World Cup's Greatest Shocks: Cameroon 1-0 Argentina, 1990

There are plenty of reasons why football has grown to become the world's most popular sport. The game's simplicity means it can be played by almost anyone, anywhere. Its incredible fanbases have helped to create unbeatable atmospheres, but it is arguably in the sport's unpredictability that truly sets it aside. Gareth and I have compiled a list of 10 of the Men's World Cup's greatest shocks. Covering almost 100 years of football history, the following upsets can tell us more than just what happened over the course of 90 minutes. 

Cameroon 1-0 Argentina - 1990

There are not many major tournaments that provide football fans with as much gleeful nostalgia as Italia '90. Seen as a true 'turning point' in world football, the significance of the 14th World Cup should not be understated. Argentina entered the competition as holders and one of the favourites to retain the trophy, boasting a squad brimming with talent. Not only could they seemingly rely upon many influential members of the 1986 winning side, La Albiceleste's captain, Diego Maradona, was the game's best player. Qualifying automatically as the previous tournament's winners, Argentina would open the competition against Cameroon, playing in only their second World Cup. Little was expected of the African nation upon their arrival at the San Siro, but what was to follow would stun the watching world and change the course of football forever.

Despite boasting an incredible squad, Argentina's preparations for the final tournament in 1990 could not have been worse. Although it was a luxury to be granted automatic qualification for the World Cup, a lack of competitive action and overconfidence would see Carlos Bilardo's side begin 1990 with consecutive defeats to Mexico and Scotland. Only a narrow 2-1 victory over Israel two weeks before the start of World Cup ended a disappointing run of ten games without a win. Such a run of results was hardly the form of a future champion but supporters and journalists nonetheless expected Argentina to begin their tournament with an easy victory over Cameroon.

Cameroon had qualified for the 1990 World Cup relatively comfortably. Having first topped their group ahead of Nigeria, a 3-0 aggregate victory against Tunisia in the play-offs would see the Indomitable Lions ready to compete on the world stage again. Although buoyed by a successful qualification campaign, a disappointing AFCON, which saw them crash out in the group stage behind Zambia and Senegal, was perhaps to blame for their tag as 'no-hopers'. With betting odds of 500-1 against them, Cameroon's unique blend of 'strong defence and spontaneous attack'[8] was unlikely to cause any kind of upset, not least against the reigning world champions.

Perhaps exemplifying Argentina's pre-match overconfidence was Diego Maradona. Juggling the ball around the centre circle after exchanging handshakes with rival captain Stephan Tataw, such a show of arrogance was to be La Albiceleste's undoing. Despite this, Argentina would dominate the first half, coming close on several occasions only for Cameroon's stand in goalkeeper Thomas N'Kono to be equal to everything thrown his way. 

The match itself was a physical affair. The 1990 World Cup would be characterised by key themes including a record number of bookings and sendings off. Furthermore, overly defensive tactics often reduced games to attack against defence with the opening fixture being no different. The game's first yellow card came just ten minutes from kick-off as Benjamin Massing put in a heavy challenge through the back of Maradona. Combined with some wasteful finishing, Argentina's frustrations continued to grow. For all of their dominance in the first-half, it would be Cameroon who went closest to taking the lead as Cyrille Makanaky's effort was bundled off the line by a frantic Argentine defence.

Victor Ndip was next to go into referee Michel Vautrot's book. An awful chest high challenge, again on Maradona, was dealt with leniently by the French referee. By the hour-mark, the diminutive forward had already accumulated 11 fouls against him. The Irish Independent would describe the Cameroonian approach as 'take-no-prisoners tactics' and unsurprising to see Vautrot reach for his pocket on a number of occasions.[1] However, his decision to send off Andre Kana-Biyik 16 minutes into the second half was met with a genuine sense of antipathy from a crowd increasingly in favour of Cameroon. Justified in their aversions, the challenge from Biyik on Claudio Caniggia was nothing more than a clumsy trip. 

For Bilardo, the red card would completely change the game. Bilardo believed 'Everything was under control until Cameroon went down to 10 men and we got disorganised'. [2] Even the battered and bruised Maradona would comment after the game that he disagreed with Vautrot's decision. Biyik's dismissal had the opposite effect on Cameroon. Incensed by what they perceived to be an injustice; the Indomitable Lions would take the lead six minutes later through Francois Oman-Biyik. 'Leaping athletically', Biyik's powerful, downward header would be spilled into the net by Argentina's 'lethargic' goalkeeper Nery Pumpido.[3] The goal sparked wild celebrations on the pitch and in the crowd as a stunned but jubilant San Siro watched on in disbelief.

