Stephen Tataw: Cameroon’s Colossal Italia ’90 captain

Stephen Tataw died in Yaoundé on July 31 at the age of 57 and was laid to rest in a two-day funeral programme befitting of the legendary status he earned on the football pitch. African Football HQ pays homage to the emblematic former captain who remains the first player to lead an African side to the FIFA World Cup quarter-finals.

Cameroon took the world by storm and performed well at the 1990 World Cup. But the untold efforts of Stephen Eta Tataw underpinned the Indomitable Lions to the quarterfinals of the planetary tournament.

The 1990 World Cup was Cameroon’s second appearance at the World Cup Finals. They made their debut at the 1982 World Cup when Spain stagged the quadrennial football tournament which Tataw was absent during that edition.

Without the physically imposing defender, the World Cup debutants drew all their group games with two goalless games against Peru and Poland. Through Grégoire Mbida scored her first goal against Argentina in a 1-1 tie at Estadio Municipal de Balaidos.

But the second experience eight years later was explosive. And with Tataw included in Valery Nepomnyashchy’s 22-man squad, there was much to expect.

Tataw was 27 when he was named captain of the national team. He was a total reflection of Cameroon’s football ambitions having established himself as a role-model and gained elevated status in Cameroon’s local Championship.

With Cameroon making her second participation at the World Cup, Tataw was fully aware of the challenge and readily able to measure up to them.

Tataw’s role in Italia ’90 history

The 1990 World Cup squad is considered one of, if not the best the central African Nation has produced. Raymond Elume a renowned sports analyst with State media CRTV suggested to African Football HQ.

Every compartment the sports enthusiast believes had a stockpile of players who had achieved a lot. These players were talented making it quite hard to trim 22-men to 11 on the pitch.

With every ‘Golden Generation’ comes issues. Despite being incredibly talented, there were lots of quarrels and disagreements between some of the players and it was Tataw’s role as captain to quell the tension.

One day before the game against Argentina, Cameroon’s line up was available and 24 hours later, getting into the pitch there was a different lineup AFHQ has been informed.

Also, the arrival of Roger Milla to the squad by presidential decree was not received in good faith by some of the players who resented the move.

It was thanks to the coaching staff and Tataw’s exemplary leadership that these players were able to move towards a common objective.

“They trained for two months prior to the tournament. There were plenty of skirmishes among the players,” Elume explained.

“In 1988 Mbouh Mbouh Emile was the captain of the national team and then it moved to Kunde Emmanuel. Something happened and it had to move to Stephen Tataw.

“When Valery Nepomnyashchy was appointed after Claude Le Roy he made Stephen Tataw the captain. In his efforts to bring everyone on board, he succeeded with his wonderful leadership skills.”

He added: ” Most of the members of the 1990 era were not friends. Maybe they had a common objective on the pitch. It was Stephen Tataw’s duty to try and lay somethings to rest.

“We remember Cyrille Makanaky vs Roger Milla, Antoine Bell and N’kono and others. There were lots of problems between the players themselves and it was Tataw who had to patch things up”.

Whether on the pitch or off the pitch, Tataw was exceptional. At the 1990 World Cup, the former Lions captain showed great maturity in his game.

He did not have such exposure before, and opportunities to shine before the world can only come ones in a lifetime. He came to Italy, he saw and he conquered. His leadership became a hallmark to many.

“Stephen Tataw was a natural leader in the game of football. He became team captain of whichever club he joined and his coming to Tonnerre of Yaounde marked another phase of his football career.” Lawrence Nkede, Cameroon football expert and consultant with State Media CRTV said.

“After being captain of Tonnerre of Yaounde, Stephen Tataw captained the indomitable lions of Cameroon and this captain band was highly symbolic for 3 reasons: He hailed from the English speaking minority region of the South West. He was an amateur player who captained a team which had a good number of professionals who had written their names in the golden books of European football in the likes of Thomas Nkono, Joseph Antoine Bell and Roger Milla.”

Nkede continued: “The responsibility of being team captain at the indomitable lions of Cameroon confers into an individual the role of negotiating with government officials and Stephen Tataw was a great diplomat in this role. Being a good defender on the pitch, he was also a good negotiator and was able to appease all his mates during the 1990 world cup as match bonuses were problematic in the squad.”

Lawrence believes Tataw’s role in convincing his teammates to play for the national colours first before settling issues gave the team a different image, consequently the power to conquer and the strength to overcome.

“He’s one of the main architects of Cameroon’s 1990 world cup odyssey and will be remembered for his discipline and fighting spirit,” Nkende concluded.

A date with destiny – June 8, 1990

Reigning World Cup champions Argentina faced little known Cameroon at the renowned San Siro Stadium.

Close to 800,000 fans and television viewers from 150 countries impatient for kickoff, the stadium boiling with excitement, the fans are impatient and the players know they all have their fate in their hands.

No one expects any surprise. The odds are very clear and the results very easy to forecast. It was Maradona, the world’s best player at the time, against Cameroon, tournament underdogs.

Here come the Indomitable Lions. Dressed in their traditional green jersey, red shorts and yellow socks, and led through the noisy stadium by emblematic captain Tataw.

The fearsome, 1.87m defender walks his teammates through assuredly. The Cameroonians came with uncertainty but left the pitch all smiling after beating their illustrious opposition in dramatic fashion.

This was a truly remarkable game of football. But Tataw’s exceptional and extraordinary leadership against star-studded Argentina was nothing short of a miracle.

Tataw was a young versatile footballer gifted with incredible techniques who had grown into a complete defender. He became a key figure for the squad and enjoyed dominance with great achievements. He was like four players rolled together. His reading of the game was so good, why of the primary reasons he emerged the best candidate for the armband.

His meeting with Argentina’s Maradona during the pregame coin flip and shook of hands should have intimidated the emblematic captain but no! Even when Maradona flicked the ball off the turf and kicked it 20 feet in the air and juggled it four times off his left shoulder, Tataw stood his ground.

There was no turning back for sure but he knew Cameroon had to overcome looming tragedy. They needed more than just fluke. And he was present to provide the squad hope.

It could have all been different without Tataw in the squad. Cameroon who had a numerical disadvantage against the World Cup holders having lost Andre Kana-Biyik and Benjamin Massing could have leaked more goals than expected if not of a stable defence which he led throughout the intense game.

Indeed they deserve much praise but Tataw and the back four should receive more. There is no doubt he played a performance that did not only announce his presence as a world-class defender but also portrayed Cameroon’s supremacy at the quadrennial tournament.

That was Cameroon’s best at the global football showpiece. They remain the first from the African continent to reach that stage. Only two others have equalled that record but none has been good enough to set a new feat.

With Incredible vision, skilful defending, great pace and a rocket right-foot Stephen Eta Tataw who’s earned a deserved spot in the nations football iconic bracket was an all-encompassing defender.

He was an assurance for his side and sunk opposition treats with relative ease as Cameroon worm the way to success.

He was true of a form being able to measure up to the Argentine magician-Maradona. He had all the attributes required to play in that key position. His tree-trunk thighs rarely lost a tackle and he read the game astutely. His football was sublime as though he was born for it.

He may not have been on the spotlight during the Argentina clash as others but he remains amongst the most impressive player who had telling impact on the game. He fully fitted into Cameroon’s defence after being reduced to nine men and rallied his teammates to believe they were destined to beat their South American rivals. At that moment of despair, Tataw was the name, Cameroon was the country, victory was the goal.

“Tataws clinical style of play at the two global events, the 1990 and 1994 World Cups dented the strange paradigm that African defenders were brutes. His ability to dribble with great ease will later motivate a new breed of African defenders who dared to become more technical rather than depend on raw strength.” Njie Enow Ebai stated on state Radio CRTV.

Cameroon may have not come so close to clinch the trophy but their heroism and extraordinary rise remain indisputable. His teammates recognised his leadership and commitment. His potential was confirmed and applauded by the Cameroonian faithful.

No list therefore of iconic players in Cameroon is complete without citing Tataw.

His international record is spotty. A player of his class would normally have ragged up more caps for their nation.

He could have had more chances of gracing another international tournament and winning another trophy. He encountered success at national level which won’t be forgotten so soon.

With Cameroon, Tataw won the African Cup of Nations in 1988. He played at three continental tournaments and earn respect among powerhouses of the continent.

More than a player but a national hero

Born in Ekona, a locality in South West Cameroon. The region is home to a wide range of talent who have played a great role to cement the country’s domination at continental and international levels.

He became the first African footballer to play top-flight football in Japan and the first English speaking Cameroonian to captain the men’s senior national selection.

He seems a breed apart from others. Tataw may come and gone but his legacy lives forever.

As the saying goes; form is temporary but class is permanent, Tataw’s shine is everlasting.