Rigobert Song was only 17 when he played in his first FIFA World Cup™ at USA 1994. Four years after watching Cameroon’s epic run to the Italy 1990 quarter-finals on television, the teenager found himself lining up alongside his idols for an adventure that would pave the way for a move to Europe and the launch of a fine career.
When he was then shown a red card in his side’s second-round match against eventual champions Brazil, the defender could not have imagined that he would go on to take part in three further editions, at France 1998, Korea/Japan 2002 and South Africa 2010, and join a very exclusive club of Cameroonians featuring Jacques Songo’o and Samuel Eto’o to grace the game’s flagship event on four occasions. In conversation with FIFA.com, Cameroon’s most-capped player (137 appearances) shares his most vivid World Cup memories as well as his opinion on the current Indomitable Lions.
FIFA.com: Rigobert, what is your earliest World Cup memory?
Rigobert Song: The first World Cup I saw was in 1990, and it was on a black-and-white television. There were many of us huddled around this small screen, anxious not to miss a moment of this big occasion. Of course, we were even more captivated whenever the Indomitable Lions were playing. Each victory sparked jubilant scenes everywhere. Those are unforgettable moments. The match that made a real impression on me was Cameroon-Argentina. For me, that one was a classic. Before kick-off, we were really fearing the worst as supporters, especially when Maradona began doing keepie-uppies with his feet, head and shoulders after going up for the coin toss with our captain. Despite the two red cards, we won the game with a superb goal from Omam Biyick – one that has gone down in history. It was amazing to see our guys show the world that football was universal. That’s when I realised just what the World Cup meant. What can I tell you about that team? It’s hard to single out just one player. Like a machine, they were then geared up for the rest of the competition. Roger Milla and his goals… just amazing!
How did it feel to later join this team?
It’s an unforgettable memory. When I was named in the Indomitable Lions’ provisional squad, there I was among all those who’d made me dream in 1990. I thought, ‘Lord, I’m alongside legends here and I could be playing in a World Cup – at 17!’ I’ll never forget the joy I felt when I played my first World Cup match. My childhood dream had come true and it marks you for life.
In 1994, Roger Milla became the oldest scorer in World Cup history. For you, what was so special about him?
First of all, age has nothing to do with football. I like to talk about performance, experience and maturity. For me, Roger Milla is a monumental player. Before I competed at that World Cup, we’d played together at Tonnerre Kalara Club of Yaounde. I can tell you that having to mark him during training sessions and soaking up his advice allowed me to learn and grow quickly. He didn’t need to run too much to be effective. He had an extraordinary positional sense. His experience and maturity always made the difference. For me, Roger Milla, apart from being a standard-bearer as one of the senior players, is an outstanding footballer. I have a great deal of admiration and respect for him.
What do you remember about your second World Cup in 1998?
The game against Chile in Nantes. It felt like the chance of reaching the knockout phase was slipping through our fingers. There was some sense of injustice for the red cards and disallowed goals. Of course, it leaves a mark on you. In hindsight we can also regret letting slip a victory against Austria. We were leading 1-0 but conceded an equaliser in the dying seconds due to a lapse in defensive concentration.
How do you explain your two yellow cards against Chile after you’d already experienced a sending-off at the previous World Cup?
As you know, when I’m on the football field, I’m a different person entirely. I want to win. And when I play for my country, I give absolutely everything and am generally very committed. That day, I had a bad reaction in the heat of the moment – perhaps also motivated by anger at the injustice we’d suffered.
You hold the record for the youngest person to be sent off at the World Cup, and the only player, along with Zidane, to have been given a red card in two separate editions. Looking back, how do you view these rather usual records?
I’m putting them down to youthful exuberance. I was sent off in my first two World Cups. After that, I learned my lesson! (laughs) In 2002, I wasn’t sent off, nor in 2010, even if I only played a few minutes at that one.
What do you remember in particular 2002 and 2010 editions?
Those two World Cups were so frustrating, as I feel both our teams had the potential to achieve something exceptional. Minor technical errors and lack of concentration, not to mention a few small kinks in our internal organisation, cost us dearly. Football at the highest level is often decided by details.
Since Italy 1990, Cameroon have been eliminated in the first round on four occasions. Will we ever see the team equal or surpass their 1990 performance?
Emulating the 1990 generation, while not impossible, will take a lot of work and depend on many other factors: very good preparation, players who’ve reached a very high level, experience and also luck. That same applies to every African nation. Since our 1990 generation, only two others African countries have reached the quarter-finals of a senior World Cup. The continent is full of talented players, but as I said, to reach this milestone, talent alone is not enough. That said, I firmly believe that very soon an African nation will be able to match and even surpass our 1990 side. I just hope Cameroon will be the first to do it.
How do you rate Cameroon today?
Today’s Indomitable Lions are a good side that can still improve. It’s a squad that’s in transition. They have players who are getting plenty of game time with their clubs, with some of them competing in European cup competitions. That’s a good thing and will allow the coach to have a competitive group. In addition, there is a good crop coming through in the U-23 and A teams, which the coach can draw on at any time to strengthen his squad. The current group are progressing and if the players are able to play together often enough, then they’ll do things automatically and be stronger for it.
Cameroon will have to negotiate a tough group to reach Africa’s third qualifying round for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™. Are you confident they can go all the way to Qatar?
Football has evolved a lot and, even among the lower-ranked teams, there is less disparity. The notion of small footballing nations no longer exists. Every team now aspires to play at a World Cup and will do anything to get there. Cameroon must be at the World Cup. I have no doubt that the Indomitable Lions will do whatever it takes to make it happen. However, it is difficult and getting through to the third round is even harder, but that’s the price of admission for a chance to go to the World Cup. We’re going to have to sweat blood and tears and fight to qualify. The Indomitable Lions have a good team and I believe they’ll be in Qatar in 2022.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I’m beyond proud of the fact that I took part in four World Cups. I know many reputable players who would give everything to play just one. For me, the World Cup is the biggest competition in football. I’m proud to have represented my country at these four World Cups. It’s thanks to the World Cup that I was able to play professionally in Europe and ultimately have the career for which I am known.