Following the goal, Argentina would struggle to impose themselves on the game against a defensive unit growing in confidence with each and every clearance, header and tackle. The robust nature of the Cameroonian rearguard would continue throughout the second half, finally accumulating in a red card for centre-back Benjamin Massing with two minutes to play. Massing would, for all intents and purposes, wipe out a marauding Claudio Caniggia. 'I came in on him like a truck' recalled Massing, reflecting on his game saving red card some years later.[4]

Cameroon would hold off the Argentine attack until Vautrot's final whistle. Astonishingly, the nine-men of the unfancied African nation had beaten the reigning World Champions. The scale of the victory was not lost on commentators and journalists after the match. Described by the Derby Daily Telegraph as 'one of the biggest upsets in the history of the event', the magnitude of Cameroon's win was clear. The Daily Mirror would go one further, claiming that no other result in World Cup history could match this one for its shock value.[5] 

For Argentina, the inquest began immediately after the final whistle. Booed by their own supporters, La Albiceleste's future in the tournament was uncertain. Coach Bilardo would later comment that the result was 'the worst moment of my career'. Humiliated but defiant, Maradona would refuse to rule out Argentina's chances for the tournament and would even praise the performance of Cameroon, despite their repeated targeting of the Napoli forward. 
'We can still win the World Cup...but we cannot afford to make any further mistakes. Cameroon won because they were better than Argentina. We must applaud them'
Argentina would refocus on the tournament at hand and eventually play their way, albeit conservatively, to the World Cup Final. In a repeat of the 1986 final, Bilardo's side would face West Germany for the trophy at the Stadio Olimpico. However, a 1-0 defeat due to a late Andreas Brehme penalty and, ironically, two Argentine red cards, meant it would be silver rather than gold around the necks of Maradona and his dejected teammates. Argentina's negative, pragmatic tactics were utilised by a number of nations competing in Italy resulting in a record low for goals (2.2 per game) and a general sense of disapproval from pundits. Writing immediately after the final, the Staffordshire Sentinel would comment that 'FIFA would have some hard thinking to do' before adding that the 1990 tournament was 'one of the most disappointing in history'.[6] Not alone in its criticism, many more would argue that massive changes would be needed by the time the next World Cup arrived in 1994.

 Maradona leads the Argentine argument in the World Cup Final

The general negativity aimed at the tournament is perhaps why many believe it to be a 'turning point' in world football. By the time USA '94 began in Los Angeles, steps had been taken by FIFA and IFAB to promote attacking football and eradicate any threat of conservative tactics taking precedence. Three points would be awarded for a group stage win (instead of two) and the widely unpopular back-pass was dropped to dispel time wasting between defenders and their goalkeeper. Such changes were ultimately successful. USA '94 saw an average of 2.71 goals a game, a huge improvement on the previous World Cup. 

It wasn't just negativity that inspired football's revolution after Italia '90. In England, a successful tournament would help the game to reinvent itself following two turbulent decades, characterised by hooliganism and wider state neglect. Two years after the conclusion of the 1990 World Cup, the Premier League would promise 'a whole new ball game', eventually proving to be the world's most competitive and watch league. Indeed, further reasons for Italia '90's status as football's 'turning point' could be discussed but such conversations are best saved for another article!

The Indomitable Lion's shock victory over Argentina would leave a lasting legacy in the African nation and wider continent. Not only did the 1-0 triumph provide the Africa with only its 5th win at the World Cup, Cameroon would eventually reach the quarter-finals, narrowly being edged out by England after extra-time. Japhet Anafak's expert study into the history of football in Cameroon heralds the match against Argentina for causing 'immense enthusiasm in Cameroonians'. Furthermore, Anafak continues to note that the success of the West African nation in Italy would lead to the team becoming a symbol of national unity and cohesion.[7] For a continent so ravaged by colonialism and neglect, such values were of increasing importance. For African football, Cameroon's run to the quarter-finals led to FIFA awarding the CAF an extra spot at the 1994 tournament, providing greater representation. For Simon Hart, Italia '90 began to slowly change the world's perception of Africa. A different image of Africa was created, 'a winning Africa, a proud Africa'.[8]

Can Cameroon cause an upset in 2022?

There is no doubt that the 1990 World Cup is one of sports most defining moments and it can be argued that no edition of football's greatest competition can compete with the longevity of its legacy. Cameroon's magnificently chaotic victory over reigning world champions Argentina set the tone for a tournament that would break the mould and upset the favourites. Critics will still point to the lack of quality and low scoring which have stained the tournament but others will see it as the true inspiration for the future of football, a future that Africa would be firmly at the heart of.
This piece was written by @TFHBs writer Ben Jones - you can follow me on Twitter @Benny_J


[1]Irish Independent - Saturday 09 June 1990
[2] Bilardo in Simon Burnton, The Guardian, 13 March 2018
[3] Aberdeen Press and Journal - Saturday 09 June 1990
[4] Daily Mail, 12 June 2018
[5] Daily Mirror, 09 June 1990
[6] Staffordshire Sentinel, 09 July 1990
[7] Japhet Anafak, The Cameroon National Football Team and national unity (1972-2017), 2019
[8] Simon Hart, World in Motion, 2018

©The Football History Boys, 2022
(All pictures borrowed and NOT owned in any form by TFHB)


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