As featured on Guardian Sport
Over a quarter of a century has passed since Nessun Dorma was acquired by the great unwashed football fans of England, obtained in a generally well-spirited but occasionally hostile takeover. There have been a lot of misty watercolour memories of Italia 90 floating around lately.
Now I’m going to pin my colours to the mast early doors here: Italia 90 is not my favourite World Cup of all time, but it does hold a unique position in my affections. Thanks to a head injury I sustained over 20 years ago, Italia 90 is the last World Cup I remember with an all-pervading clarity. Despite owning a very good memory of occurrences up to mid-1992, everything else since then has been at the mercy of a memory that isn’t as watertight as it used to be. As a result I have a more powerful recall of Italia 90 than I do of Brazil 2014.
As a child of the 1980s it’s thoughts of España 82 and Mexico 86 that make me drift off to that happy place we all head to in times of need or boredom. Maybe myself and the kids I grew up with were a collection of prototype hipsters, but when we headed out into our street or over the back fields to kick a ball around, we did so with designs of being Zico, Rossi, Maradona, Boniek, Platini, Rummenigge, Belanov, Elkjær or Butragueño. No-one ever wanted to be Paul Mariner or Mark Hateley. In ‘82 and ‘86 the eyes were set to wide and wonderment. Panini stickers were collected and wall charts religiously filled in.
I don’t class myself as anti-England, but I’ve never really been part of the party when it comes to the national team. Anti-England sentiments are hard work and are the preserve of ‘too cool for school’ supporters of big Premier League football clubs. Those fans that transmit exaggerated resentment at their players coming back from international duty injured, which tends to be a concept that works on a sliding scale, dependent on which nation they were injured playing for. While I’m the owner of a season ticket at a big Premier League football club, I’m a bit more freestyle in my reactions to the international game than others I share my club support with.
Being anti-England is far from the effortless gesture some believe it is. For me, England feels like a team that belongs to someone else. They just borrow players from my team here and there and I wish them well in their endeavours. If anything insults my senses about England, it’s more or less the bumbling head coach and that musically-challenged brass band which follows them around. Beyond that, I’m an aloof bystander. I’ve never clicked through a turnstile to watch an England game and I have no intention to alter that fact. I’ll sit and watch a competitive England international on television unless it’s against one of the minnows, but will watch The Great British Bake Off instead if it’s a friendly.
Having said all of that, I do have a genuine love of competitive international football. Although it’s already a fast fading memory, I embraced the Copa América once again this summer. I love the level playing field concept of the international game. Yes, the football association of one nation might be more bank-rolled than another, but apart from being able to build a more impressive training complex and offering a better standard of travel and accommodation for its players, there is no transfer market in the international game. The biological composition of a players parents and the quality of coaching they receive has a greater influence on the outcome of a World Cup or a European Championship than an open chequebook does. International football offers a level playing field that the club game can only dream of in that respect. It is almost an antidote to the haves and have nots of the club game.
Back in June 1990 I was 16 and had recently left school. I’d obtained my first job through the re-vamped YTS scheme and was looking ahead to a long and fulfilling career in hydraulic retail. It was a dream that lasted for just one week. My first Friday of steady employment just happened to coincide with the opening day of the World Cup finals. With a month of near non-stop football staring me square in the face I did the right and proper thing. I quit my job and planted myself in front of the television. Hydraulic retails loss was a lazy summer’s gain.
From the moment Omam Biyik’s header crept under Nery Pumpido to give ten man Cameroon a 1-0 lead against the defending champions Argentina, I felt suitably reassured that ending my fledgling hydraulics career in the name of the World Cup had already paid off. By the time Benjamin Massing hit Claudio Caniggia with enough velocity to remove his own right boot in protection of that slender lead, I was left in no doubt about the wisdom of my decision.
From there the tournament flirted with the senses without truly bludgeoning them. It boasted a then record number of red cards, inclusive of the still novel concept of individual games with multiple sending offs, something which occurred in both the opening and final games of the competition, along with the lowest goals per game ratio of any World Cup, both past and future. Little facts that fly in the face of a rose tinted top of his form Des Lynam and a corking theme tune to the BBC’s opening credits.
