Monday, May 21, 2012

And after the best clubs – the best individuals. There is pattern in the election of best players of the year: usually the best player belongs to highly successful club. Yes, it seems logical – the best clubs are made of best players – but it is also inertia. Just because a team is winning does not mean automatically that the best individual footballer plays there. But winning counts most… Thus, the voting for African Player of the Year reflects the success of the clubs – Ali Bencheikh of MC Alger was third. Second was Papa Camara (Guinea) of the African Champion Cup’s finalist Hafia (Conakry). Best of all was player, who does not need an introduction today. Back in 1976 he was not exactly a newcomer either – was second placed in 1975 – but his name meant absolutely nothing. Some Cameroonian called Roger Milla.

Photos of his first glory are widely unavailable… Milla was 24 years old and played for Tonnere (Yaounde), one of the best Cameroonian clubs at the time, but the football of the country were still rather weak in Africa, not to mention the world. Hence, unknown… As for Milla, he was born in the country’s capital Yaounde, but started his playing career in the other big football city of Cameroon, Douala. According to available data, he debuted way back – in 1965 – for Elcair (Douala). African statistics, when existing at all, are notoriously unreliable, so info has to be taken with a grain of salt: in 1965 Milla was 13-years old. Suspiciously young, if data concerns men team, as it looks like. But it is possible… after all, the best clubs in the world are often founded by schoolkids, who made the squad in the early days. Amateur football even today includes teenagers in nominally men’s squads. African football was both young and amateur in 1976, and even more so in 1965… Milla’s early days may be true. Or not. Who can really check and prove beyond doubt? Anyhow, the record tells that Milla played 61 games and scored 6 goals for Elcair until 1971. Then he moved to bigger and better club – Leopard (Douala). For them he played 117 matches, scoring impressive 89 goals in three years. And in 1974 Milla either got homesick or his talent tempted the finest Cameroonian clubs, for he finally returnedto Yaounde and joined Tonnere. It was steady upward development, eventually noticed abroad and awarded – second in Africa the year before and the best player of the year in 1976.

Yet, it is difficult to assess the qualities of Milla. Although France Football magazine organized the vote, European based professional African players rarely appeared in the list. Was Milla really better than those playing in Europe? This is big ‘may be’ – against Milla go two things: the best African player triggered no interest in Europe. Nobody rushed to offer him a contract until 1977, and the offer came from a small club, Vallencienes (France). Even if the Europeans were jaded and racists, there was something close to home: Milla not only did not play a single match for Cameroonian national team, but his continental fame did not lead to invitation. His debut for Cameroon came in 1978, when he already played in France. So how great he was? I am not certain – at the time there was much better known Cameroonian player: Manga-Oungene, who never made it to Europe, but was thought perhaps the brightest African player. But in those days African players got little exposure anyway: from the top three only Milla and Bencheikh appeared at World Cup finals.

But Roger Milla was to get real fame eventually. Sure, he had to wait many, many years for that, until his goals, his dance, and his age made him world famous.

Can’t mistake this grin? Back in 1976 Milla himself would not believe that he will be Coca-Cola poster boy one day. Well, a grandpa, rather than a boy… fame came late to him, although his first big award was achieved when he was only 24.