Perhaps no image sums up Italia 90 as much as that of an impish, grinning, gap-toothed, pencil-moustachioed 38-year-old Cameroonian, dancing his jig at the corner flag. “Not quite a samba but an erotic dance in front of the flag, finishing with the hand down by the groin, just to show the virile way that the defence had been pierced,” suggested the novelist Eugène Ebode.

The heart-warming tale of Roger Milla, whose four goals propelled the unlikely Indomitable Lions to the quarter-final is as absurd as it is brilliant. Playing out the twilight of his career in a semi-professional league on an Indian Ocean island, Milla was brought back into the international fold by his country’s leader and lit up the imagination of countless football fans and young Africans. On the strength of only three hours of football in that tournament Milla was named African Player of the Year for 1990, 14 years after he first won the accolade, and, in 2006, he went on to be crowned the African player of the last century.

Albert Roger Mooh Miller was born on 20 May 1952, in the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé, to a football-mad father who earned a modest wage working for the national railway network. Milla, like every other Cameroonian boy at the time, idolised the 1960s national hero Mbappe ‘Marshall’ Leppe, captain of Oryx Douala who had won the first African Champions Cup in 1965, and based his game on the wiry, skilful and strong striker. The young Milla, more interested in football than schoolwork, also collected newspaper cuttings of Pelé and taped them to his bedroom wall. He was six when Pelé shone in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, becoming the tournament’s youngest goalscorer at 17 years and 239 days). 36 years later, at USA 94, the Cameroonian would score against Russia to become the World Cup’s oldest scorer, aged 42 years and 39 days.

“When I was young, I loved playing football — it was the only thing I did,” Milla told me, the familiar grin causing his thin lips to curl. “Although we were poor, I was playing football purely as a passion and with a child’s eye — it meant that I was not as aware of any poverty around me. Football allowed me to lose myself; it was my everything. I never played football for the money, I simply loved being on the pitch.

“I remember when I was at school, my PE teacher used to take me to games on his motorbike. At the end of the game, he would be waiting for me to jump on his bike and he would take me to another match. I could play five games in a day with no problem.

“One day I forgot to do my homework, and in those days that meant a flogging from my teacher. I was scared and instead of going to school I hid somewhere in town. I was sad because we had an important match that day and not being at school meant I was going to miss it. My PE teacher sent my friends to look for me and promised that I was not going to be punished for not doing my homework and bunking off school. When I arrived at the pitch, everyone was chanting my name. I saved the match and we won. I was treated like a hero and that felt great!”

It was a feeling that Milla would become accustomed to. Moving from the countryside — where he fired at birds with his catapult and kicked oranges around with his friends — to Cameroon’s largest city, Douala, the 11-year-old Milla soon became renowned for his mesmeric dribbling. Turning out for local sides he earned pocket-money and signed his first playing license aged 13, on the instruction of a school teacher. “I didn’t go in to football to make money, but to do something that I thoroughly enjoyed doing, and it seemed so natural,” Milla insisted.

He was light on his feet, but also gifted with strong, powerful thighs. Indeed, he was the Cameroon schools’ high-jump champion at 17, two years after he had made his second-division debut for L’Eclair de Douala. Milla soon moved on to Léopard de Douala, where he netted 89 goals in 117 appearances between 1971 and 1974.

The German coach Peter Schnittger, in charge of Cameroon in the early 1970s, remembered how the Léopard’s starlet grabbed the attention of Africa. “He was very young still, and thin, not an ounce of fat on him,” he told Ian Hawkey in Feet of the Chameleon. “His legs were like chopsticks. He weighed maybe 60 kilos, but he was so fast. He had a great belief in himself even then.”

Playing a Champions Cup match against Hafia in the Guinean capital Conakry, in front of a number of heads of state including Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Milla starred. “At half-time, Hafia were 2-0 up,” continued Schnittger, “and in the second half we scored four. When Milla scored his first goal, he just exploded into life. He was like a gazelle, bounding around. He scored a hat-trick in the end. The next day, the team went on an official visit to the Guinean leader, SékouTouré and all his guests from the summit. Touré made a speech, saying ‘This was not just a victory for Cameroon, not the Léopards, it was a triumph for all the youth of Africa.’ People were just bowled over by Milla.”

Milla’s successes in Africa were achieved chiefly with Tonnerre Yaoundé, the team he moved to in 1974 from Léopard. Hescored 69 times in only 87 games and in 1976 he was named African Player of the Year. The award caused European sides to take note and the 25 year old moved to the French club Valenciennes the following year. He would go on to play in France for 13 years, turning out for AS Monaco, Bastia, Saint-Étienne and finally Montpellier.

