All hyped up – the myths and legacy of Italia ‘90

WE ALL look to the influences of our childhood or formative years as being the “best of times”. The things that informed our thinking, philosophy, social position, relationships and work ethos act as benchmarks later in life. The exception is fashion, where we all cringe at what we used to wear, mainly because what was de rigeur for a teenager will never be acceptable for a calcified, expansive and follically-challenged middle-aged man. We all become Reginald Perrin or Victor Meldrew, after all.

If you were approaching, or in the midst of, your teenage years when legendary figures like Pele, Cruyff and Beckenbauer were at their peak, World Cups 1970 and 1974 are the litmus test for any successive competition. If you were born between, say 1970 and 1975, Italia ’90 may well have been the World Cup that ignited your interest. This probably explains why, in recent months, the generation that uses the 31 days between June 8 and July 8 1990 as its footballing reference point has been wallowing in nostalgia. But the reality is that, as a spectacle, Italia ’90 was a hugely disappointing tournament. You could argue that this World Cup set the pattern that has too often plagued the FIFA Quadrenniel – mediocrity, a lack of outstanding individuals, too many games, cynicism and gamesmanship.

That’s not to say that World Cups before 1990 didn’t fall short of greatness, but in 1986, Diego Maradona lit-up the competition, in 1982 you had teams like Brazil and France (as well as winners Italy), in 1978 and 1974 there was the Dutch and in 1970, well – I was born in 1958. There’s the benchmark for people like me.

Why was 1990 so different and why has it gone down in history – at least in Britain – as a fabled month of football? England got lucky. Really, they did. And for the first time in years, England had a player, nay an individual, who could frighten opposition. But its real place in the folklore of the game is down to its social impact.

Centre of the world

Italia ’90 was the first competition of the coming age. Mass media. It was also the first accessible tournament for a generation of laddish media and showbiz personalities and fanzine editors, all of whom wanted to provide their own take on the World Cup. Pete Davies and his excellent and ground-breaking book, All Played Out, probably did more for the legacy of Italia ’90 than anyone on the field of play. And instead of the usual World Cup song, uber-cool New Order produced World in Motion, a new take on the football record, John Barnes rap and all. Not sure where Keith Allen came into it, though.

And this time, the World Cup would all be played out in Italy, whose football we all admired and feared. Italy was one of the world’s football capitals. AC Milan were the top club in Europe. They had some of the world’s leading players – Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard. The Dutch were back among football’s elite and had won the European Championship in 1988. Maradona was still choreographing Argentina and guess what?  – he also played in Italy, for Napoli, who had just won their second Serie A title in four years.

The summer before the competition, I was in Italy. Souvenirs for the World Cup were already appearing. A strange Lego-like mascot called “Ciao” was on t-shirts, key-rings, posters and assorted other tacky objects.

England played Italy in November 1989 in a friendly. On the same night, Europe was finishing its World Cup qualifying campaign. I went along and encouraged others to join me as, “we will be watching the next World champions.”  I was convinced Italy would triumph on home soil, as they had done in 1934 and 1968.

Italy’s team included Walter Zenga, Gianluca Vialli, Paulo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Roberto Baggio (on the bench). It looked impressive, but the game ended goalless, with scarcely a thrill. “They will be shit champions if they win it,” said my colleague on the journey home. “Either of them – England or Italy.”

An Italian fan leaned over and explained to me on the tube from Wembley Park: “The problem we have in Italy – too many foreign players. Defence strong, but no good forwards are Italian.” It was 1990, but the same song has been sung for decades and is currently being hummed in England.

It starts when the fat man sings

Another song, a crude description for one of Puccini’s finest works, really provided the soundtrack for the summer of 1990. The BBC had a history of producing excellent World Cup themes – Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Argentine Medley was one memorable ditty. This time they turned to something classically Italian – Nessun Dorma, the final aria from Puccini’s Turandot. Sung by Luciano Pavarotti, it could be heard everywhere as the nation tuned in to watch the drama unfold.

The competition got underway with Argentina , as holders, losing 0-1 – a touch of déjà vu on 1982 when they had lost to Belgium. This time Cameroon beat them 1-0, a major shock, but the Africans’ were downright dirty in their approach and ended the game with nine men. This was the start of the Cameroon  myth. Then Albert Roger Mooh Milla, reputedly 37 years of age, scored twice against Romania and became one of the first players to perform an impromptu goal celebration.

