November 05, 2020

Five FIFA World Cup Characters of the ‘90s

Our initial perceptions of a footballer, on the field at least, probably summon the notion of a dedicated professional athlete whose commitment to their art leaves very little of their true self on display. However, once in a while, a player graces the world’s greatest competition with personality and extroversion that captivates the world audience. The 1990s World Cup tournaments certainly saw plenty of characters entering the field, some commanding more column inches and publicity than their footballing talents warrant.

This article takes a look at some players in the ‘90s who captivated World Cup audiences for reasons beyond their football ability. They are fondly remembered for entertaining the fans across the world and offering a light-hearted sideshow to the serious business of winning the most coveted trophy in world football.

Carlos Valderama (Columbia)

Some of South America’s finest football talent has come from Columbia, including a man famed for his majestic mop of hair as well as his skills on the field.

Carlos Alberto Valderrama Palacio first graced the world stage at Italia ‘90 when he captained the Colombian ‘Golden Generation’ international side - their first World Cup appearance in 28 years. Valderrama, ginormous blonde afro bouncing with every step and beads and bangles adorning his wrists, was an unforgettable sight that tournament. However, it was his style of play that really sparked the imagination.

Belying his flamboyant appearance, Valderrama’s style on the pitch, while creative and challenging, had a no-fuss approach. He was the epitome of calm; his passes had the precision of a brain surgeon. And he was an excellent playmaker, setting up the perfect assist even though he had a superb eye for goal himself.

His creativity and passing ability were fundamental in helping Columbia record their first World Cup match win against the United Arab Emirates in 1990. The tournament also included a respectable 1-1 draw with eventual winners Germany. Indeed, the Columbian side, led by Valderrama, made it beyond the Group Stages and were only eliminated when extrovert goalkeeper Rene Higuita made a fatal error that allowed Cameroon to scoop victory.

Valderrama represented Columbia in three consecutive World Cups - 1990, 1994 and 1998 - and was instrumental in Argentina’s demolition in 1994. He consistently made the Copa America. And, he had brief spells playing for teams in France and Spain - the first Columbian of his generation to play in Europe. Towards the end of his career, Valderrama moved to a recently inaugurated American Major League Soccer, where his contribution helped popularise the game throughout the United States.

Roger Miller (Cameroon)

Albert Roger Milla charmed the world of football, not as a youngster, but in the twilight of his football career. At the ripe old age of 38, seventeen years after making his international debut for Cameroon, Milla illuminated the 1990 World Cup as a substitute scoring four sublime goals to carry Cameroon to the World Cup Quarter Finals - a first for an African nation at that time. Not bad for a footballer enticed out of retirement to play at the tournament.

Mila’s record as the oldest player and goalscorer at a World Cup was beaten a short four years later by Mila himself. At the 1994 World Cup, Milla, aged 42, scored a decisive goal to draw level against a very good England side and recorded a brace against Columbia in the previous game. Although England went on to eventually win the game, Milla endeared himself to the world with his energetic impact, again from the bench, as well as his dancing goal celebrations at the corner flag, also seen at the 1990 World Cup.

Though it was at the World Cups that Mila found international stardom, he was a household name across Africa and known for his career in numerous European teams well before the ‘90s tournaments. Indeed, his career included playing for prestigious clubs such as Montpellier and Monaco. Mila was a prolific striker whose ability to read the game, position himself to take advantage of play and remain graceful under pressure, was highly regarded throughout his career and regardless of his age. Though his performance at the 1990/1994 World Cups in terms of acceleration and strength against men half his age will always be a highlight.

Even today Milla is a figurehead for African football and is often greeted fondly at any World Cup competitions by fans across the world.

Jorge Campos (Mexico)

They often say that Goalkeepers are frustrated outfield players. And, few goalkeepers can claim to have scored thirty-five goals in their footballing career. Jorge Campos can. For his club side, Pumas of Mexico, it wasn't uncommon for Campos to change positions from goalkeeper to striker if his team needed a little more energy upfront. Jorge Campos' personality certainly went beyond the penalty box, and his desire to get more involved in the game often saw him joining in as a sweeper-keeper long before Manual Nuer refined this art.

