Italia ’90 Remembered – The World Cup That Changed Football

italia 90Claudio Caniggia jumps over one tackle. He hurdles the second challenge. The third one ends his gallop. Argentina striker Caniggia lies crumpled, the Cameroonian defender loses a boot and flings out his arms with faux surprise as the red card is displayed by the permanently sour-faced referee Michel Vautrot.

Vautrot had refereed the Euro 88 final less than 24 months previously. The Olympiastadion final in Munich is a world away from this brutal, horrible, encounter in Milan.

Benjamin Massing’s challenge in the final minute of the opening game of the 1990 World Cup – Cameroon beat holders Argentina 1-0 –  was to set a trend for the tournament. It was an ugly, goal-shy, card-ridden Mondial.  Just 2.21 goals were scored per game.  Sixteen red cards were displayed – a record at the time. Two points for a win in Italia 90. Make it three points and teams might try to win a game. By USA 94 that’s exactly what FIFA did.

Italia 90 was a dog of a World Cup, the anthesis of attacking football – the backpass rule was altered as a result of defenders killing time by kicking the ball back for goalkeepers to gather into their hands. Within two years goalkeepers would be prevented from picking up a ball passed back to them.

And yet, for all this, it was to be OUR World Cup, England’s World Cup. The closest the nation had come to glory at any time during the last four decades.

Italia 90 worked on several levels in England.

The national side hadn’t qualified for a World Cup during the 1970s, arriving in Mexico at the start of the decade as holders and missing out on West Germany and Argentina. In Spain 82, England peaked in the opening game when Bryan Robson scored after 27 seconds in a 3-1 victory over eventual semi-finalists France. Their eventual demise was an anti-climactic affair, mainly owing to the curious structure of the competition – Ron Greenwood’s men were eliminated without losing a game. Mexico 86 was a decent one for England, but it was about Maradona’s genius, his God-assisted fist and, due to its location, a World Cup demographic which only suited adults, the post-pub audience and crazed insomniacs.

Italia 90 was, certainly for anyone born in the 1970s and the early 80s, the first proper World Cup. And one we could watch even on a school night. And we needed it. Attendances in the English leagues were down, our clubs were banned from Europe and fans were no longer safe in their own stadia. June 8 to July 8, 1990 was English football’s Year Zero.

Off the field, things were changing. A new wave of Indie music had emerged, with the Rave scene already predominating. Where the mid-to-late 80s had been a mishmash of medleys, novelty records (Star Trekkin, anyone?) and re-release of old songs used for jeans ads, finally music was starting to play to a new era, a new decade. Even our World Cup song sounded good. New Order’s World in Motion wasn’t your usual tournament dirge.

Our politics were changing. Margaret Thatcher jumped over one tackle, hurdled the next. Rioters swamped Trafalgar Square. The Poll Tax demonstrations were undoing Thatcher’s administration. She had dodged so many challenges. She had her own Benjamin Massing waiting for her. If not in summer 1990 then maybe some time soon…

And yet Italia 90 was awful.


Maradona at Italia ’90

Argentina, influenced by their No.10 in 1986, were seemingly burdened by Maradona’s labouring presence four years later. Carlos Bilardo’s side were to score five goals throughout their seven games in the tournament. They had three players sent off (two in the final) and needed two penalty shoot-outs to assist them into next rounds. This wasn’t a vintage Argentina side.

Brazil were transitional – only Careca really excited us – and Italy needed to call upon Toto Schillaci, capped just once before the tournament, to fire them through the games. Roberto Baggio would peak four years later. Holland were a bickering, injury-hit shadow of the side which swept all aside in Euro 88. Only West Germany seemed to maintain any form of consistency.


Toto Schillaci at Italia ’90

Cameroon were the ‘other’ team of the tournament, after England. Inspired by a 40-something Roger Milla, a striker who nobody really could pin an age to, no African nation has quite captured the heart of a World Cup audience since. New stars emerged. Francois Oman-Biyik, Cyrille Makanaky and Emmanuel Kunde were to become key figures within their side.

So what of England? Robson’s side and the Republic of Ireland drew their exchange 1-1, with the paucity of technical direction and the crude ‘Britishness’ of both sides soiling the Cagliari pitch (as did Gary Lineker, but that’s another story you can google for yourselves). The critics were watching. And then came change.

Whether pressure came from the dressing room or was simply implemented by manager Robson is unknown. Claims that players called for change are, at best, apocryphal. Robson’s 4-4-2 was abandoned. In came 3-5-2. Mark Wright was to be a sweeper behind Terry Butcher and Des Walker. Paul Parker and Stuart Pearce were no longer full-backs – they were attacking wing-backs, with defensive responsibilites. Captain Bryan Robson succumb to injury, with his place eventually going to David Platt, following an uninspiring outing by Steve McMahon. Paul Gascoigne would be liberated into a more free role, with Chris Waddle or John Barnes supporting him, behind the usual attacking axis of Lineker and Peter Beardsley.