Cameroon were robust, over-enthusiastic and raw, but they provided the ideal distraction to a grim start to the competition. If they had been Romania or Colombia, the team they beat in the last 16, they would have been dismissed as cynically aggressive, but because they were African, because they had this “old man” who scored goals, they were the “fun guys” with razor blades in their boots. Needless to say, the press continued to patronise them as “disorganised Africans”.

While Argentina struggled through their group, eventually claiming one of the best third-place berths, the Soviet Union, who smashed Cameroon 4-0 in their last group game, went home. It would be the last time we heard that name, for Europe was going through transformation. There were velvet revolutions everywhere. By the time USA 1994 came around, we had Russia.

West Germany eased through their group, but by the final, they were simply being known [unofficially] as Germany. They started the competition well, scoring 10 goals in their group with players like Lothar Matthaus, Jurgen Klinsmann and Rudi Voeller marking them apart from a lot of average teams.

When the Germans and the Dutch came up against each other in the last 16, we saw another unpleasant side to the game. This was the famous spitting incident involving Voeller and Rijkaard. The Dutch were beaten 2-1.

The Dutch had got out of a group with Ireland, England and Egypt. The Africans were the only team to be defeated, so the other three played out three numbing draws. England qualified by virtue of a tired 1-0 win against Egypt. Of course, their involvement was marred by crowd violence and media difficulties with Bobby Robson, who was coming under pressure from the start. But Paul “daft as a brush” Gascoigne had shown he was one to watch.

Italy, meanwhile, had high hopes of Baggio but lacked a top-class striker. They found a short-term saviour in Salvatore Schillaci, hardly the idea  of the archetypal  Italian golden boy. But “Toto” came off the bench in the 76th minute against Austria in the Azzurri’s opening game and within two minutes had scored the winner to appease a restless Roman crowd. We all remember the wide-eyes as we raced to celebrate – the sort of madman glare that would now prompt a drug test!

A Sicilian, Schillaci was 25 years-old but looked older and weather-worn. He had just finished his first season with Juventus, scoring 15 goals in 30 Serie A games. His moment in the sun was brief, however. Toto was top scorer in Italia ’90 and was named player of the tournament. He was an unlikely hero and won only 16 caps for Italy, scoring seven goals. Six of them were netted in the World Cup. By 1991, his international career ended and a year later, he left Juventus for Inter. Four years after his personal high, his career in Italy was over and he was turning out for Japan’s Jubilo Iwata.

No calypso

As ever, the media were urging Brazil to turn on the samba football. They scored four goals in their group games in Turin, beating Sweden, Scotland and Costa Rica by a single goal. In almost every World Cup – 1982 the exception – they failed to live up to their heritage and in 1990, and despite having Careca and Romario in their ranks, they huffed and puffed. This World Cup reminded everyone that Brazil had not been “Brazil” very often since 1970, with arguably only 1982 living up to the promise of Copacabana.

In the last 16, Brazil faced Argentina in a meeting of old foes. Argentina soaked up a lot of pressure and played a relatively negative game. It paid off as goalkeeper Goycochea played a blinder and the ragged-haired Claudio Caniggia scored with 10 minutes to go. This game was not without controversy, though, as it was later revealed that Maradona gave some water to Brazilian midfielder that had been laced with tranquilisers. Although Maradona denied this at the time, he confessed years later.

As the World Cup mourned the loss of Brazil, as it always does, Argentina “ponced” their way through the quarter-finals in a penalty shoot-out with Yugoslavia. They were doing nothing to endear themselves to the Italian public, despite Maradona’s presence.

England fought out a tense draw in 90 minute with Belgium and just as everyone was expecting penalties, David Platt scored a spectacular goal to win the game. That paired Robson’s men with Cameroon for a semi-final place. It nearly went horribly wrong for England as the Africans led 2-1 after 65 minutes. I said earlier they had good fortune and it came in the form of two penalties, both scored by Gary Lineker, the second on the stroke of the interval in extra time. Even Bobby Robson had to admit that England rode their luck in winning 3-2.

The final that never was

When it came down to it, nobody really wanted Maradona and Argentina to overcome Italy in the semi-final. Italy hadn’t been half bad and had seemingly got better as the competition progressed. “Italy v England final, what a classic that would be,” said one TV pundit. “The two best sides have been West Germany and Italy,” added another. “Steady, unexciting, but the best in the competition.”