His outfield ventures were somewhat curtailed on the international scene, though still he was often seen dribbling the ball out of his area at incredible risk to his team and the astonishment of the crowd. In contrast to more conservative goalkeepers from Europe, he appeared as an enigma to the millions watching. For his small stature as a goalkeeper, only 5 ft. 6, his presence in the Mexico team was as eye-catching as his self-designed vibrant jerseys and oversized goalkeeper gloves.

Campos graced both the 1994 and 1998 World cups, winning the group stages in '94 against a robust Republic of Ireland and eventual finalists Italy. The group stage bizarrely ended up with three teams all on equal points and goal difference. Unfortunately, Mexico eventually succumbed in their next match against Bulgaria. In 1998, Mexico again passed the group stage but was knocked out by Germany in the second round.

Rene Higuita (Columbia)

If Jorge Campos was laissez-faire in his approach to his keeping his goal safe, Rene Higuita was quite frankly suicidal. Higuita would often appear out of his area to cover defenders, but would then proceed to try and dribble the ball around the opposition, daring himself to get as far as possible up the field. Alas, when it went wrong, his team would be exposed without anyone guarding the goal. Indeed, in the last minute of a Last 16 game in the 1990 World Cup, on finding himself stranded outside the box, Higuita was embarrassed by Cameroon's Roger Milla who robbed the ball and shot a decisive ball to the back of the net. This colossal mistake in the final minutes of the match sent Columbia out of the competition.

For years Higuita was one of the most identifiable international footballers on the world stage, not least for his substantial hair which rivalled teammate Valderrama's. However, his legendary status was complete in an international friendly against England at Wembley Stadium, where instead of catching a seemingly innocuous shot, Valderama jumped forward, flicking his heels to punt the ball away from his goal. This crazy stunt was nicknamed the scorpion save and for obvious reasons, is yet to be replicated by anyone goalkeeper.

You got the feeling anyone brave enough to protest against Higuita's style of play would feel the full force of a man strong in his convictions and well worthy of the nickname 'El loco' (crazy man). However, it was this craziness that saw Higuita jailed in later life for being the go-between in a kidnapping case for notorious drug baron Pablo Escobar.

Paul Gascoigne (England)

Of all the players on this list, perhaps Paul Gasgoine's - known best as Gazza - playing ability was equal to his personality off the field. As a very skilful midfielder, full of energy and a raw, youthful desire to win, he captivated the world in Italia 90. However, despite his incredible natural talent, it would be his only World Cup appearance. Dogged by indiscipline and unfortunate injuries, Gazza would never replicate his impact on the world stage as he did in Italy.

Having never started in the first eleven for a full international game, Gazza appeared in all of England's group stage games. His talent of keeping for the ball firmly under his control and visionary passing saw him set up nearly every goal in England's journey to the Semi-Final. It was against eventual winners Germany that Gazza's over-enthusiasm got the better of him, having already picked up a yellow card in the previous game against Belgium, Gazza overreached himself in a tackle against a Germany player. He was given the yellow card which meant he could not play in the World Cup Final no matter what the outcome of the game. Gazza's reaction was to cry at his and England's unfortunate loss. The world felt his youthful pain. England, without Gazza's enigmatic skills, eventually lost on penalties but Gazza's performance caught the eye of the world's best league at the time, Italy. Rome's Lazio quickly snapped him up, but again it was his hyperactivity and lack of personal discipline that saw him never really fulfil his potential.

Unfortunately, his later life was besieged by alcohol problems and financial ruin. However, he now entertains crowds on the after-dinner speaking circuit, regaling fans with his extraordinary off the field exploits.

Main Image: A.RICARDO/

Published: September 05, 2020
Last updated: November 05, 2020
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