England played well against Holland, drawing 0-0 – Gazza’s take on the Cruyff turn remains a vivid memory – and beating Egypt 1-0 in the final group. Then came Belgium. England were no better or worse than their opponents. Barnes went close for England by hitting the bar but then so did Belgian genius Enzo Scifo. We were heading for England’s first penalty shoot-out. Not quite. In the final throes of extra time, Paul Gascoigne swung in a free-kick, substitute Platt swivelled and volleyed in one of the goals of the tournament. Platt was swamped, Lineker turned to the camera, grinned and collapsed onto Platt. Iconography was starting to mount. Gascoigne had earlier been booked. Just so you know.

Leeds United boss Howard Wilkinson, working as an FA scout, assured England’s dressing room that their quarter-final against Cameroon was as good as a ‘bye’. He was wrong. England took the lead through a brilliant Platt header but Cameroon scored twice to put themselves within seven minutes of a semi-final berth. And then something unusual happened. England had been awarded a penalty for four years, since Robson scored one in Israel. They got two in the space of 22 minutes, the latter of which was to earn England a 3-2 win after extra time. Lineker scored both. It was close. If Italia 90 was a World Cup of change for England, clearly Wilkinson’s rhetoric about so-called poorer nations stepping aside was an ill-founded relic of the past. Still, England qualified. Over in Rome, the Luton-bound flight would be ‘delayed’ for another week at least.

Away from the field, England were clearly bored. Peter Shilton laid on ‘race nights’ for his team-mates. Chris Waddle went to the barbers. The mullet was lopped, seemingly for good. Short-back-and-sides was to predominate.  Gascoigne had to be dragged off a squash court in the build up to the semi-final against West Germany.


Paul Gascoigne at Italia ’90

Bryan Robson, now back in England on pundit duty, tried to absorb what he had returned to. Used to recriminations and, at best, post-tournament apathy, the absent skipper expressed pleasant disbelief at the mania stirred by England’s progress. The English journalists in Italy were unaware of the growing tide of support that Bobby Robson’s men were getting back home. Stories were being filed completely out-of-context with public opinion.  Football fans were draping Union flags over anything they could – St George’s Cross flags didn’t take off until Euro 96  – with a genuine fever and clamour for England. Glory was within a nation’s grasp.

Back in Turin, England fell behind. Andreas Brehme’s free-kick hit against Parker’s back. Peter Shilton, one of the world’s best goalkeepers during the 1970s and 80s, was fading by 1990. He stretched out his arms for the looping ball, but couldn’t reach it. His reaction time was to be exposed later in the game. England levelled through Lineker. And then came the tears. Gazza received his second yellow card of the tournament. He would miss out on England’s final game – either the actual World Cup Final or the third place play-off. His face reddened and puffed out. Lineker, once again showing an instinct for knowing where the camera was, turned, pointed to the side of his head and uttered the words ‘have a word with him’. Waddle hit the post, Germany hit the post. The rest you’ll know. Pearce and Waddle missed penalties, Shilton dived the right way for every German penalty but failed to get close.England were to finish fourth, losing 2-1 to Italy in Bari in the pointless bronze medal match.

Such was the paucity of attacking play during the three previous weeks that FIFA issued a new directive in the penultimate week. The final, should it end a draw, would be replayed 48 hours later. Thankfully we were spared that. West Germany won the final 1-0 through a Brehme penalty, awarded after Rudi Voller dived when challenged by Roberto Sensini. Argentina’s Pedro Monzon and Gustavo Dezotti were sent off. Bilardo’s side didn’t create a single chance. They didn’t even win a corner. It was, in essence, the worst game of the tournament. Cynicism, fouls galore and four red cards – two in the opening game, two in the final – were to bookend a miserable World Cup. Germany won the trophy. Argentina had the luck.England were to get the legacy.

Our players returned to a hero’s welcome. Gazza replaced his tears for fake breasts, Bobby Robson was lauded a hero, the Italia 90 kit became a cherished item, and we all wondered what might have been had an improving England side faced a poor Argentina team. We’ll never know.
Football would continue to prosper. Italia 90 was played out to opera with the Three Tenors – Domingo, Carreras, Pavarotti – becoming household names. Nessun Dorma, like World in Motion, was the soundtrack of a summer.


Italia 90 was to change our football psyche.

For one four-week period England boasted the world’s best footballer at that particular time. