ROME -- Roger Milla had just done his wash and was hanging it over the third-floor balcony railing of a villa in Fasano, a southeastern Italian town in which the Lions of Cameroon have been staying. Two miles away, the turquoise Adriatic washed onto a rocky coast.
Milla's room was a shambles of shirts and other clothes, equipment, bags, books, records, newspapers. He was packing for Naples and today's World Cup quarterfinal match with England. "Come on in," he said in French. The Cameroonians are informal, and no one sets rules for Milla, at 38 the oldest Lion, the soul of the team and, with four goals, its heart as well.
He was nude, applying skin lotion to his face, legs and feet. He has a wide face, youthful-looking, and prides himself on his physical condition. He's 5 feet 8, 150 pounds, all muscle, taut and coiled, known back in his small home country on Africa's west coast as more cat than lion.
Milla pulled on a multicolored tank top and shorts. Amid the room's debris were records of his favorite singer, a Cameroonian named N'Kodo Sitony. But the dance Milla loves most is a kind of lambada he does in the corner of a soccer field after he scores a goal.
"In Cameroon," he said, "we dance like that. We use the butt."
He kept gathering stuff, putting it into bags. He signed a book for a friend. "My sporting friend," he said. Milla is a man of the people even though technically he was returned to the national team in May by the decree of Cameroon's president, Paul Biya.
"It's the people," he said, "who wanted me."
He had been virtually retired from soccer, playing for a small club team on the island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. He'd played on Cameroon's national team since 1972, and was a standout on the 1982 World Cup team that tied three games but failed to advance from the first round.
But there had been a misunderstanding two years ago. His mother lay ill and he had thought the Ministry of Sport would pick up some of the expense. He said it didn't. After her death, he vowed not to play again for the national team. To get his soccer fix, he slipped away to Reunion, leaving his wife and two children at home in Yaounde.
In March, however, Cameroon did poorly in the African Nations Cup in Algeria. The team lost to Senegal and Gambia. Immediately, sportswriters began a campaign to bring back Milla. The fans picked up on it. It became a movement. Milla learned of it on Reunion. "My friends," he said, "would call me." At length, the president said, "It must be done."
Now the Indomitable Lions, spirited underdogs, have become the best-loved team of the 1990 World Cup. They stunned defending Cup champion Argentina, with Maradona. They upset Romania on Milla's two goals to become the first team to clinch a place in the single-elimination second round.
After a meaningless final first-round loss to the Soviet Union, Cameroon sent home Colombia in extra time as Milla scored two more goals. They'd reached the quarterfinals.
Now it was time for the upstarts from Africa to challenge the traditional English, time to try once more what most say is the impossible -- especially because four Cameroon starters are ineligible for the game because of accumulated fouls.
Nobody carried the players' luggage. They had amassed so much. They would be bound for a semifinal game in Turin in the north if they could find a way to beat England, but home if they couldn't.
Victor N'Dip and Emmanuel Kunde struggled under the weight of their bags. Others had bought small television sets. Milla dragged his trunk. In the lobby of the main building, the concierge cried out: "Telephone call for Roger Milla. Telephone call for Thomas N'Kono."
They took their calls. In their good time, they boarded the team bus.'My Uncle's Name'
When Milla was born, his parents wanted to give him the surname of his uncle, Milla. "In Cameroon," he said, "you can give the name of a grandfather or another relative. It's not like in Europe where you automatically give the name of the father. They gave my uncle's name. Whoever wrote it down just heard wrong."
So on his birth certificate he became Roger Miller. His passport says Miller. As a result, many World Cup statistical sheets refer to him as Miller. When his name flashes up on Italian television during a game or replays, it's Miller.
Milla has three brothers with different last names: Joseph Debouba, Jacques Edjanque and Alexandre Diboussi. Milla and his wife, Marie Evelyne, decided to keep Miller for their children's names. "It is not easy to change all the papers after all this time," Milla said. His daughter is Ruth Sandy N'Gobo Miller, his son Albert Roger Mooh Miller.
Milla grew up on Yaounde's streets, kicking lemons and rags tied together into balls. He said he finished high school, but later that was debated among some Cameroon writers, who believe he didn't. They say Milla, playfully, gives slightly different versions of stories.
British writers who flew in for the day complained Milla doesn't talk much at all. He didn't -- to them. They'll have to make do. From what they said, the headlines in the English tabloids will go something like: "It'll be the Old Lion against the British Lion."
Above all, he is comfortable on a soccer field. At an easy practice on Thursday in the small Campo Vito Curlo stadium in the center of town, Milla moved fluidly, almost effortlessly. He stood apart from the other players, wearing a white shirt instead of the team green. He wore no socks, either.
Cameroon's Soviet coach, Valeri Nepomniachi, shouted to Andre Kana Biyik to do something. Biyik didn't move. "Pourquoi?" asked Nepomniachi. He can communicate in basic matters in French. For tactics, he uses charts and sometimes an interpreter.
"Because I don't feel like it," Biyik shouted back in French.
Still, Nepomniachi said he is "le patron" -- the man in charge -- when asked about Biyik's balkiness.
Mostly, the Soviet coach sat on the sideline alone while his assistants and the players themselves directed practice. To American coaches, the haphazard approach would be unthinkable.
The veterans of the '82 Cup team ran together: Milla, Kunde, the goalie N'Kono and Manga Onguene, the '82 captain who now is an assistant coach. Could the lighthearted atmosphere of practice translate into the Cameroonians' free-flowing game on the field?
Friday was more serious because Milla was more serious. His teammates mocked the old Lion's shift of attitude. They pulled at his shirt, grabbing him because of his insistence that they practice full force. "Jouez comme si c'etait un match," Milla shouted. ("Play like it was the real thing!")
Milla's back hurts behind his shoulder from a fall, but he refused to take it easy. The others responded. They have a confident attitude now. The other Biyik brother, Francois Omam Biyik, whose goal beat Argentina, 1-0, related that before the opening game the players had a single feeling: "Fear."
They wanted not to lose by more than three goals. "After 10 minutes," Biyik recalled, "the fear was gone."
Yet the Cameroonians are not novices. Ten play for French or Spanish club teams. They may not be quite as solid as Cameroon's '82 World Cup team, but as another player, Jean Claude Pagan, put it: "It's a young team that wants to advance. Sometimes it's important that David kill Goliath."
After Friday's hard work, Milla walked slowly toward the dressing room, chatting amiably. In a tunnel underneath the stands, he suddenly stopped. Turning, he faced a small madonna, a statue on a ledge. He blessed himself, and went on.
"When one is a believer," he said later, "it's to receive the blessing from the father."
Homesick to the Hilt
The departure from camp had the air of a summer vacation ending. The Cameroonians' great adventure may be over, but it didn't seem they'd be too unhappy. "If we lose, it's not a big thing," Kunde said. "What we've already done is very satisfying."
Two spoke of home. They missed the food, including fried bananas. There was no getting around it: They're homesick.
They need the old Lion. At his age, Milla is not the athlete he once was.
But he's smart. Closing fast on the Romanian goal, he ran into a Romanian player and stumbled. Many forwards would have taken a dive and perhaps gotten the team a penalty kick. Not Milla. "I thought about it," he said, "but you never know if the referee would have blown the whistle." He staggered forward, and scored.
Milla does not want to go home yet. "I have to take care of this matter first -- England," he said. A few minutes later, the bus carrying the Lions of Africa wound down the hillside, from the cool perch of their overlook hideaway to the heat of the plain below.
Special correspondent Keyvan Antonio Heydari contributed to this report.