THE GREATEST CELEBRATION: ROGER MILLA, 1990
No one asks the tennis player after his silky forehand skids off the line, or the runner after he breaks the 100m tape, if this rush, this elemental moment, is better than sex. But with football, and the scoring of a goal, we do. I even asked Ronaldo once. He smiled. "Sometimes," he laughed.
Sometimes might be a World Cup where a goal turns a man into a boy. Or a woman into an uninhibited girl, like US player Brandi Chastain, who famously ripped off her shirt in celebration in 1999. Players dive, somersault, pretend to row a boat, lie down as if having an afternoon nap or pretend to pee like a dog.
The customary leap into the air, as if the goal gives a man the temporary reward of wings, remains. Yet cheap choreography, with celebrations arranged beforehand in the dressing room, has long intruded, which only sullies an act whose innocent beauty lay in its spontaneity.
Like the sheer daze of Italy's Marco Tardelli, who ran with arms outstretched, mouth open, in the 1982 final, like a moving painting of disbelief. "What I was feeling," said Tardelli, "was like something was exploding in me - a volcano inside me."
Eight years later, talking to Time Out, Cameroon's Roger Milla echoed him: "I would say that it is like an incredible explosion of joy which comes from somewhere in your stomach and takes hold of your whole body."
Milla grabbed hold of us as his goal took hold of him. He debuted in the 1982 Cup, but properly introduced himself to us in 1990, a 38-year-old man with a space between his grinning teeth and a joyous spirit between his ears.
When he scored, he ran to the corner flag and then suddenly raised his right arm, draped his left across his waist and danced. Football makes everyone young again.
"I'd never done it before, not even in training," Milla insisted and we believe him, for there was an improvised exuberance to his act. Football, with its step-overs and pirouettes, is a dance by itself and his little frolic seemed only appropriate. As he later told an English newspaper, "Absolutely nobody can do it like me".
Milla's dance wasn't mere pleasure, it was an education. By the 2000 African Nations Cup, according to researcher Paul Darby, "just over 50 per cent of the players were signed to a European club".
Yet in the World Cup - where the first African nation, Egypt, showed up in 1934 - this continent was still a footballing curiosity. Till Milla's Cameroon altered that and made Africa's first journey to the Cup quarter-finals.
Milla told us that sport needs characters who play to their own eccentric music. He told us age cannot inhibit a free spirit. And he told us when a player is trying to reveal what a goal means to him, it is best to dance. For as the great choreographer Martha Graham put it: "The body says what words cannot."
This article was first published on June 9, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.