That rose-tinted view of Italia 90 is undeniably hard to resist and you’d have to be completely soulless to decry the tournament totally. England came to within a penalty shoot-out of reaching the final. The Republic of Ireland lost to the hosts in the quarter-finals by a solitary, and fortuitous, goal. Had Jim Leighton pushed that speculative Brazilian effort hit from distance away from goal rather than across it, then Scotland probably would have made it to the knock out stages. Conversely, of the 15 games played by England, Ireland and Scotland at Italia 90, only two of them were won by any of them in 90 minutes of regulation time.
Luck wasn’t just ridden at times, it was held upside down and shaken until the loose change fell out of its pockets. England should have lost to Belgium, while Romania were the better side against Ireland at the very same last 16 stage. Ireland even avoided a clash with West Germany by virtue of drawing a longer straw than Holland. England came to within seven minutes of being eliminated by Cameroon in the quarter-finals.
Yet Ireland went toe-to-toe with England, Holland and Italy, and frightened each and every one of them, while in an England squad that could boast the creative talents of John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and Chris Waddle it was the childlike enthusiasm of Paul Gascoigne, combined with his audacious natural skill that stole the show. Like Ireland, England saved their best for their biggest opponents. Their best two performances came against Holland in the group stages and West Germany in the semi-finals. That they walked away from both games without a win still doesn’t seem quite right.
Elsewhere, the host nation didn’t do themselves enough justice. They advanced in what was almost an overwhelming sense of fear and trepidation. They belatedly, even borderline reluctantly, fielded Roberto Baggio and uncomfortably benched Gianluca Vialli, due to the goal-scoring fetes of the inspired Toto Schillaci. Yugoslavia were never quite as good as everyone seems to think they were at Italia 90. Along with Yugoslavia as was, it was also the end of the line for Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Splintering off into their numerous fragments and breaking the heart of hipsters the world over. Spain were much fancied, yet fell flat on their face. They used to do a lot of that sort of thing.
Cameroon became the first African quarter-finalists and Roger Milla taught the world how to dance with a corner flag. There were highs at Italia 90, just not enough of them, and even the South American nations were lacking in traditional verve. Brazil crashed out to Argentina and Colombia displayed the most authentic South American style, only to shoot themselves in the foot against Cameroon in the last 16, when René Higuita was caught in possession well outside his penalty area by Milla.
There is a popular myth surrounding Argentina’s success at Mexico 86 which propagates the theory that Diego Maradona won that World Cup single handed. In reality, he was the undisputed best player on the face of the planet and happened to be surrounded by a very good set of team-mates. By Italia 90 however, he was surrounded by a combination of the same team-mates only in decline, plus new additions that were simply inferior to the players they’d succeeded.
Maradona did in all intents and purposes carry Argentina to the final in 1990. Taking them past the hosts in the semi-final in his adopted home city of Naples was the achievement of the tournament, on a night when Maradona expected the support of what he saw as his public, his people, only for them to instead back the Azzurri.
That they managed this with Sergio Goycochea in goal was a major miracle. Having stepped in to replace Pumpido after he’d suffered a horrific broken leg against the Soviet Union, Goycochea offered what was a heady mix of haphazard goalkeeping in normal time, offset by brilliance during penalty shoot-outs. At one stage against Yugoslavia he contrived to tip an effort that was drifting harmlessly wide onto the inside of his own goalpost. Argentina reached the final because of and simultaneously in spite of their back-up keeper.
One way or another it always came down to West Germany in big international tournaments. Be it the insufferable Lothar Matthäus, or the impossibly permed Rudi Völler – a coiffure which Frank Rijkaard took such an exception towards – or the amateur dramatics of Jürgen Klinsmann. As ever, West Germany could rely upon a strong defence, a wonderfully balanced midfield, a clinical forward line and no shortage of quality waiting to step in from the fringes. They could also manage to avoid making a mountain of a mole hill when it came to penalty shoot-outs. They took part in a truly terrible World Cup final in Rome, but essentially the right team won. West Germany were the best team at Italia 90, just as from what little I can remember of Brazil 2014, Germany were the best team and deserved to win.
In the main, Italia 90 was an iconic month of myth and sleight of hand. Italia 90 was never as good as it’s made out to be by some. It denied as much as it gave when it comes to value for money. Had it been a game show it would have been an episode of Bullseye where the final contestants blow the star prize, having hit a high number with the first three darts, only to score a single figure score with the last three.
Come and take a look at what you could’ve won…
By Steven Scragg. Follow @Scraggy_74