Italy, by rights, should have done for Argentina, but Maradona was nothing if not strategic. He tried to divide and conquer the Italian public by claiming that his adopted homeland, Naples – the venue for the semi-final with Italy – should back the Argentinians. He asked the question: “What have the Romans ever done for you?” It didn’t work, proving that blood is thicker than Champagne.

It ended 1-1 and Argentina won on penalties again. Italy were distraught, and really, most of the neutrals had a sense of deflation. Argentina had reached the final by scoring five goals. Now, the experts knew what they wanted: “England v Argentina. Falklands revisited. A chance for England to cut off the hand of god.” No explanations were needed. England could get their revenge on Maradona for “that goal”.

West Germany arrived at the semi-final in Turin by virtue of a quarter-final win against the Czechs, settled by a penalty. They had been the most consistent team throughout the competition, but there was no Beckenbauer, no Mueller and no Netzer. They were the epitome of modern football’s machine-like powerhouse. England had their work cut out, but on July 4, 1990, the nation came to a standstill. In the City of London, it was the first time for years that a big football match had captured the imagination of the suited and booted workers. No big screens in those days, so the City’s pubs were full of people huddled around small TVs while swigging their beer. It was 1990, most people had very little knowledge, or indeed interest in the sport of the proletariat:

“Is it Gaza or Gazza?”
“Are England in white?”
“Didn’t we win this in 1966?”
“Tell me, that Scottish team, is it Celtic (s) or Celtic (k)?”
“Who does Gazza play for?”
“Two world wars and one world cup, do da, do da.”

The game went like a blur. The air was tense, but deep down, everyone felt England would not, could not, win against the Germans. When it mattered, England no longer beat the Germans.

They took the lead. Fortunately so. Lineker equalised. For a while, England looked capable of winning, but did they really, truly, believe it? Gascoigne, whose reputation had grown match-by-match, was booked. If England reached the final, he would not be able to play. Tears. Lineker gestured to the bench, as it to say, “watch him”. Gazza’s head had gone.

And so, to penalties. The first chapter in a book that has got bigger as the years rolled. Germany, as cool, clinical and unflinching as ever, winning 4-3 on penalties. Heartbreak for Chris Waddle and Stuart Pearce. Tears, shirt-kissing and grown men abandoning any misgivings about displays of emotion or embracing their fellow man. It was 1990. “Oh well, we were never going to win, they bottled it,” said one city suit. “Bollocks, mate,” said another, more committed spectactor. “What the f*** do you know?”,

The legacy of Italia ‘90

There’s not much to say about the final. West Germany v Argentina for the second successive World Cup. This time, a penalty goal settled it late in the game, scored by Andy Brehme. Argentina had two men sent off and their general demeanour was one of destructive football. Maradona wept at the end, but his team had highlighted that the game of Pele, even Maradona at his peak, had changed. Italia ’90 was a miserable affair, despite England’s success.

At the same time, despite it’s poor quality and undercurrent of caution, dirty-tricks and sterility, Italia ’90 was the catalyst for better times for English football. If you told somebody that you were a staunch football fan in the late 1970s and mid-1980s, the response would have involved raised eyebrows, a frown, and a short, sharp, “why?”

From Italia ’90 you didn’t have to be embarrassed about being a football fan. Well, not so much, anyway. Along came SKY, up trotted the Premier. It was now part of “lad culture” rather than just “yob culture”, although the yobs were still around. Magazines like 4-4-2 emerged and fanzines started to fade as the “gifted amateur” became mainstream. Fantasy Football followed – everyone’s a manager – and then the internet swept it all aside.

But in some ways, Italia’90 rewrote history, or at least wrote a new history. For many new fans, life [mistakenly] began with Gazza. But that shouldn’t disguise the fact that Italia ’90 was poor, remembered for an England resurgence that didn’t last too long. Two years earlier, England had been poor in Germany, two years later, they under-performed in Sweden. They didn’t even qualify for World Cup 1994. It was a blip in a time of mediocrity. Have we ever really regained our mojo? In terms of on-field performance, 1990 has looked better and better as England struggled to revive their fortunes. Only in 2018 could the nation have any real pride in the team once more.

That fat man is singing again. He thinks it’s all over. Ciao.

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