AFCON 2021 Special: From Milla to Minala, Exploring The Unique Relationship Between Italy and Cameroon 

The African Cup of Nations returns to Cameroon this month, half a century after the five-time champions last hosted the competition. In honour of this long-overdue homecoming, we’re taking a retrospective look at the unique relationship between Italian football and the West African nation. 

The 1990 World Cup in Italy constitutes the pinnacle of Cameroon’s footballing history. It was a fairytale, laced with just a hint of brutality. They stunned Maradona’s Argentina – and the watching world – in the opening fixture at Milan’s San Siro. 

What that Cameroon team lacked in household names, they made up for in flair and sheer determination. Roger Milla and his unlikely band of men were only halted at the quarter-final stage by a fortuitous England side and, in doing so, announced the arrival of African football on the world stage. 

Those summer exploits gave rise to perhaps the greatest Cameroonian influence on Italian football. The heroism of veteran goalkeeper Thomas N’Kono inspired a 12-year-old Gianluigi Buffon – a midfielder in the Parma youth system at that point – to pull on the gloves. He never looked back and Italy’s greatest ever shotstopper later named his son Louis Thomas in honour of his hero. 

Of the current crop of Cameroonian players in Italy, two are part of the squad for the forthcoming tournament, both defensive midfielders. Andre Zambo Anguissa has made a significant impact in Naples since signing on loan from Fulham in the summer, establishing himself as a starter in Luciano Spalletti’s team when fit. Martin Hongla took in spells in Spain, Ukraine and Belgium before joining Hellas Verona in the summer, where he has likewise impressed. 

But this represents just the tip of the iceberg of Cameroonian players who have graced Serie A… 

The first: Augustine Simo (Torino) 

The 17-year-old midfielder made a handful of appearances at the tail end of a miserable 1995/96 season which saw Torino relegated from the top flight. He departed for Switzerland at the end of that campaign, where he then spent the majority of his career. He amassed 23 caps for the national team and represented The Indomitable Lions at the 1998 World Cup in France. 

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Augustine Simo bottom left

The longest-serving: Thomas Job (Sampdoria, Ascoli) 

Of his seventeen-year career, midfielder Job spent fifteen-and-a-half in Italy. However, his time was not without controversy, first becoming embroiled in a row over falsified documents and later serving a ban (subsequently overturned) for match-fixing. He only made 7 Serie A appearances and spent the majority of his career in the lower tiers with the likes of Cremonese, Pescara, Cittadella and Pisa. He never appeared for the national team. 

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The most appearances: Nicolas N’Koulou (Torino)  

Commanding centre-half N’Koulou won the Player of the Year award at Torino after initially signing on loan in 2017/18. During four seasons in Italy, he appeared 122 times in Serie A, chipping in with 6 goals. However, relations with the club soured in 2019 when he unsuccessfully sought to force a move to Roma. N’Koulou was an African Cup of Nations winner in 2017 – though has been mysteriously absent from The Indomitable Lions’ squad since that final. 

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The most Serie A clubs: Pierre Wome (Venezia, Roma, Bologna, Brescia, Inter) 

Left wingback Wome is the archetypal journeyman footballer having represented 16 clubs during his career. He began his Serie A odyssey with Vicenza before spells with Roma, Bologna and Brescia. In 2005/06 he moved to Roberto Mancini’s Inter, giving him a taste of Champions League football and culminating in Coppa Italia and Scudetto success. In truth, he never established himself as first choice at any of his clubs, though Wome shone with Cameroon, winning two African titles and an Olympic gold medal.  

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The most controversial: Joseph Minala (Lazio) 

Central midfielder Minala faced a media storm in early 2014 when accusations surfaced relating to his age. These accusations were based on little more than the player’s appearance and the player was fully exonerated following an Italian FA investigation. Minala made three appearances from the Lazio bench in 2013/14 before a succession of loan spells with Bari, Latina and Salernitana. Minala is currently with Serie C Lucchese and is yet to appear for the national team. 

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The greatest: Samuel Eto’o (Inter, Sampdoria) 

As Cameroon’s and, arguably, Africa’s greatest ever player, Eto’o needs little introduction. He joined Jose Mourinho’s Inter from Barcelona in 2009, where he won the historic treble in his first season. Neither his second season in Milan nor his 2015 spell as a veteran with Sampdoria could live up to those dizzying heights. The fulcrum of Cameroon’s golden generation, and now the President of the Cameroon Football Association, he won 118 caps, two African titles, Olympic gold and was a four-time African Player of Year. 

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And finally, the cult heroes… 

It was the headed goal of Francois Omam-Biyik which gave Cameroon that famous victory against Argentina. Some seven years later, the forward pitched up at Sampdoria. What could have been a romantic return to Italy for Omam-Biyik turned into a damp squib as he managed just 6 substitute appearances before heading back to Mexico. Omam-Biyik represented Cameroon as a player at three World Cups and will be The Indomitable Lions assistant manager during the 2022 African Cup of Nations. 

By the age of 22, Rigobert Song had already appeared in two World Cups. It was his displays in France ‘98 that persuaded newly-promoted Salernitana to acquire the central defender’s services. However, a clash with coach Delio Rossi meant his stay in Campania was a brief one; consisting of just four months and four appearances before he signed for Liverpool. Song is Cameroon’s most capped player (137 appearances) and spent time as caretaker manager of the national team. 

Patrick M’Boma arrived at Cagliari in 1998 having topped the J-League scoring charts with Gamba Osaka. The powerful forward’s 15 goal haul across two seasons in Sardinia earned him a move to Parma, where he served as understudy to Savo Milosevic and Marco Di Vaio. His Italian adventure came to an end in 2002 when he departed for the altogether chillier climes of Wearside. M’Boma won two African titles and an Olympic gold medal. 

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Oman-Biyik #7, Song #4, M’Boma #10

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