some consistency when heads were exiting the building in defence and midfield alike.

What Aged the Worst?

Paul Gascoigne, Lothar Matthaus
Paul Gascoigne 1990 FIFA World Cup Semi Final England v West Germany | Getty Images/Getty Images

Absolutely this England side.

They were an incomplete side with a leaky defence relying on sporadic bursts of star power and an incredibly fortuitous and emotional tournament covered up a litany of sins.

They departed from Euro 1992 with a whimper, scoring just one goal in the group stages, and failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup in a qualification process that notoriously saw them go behind to San Marino within 8.3 seconds.

What Aged the Best?

UEFA Euro '92 FINAL - Denmark v Germany
UEFA Euro '92 FINAL - Denmark v Germany | Simon Bruty/Getty Images

Quite simply, the underdog at international tournaments was finally barking.

Two years later, a Denmark side who were only invited to Euro 1992 because of the dissolution of Yugoslavia shocked Germany in the final and, just over a decade after that, an incredibly bored footballing world saw Greece win Euro 2004.

While Cameroon are of course not entirely responsible for these footballing miracles, they'll always be remembered as one of the OG Davids who went toe to toe with an impressive amount of Goliaths.

What Happened Next?

Lothar Matthaus, Chris Waddle
England v West Germany 1990 FIFA World Cup Semi Final | Getty Images/Getty Images

Do we really need to go over that one?

Ok, fine. England put together one of their most convincing performances in a major tournament ever against a towering Germany side until their star player got booked (and therefore suspended from the final), and the typical mental disintegration by means of penalty shootout followed.

Cameroon, unlike England, qualified for the next World Cup, where Milla scored at the obscene age of 42, but like England they ultimately disappointed, finishing bottom of their group with one point. A depressing end to an otherwise turbulent tale.