IT was more than a World Cup. More than Nessun Dorma, Gazza crying or Pearce and Waddle starting the trend for English footballers failing from 12 yards.
And 25 years on, the impact of Italia ’90 is being felt in some unlikely ways.
It was the tournament which sparked my move, originally as cover for somebody who was heading out to watch it, from news to sports journalism – a switch which came after just a couple of weeks as a trainee and has only been reversed in the last couple of years.
It was the tournament that produced the best book written about football – All Played Out (now rechristened One Night In Turin) by Pete Davies – which served as an inspiration for at least one aspiring young sports writer.
It was the tournament that reminded people that football could be fun after the black days of Heysel, Hillsborough, Bradford and hooliganism and set the ball rolling for domestic football to turn into the money-obsessed, commercial behemoth it has become today, bringing with it a new breed of fan who seems to believe the game started with the creation of the Premiership (mentioning no names… but here’s a link to a review of a book by Tim Lovejoy).
And it was the tournament which introduced the world to Cameroon.
Yes, they had been at the finals eight years earlier, when there were already questions about the age of Roger Milla, and gone out on goal difference at the group stage to eventual winners Italy.
But 1990 was when the Indomitable Lions really put African football firmly on the world stage, beating Argentina in the opener and reaching the quarter-finals before losing in extra-time to England, dotting their progress with thrilling football, inimitable celebrations and an approach to defending which bordered on the ruthless – as best shown by the brutal tackle on Claudio Caniggia which got Benjamin Massing sent off in that opening victory.
And at times, Cameroon left us feeling as if we had just been kicked up in the air by a big centre half.
But, having waited six days in Calabar and 54 hours at the border, we were finally rewarded with a beautiful country which made our efforts to get in worth it. It could even rank as the most picturesque country so far, certainly the greenest.
Having waited so long to cross the border, our first incursion into Cameroon took us just a few miles, along the new road under construction and down the old one (more of a potted, mud track through the trees, which has taken days to drive down in previous trips) to set up camp for the night.
Our welcome was a torrential downpour from the moment our tents went up – in my case, for the first time under the full canvas since Senegal and without tent buddy Michael, temporarily back in France sorting out a few issues – until just before breakfast.
The torrent failed to calm some of the celebrations at crossing the border (well, we were weighed down by a good deal of beer bought to use up our final Nigerian currency*) but meant a long, thankfully mainly dry night inside the tent – despite the, possibly well-intentioned, badly-executed attempt by someone to move my tent down the track which had me searching for it in the height of the monsoon, left my groundsheet screwed up in a puddle and the sides all but collapsing in on themselves.
Our reward was a long day on the truck and another eventful evening, but most importantly a stunning introduction to Cameroon as we meandered our way through the mountains.
With hoodies, jumpers and coats retrieved from deep in lockers for the first time in weeks as the temperatures dropped – making our jokes from the heat of the border that it was 10 degrees cooler in Cameroon more into prophecies – we were treated to some spectacular scenery akin to the stereotypical view of Africa, full of lush, verdant vegetation and red dirt tracks.
Having spent all day enjoying the scenery, we finally pulled off the road after dark to set up camp, settling on the side of a school football pitch.
The locals, the school caretaker, the villagers who came to welcome us and even some sort of commandant were all happy for us to stay there as we set up camp and cooked up the evening meal.
But some other official was less than impressed – not sure whether he was annoyed at us being there or not coming to pay our respects to him as we arrived – and insisted we moved on.
By the time we arrived at our new home for the night in the paddock of the police station and army barracks at Baham (which meant trips to the toilet overnight carried the risk of an armed man challenging you), we had attracted an entourage of officials from the local chief downwards and my back (sore for a few days after behaving itself for the bulk of the trip) had seized up from putting up, taking down and putting up a tent in such quick succession.
A long night prompted a bit of a rethink when we arrived at the seaside town of Limbe.
After an upgrade in Accra, the plan was not to repeat the move until Nairobi (bar the sporadic hostels in the likes of Cape Town en route**), but the prospect of a bed for a couple of nights to ease my back was too tempting to ignore. Once the message had got through to the staff and the process of checking in had been completed. Only took a bit longer than two hours.
Making full use of the room, its shower, the pool, the bar and all that Limbe had to offer – a shortish walk down the coastal path into a very pleasant, chilled out little town – ruled out any prospect of me joining in the assault on Mt Cameroon.
Not that there was ever any real prospect of that happening.
At around 4,100m- about 800m below Mt Blanc – Mt Cameroon is Africa’s fourth highest peak and a tough two-day trek up and down (or three days, as it turned out for a couple of our intrepid half dozen who took up the challenge).
While those of us who remained shopped (largely for pastries and football kits), ate out, used the wi-fi and chilled by the pool, those who scaled the summit returned with a variety of responses, which ranged from “really cool” and “so glad I did it” to “never again”, “that was so hard” and something in Kiwi which is pretty much unrepeatable here.
Dora the Explorer and his friend Boots were unavailable for comment, having wandered off somewhere else.
But reunited in one group back at sea level (evidently, not so easy to ascertain, even with the waves crashing on the rocks behind you) and just 24 hours later than planned, we rolled out of Limbe to see what else Cameroon could throw at us.
Clad in our new Cameroon football shirts.
* Not sure that explains the overheard line from a neighbouring tent: “No, you are not coming in without any underwear on.”
** Talk is turning to what we are going to do in Cape Town as we make the tough trek down the west of Africa. Arriving at Easter, the end of Lent will come as a welcome relief to one inhabitant of the trek who was convinced to give up a solitary activity for 40 days. As many of us will be sharing a dorm room with him, not sure we thought it through…