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When Cameroon Convinced Themselves They Couldn’t Win

Why do African teams struggle in the World Cup? It has everything to do with colonialism.

Popper Foto / fifa.com

If the spirits of Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko were hovering unseen above a football stadium in Naples in July, 1990, they would not have liked what they saw. But they would have found it sadly predictable.

The stadium hosted a World Cup quarter-final between Cameroon and England. The more skilled team, Cameroon, lost. They were beaten not by England but by themselves.

The 1990 Cameroon team captivated football fans around the world—especially those in South Africa. This was the country’s first live televised World Cup (previously fans had to make do with watching matches at clubs or restaurants a couple of days late) and the first after the bans on liberation movements were lifted and the negotiations which ended apartheid began. Although South Africa was two years away from competing in international football (beginning, not by accident, with a match against Cameroon), this was the first time South Africans could identify in real time with a team representing Africa. Cameroon would have generated excitement even in less heady times—they turned out to be probably the best African team to play in a World Cup finals.

The party began with the first match of the tournament—Cameroon, down to nine men after two red cards, beat the world champions, Argentina, 1-0, with a late goal in a match which is still iconic. They then beat Romania 2-1 to qualify for the knock-out stage, a status they celebrated with a 4-0 loss to Russia when little was at stake. They beat Colombia 2-1 in the Round of 16 to become the first African team to play in a World Cup quarterfinal.

Cameroon 1990 is best remembered for its striker Roger Milla, then 38 years old (some say he was older), who seemed to inspire the team every time he was brought on as substitute. But the team was filled with the type of skilled footballers who would play in Europe’s top leagues in decades to come—defender and captain Stephen Tataw, midfielders Francois Omam-Biyik, his brother Andre Kana-Biyik and Emile Mbouh and striker Cyril Makanaky (Kana-Biyik and Mbouh did not play in the England match).

The football mainstream assumed that England was a bridge too far for Cameroon. Their two victims after Argentina were hardly among world football’s elite and England seemed sure to assert football’s natural pecking order. All of which seemed justified when England went ahead half way through the first half and retained the lead into halftime.

After halftime, everything changed when Milla came on. Within minutes, Cameroon won a penalty and equalized. A few minutes later, they went ahead (although Milla seemed to have invigorated the team, he scored neither goal). Cameroon came to life, showing more skill than at any other time during the tournament. They danced past the English, who were unable to cope.

A wave of Cameroonian skill produced a scoring opportunity—they seemed certain to score, but English goalkeeper Peter Shilton got lucky: the ball cannoned off his shins. That ended the Cameroon challenge. With 8 minutes to play, England equalized through a penalty. They won with another penalty in extra time.

Football is often political, particularly when the contest is between the colonizer and colonized (Britain, with France, colonized Cameroon). This showed in the contrasting ways the match was explained.

The dominant view (as always, that of the colonizer) is that the Europeans showed why they usually came out on top. The Africans might dazzle with their skills, but it was organization and professionalism which mattered. England, unlike Africans, had loads of both. The view of the dominated was that Africans had been cheated yet again: two penalties were concocted to make the World Cup safe for the Empire.

Both were wrong. Neither penalty was dubious. But the English were not the better team: they lost because the Cameroon players convinced themselves they could not win.

That self-confidence is often the difference between winning and losing is a sporting truism—for teams as well as individuals. All too frequently, teams which are skilled but expect to lose play themselves into a winning position and then shrink back, convinced that winning is not for them. In international sport, it is hardly surprising that this is most likely when powerful countries play the powerless—when, for example, African teams play their European colonizers.

Sometimes, this inferiority complex is instilled by African teams’ coaches (who are almost always European). A prime example happened 4 years later, at the 1994 World Cup. In the Round of 16, Nigeria, having dominated the first half against Italy, went into half-time 1-0 ahead. Their Dutch coach, Clemens Westerhof, insisted that they defend the lead. Nigeria’s striker, Rashidi Yekini, yelled at him that this defeatism would cost them the match: they were good enough to attack and win. Westerhof’s instructions prevailed and Yekini was right—Italy won in extra time.

Often, however, African teams don’t need a European to convince themselves they can’t win. When the ball bounced off Shilton’s shin, doubt, which disappeared when Cameroon were down and Milla appeared, returned. Cameroon stopped dancing round England and retreated into their shell. They told themselves they were doomed—much as Ghana may have done when they missed a penalty which would have beaten Uruguay in Johannesburg in 2010.

This would, of course, have made sense to Fanon and Biko—both wrote of the mental colonization which convinces the dominated that they are not good as the dominant.

It surely won’t be long before another African team emerges capable of reaching the last four or even winning the World Cup. When it does, we can only hope that its coach and players have learned from Fanon and Biko that they can prevail—if they free themselves of the chains the colonizer has planted in their heads.