“To have Milla in your team was to have a diamond,” said Claude Le Roy, who coached Cameroon in the late 1980s. “You could spend a week in training with him and he would not make a single technical mistake. Then he spent a long time in France and if you look at the clubs they may not always have been the very top clubs there, but they usually won something, a trophy or promotion: because they had Milla in the team.

“In terms of pure quality, Roger Milla really belongs among the greater players. If he had been playing in his era for Brazil, that fact would be properly recognised. This is a man who had an international career for 20 years. He is a force of nature. You could sometimes see that he was not a rational force. He often just could not understand why other players could not do the things he found so easy. That was part of his character.”

Milla’s prickly attitude on the pitch earned him the nickname ‘Gaddafi’, but it was exactly this bloody-mindedness and determination that made him stand out. In Spain in 1982, aged 30, he appeared in his first World Cup. Cameroon dropped out after drawing all three group games. Milla hit the post in the first match against Peru and had a goal chalked off for offside that he still insists should have stood. The goalkeeper Thomas Nkono made a rare mistake in their final game which led to Italy scoring; had Cameroon won, they would have gone through at the eventual world champions’ expense. It was a cruel campaign but only served to strengthen Milla’s resolve to shine on football’s greatest stage.

In 1989, after helping Cameroon winthe 1988 Cup of Nations, Milla signed for Jeunesse Sportive Saint-Pierroise in the French colonial outpost of Réunion, a tiny island off the coast of East Africa. There the 37yearold intended to wind down his career. “To finish my career that way seemed idyllic because the football there was African, technical, just like I played,” Milla said. He eased into Réunion life, allowed himself to lose his fitness, engaged in a spot of social tennis and enjoyed himself.

Just before Christmas 1989 Milla was asked to return to Cameroon by his good friend Théophile ‘Doctor’ Abega, another veteran of 1982, for his testimonial game in Douala. A huge crowd was once again under Milla’s spell as he cracked in two blistering goals. The next day the national papers speculated whether their greatest former player, unfit as he was, would be of more use at the upcoming World Cup in Italy than the other fringe players on offer.

Three months on Cameroon had a disastrous African Cup of Nations campaign in Algeria, beating only Kenya in their group. This listless showing caused Cameroon’s leader, Paul Biya, to demand that Milla go to Italy as part of the squad. “He signed a decree, which was brave of the president but a risk,” says Milla. “If I had not been up to standard, he would have taken some of the blame. I felt honoured to come and help my country, I felt on a mission. I knew I was old, but I agreed to participate in the World Cup to show that age is not an obstacle. I felt I could still play, I could still help my country.”

Three years after retiring from international football, the presence of a flabby Milla was not looked upon kindly by his teammates. He underwent an extensive training regime in a bid to lose the excess weight he had gained in Réunion. On the eve of the World Cup he once again showed his masterly touch, scoring twice in training game against Croatian side Hajduk Split.

Milla’s involvement in the opening victory over Argentina was limited, but he came on after an hour of the second match against Romania and, 15 minutes later, he laced a stunning left-footed drive to give the Indomitable Lions the lead. Overcome with delight Milla wheeled away to the corner flag and, all wiry limbs, performed a jig that would soon become familiar. Fans speculated whether or not the brilliant, gleeful celebration was premeditated, perhaps a hip-wiggling makossa, a traditional Cameroonian dance. “It’s not a real dance,” Milla said. “It was an instantaneous manifestation of my joy. It was not at all planned! I just felt like dancing each time I scored. It was the first time ever that I felt like doing that dance.”

Within 10 minutes he had more reason to dance as he notched an even more eye-catching goal with his right foot, ensuring his team’s passage to the knockout stages with a game to spare. They met Colombia in Naples in the next round and, with the scores deadlocked at 0-0 in extra time, the super-sub Milla struck again, out-foxing Andrés Escobar and arrowing a shot past René Higuita. As the flamboyant goalkeeper waved his teammates upfield to equalise, he received a pass near the halfway line and Milla picked his pocket before rolling the ball in to make it 2-0. The win sparked wild celebrations in Cameroon and across Africa — it was the first time a country from the continent had made it through to the last eight of the World Cup.

Against England, Milla entered the fray after Cameroon had gone a goal behind to David Platt’s header. He soon won a penalty, chopped down by Paul Gascoigne; Emmanuel Kunde converted. Then Milla was the wall in a one-two with Eugene Ekeke, who chipped Peter Shilton. But two Gary Lineker penalties turned the game back England’s way. “It was a very special tournament,” Milla said, “but it could have been even more special if luck had been on our side.”

Nonetheless, his achievements in those three weeks remain indelible. Cameroon didn’t just get to the quarter-final; they also made the world take African football seriously.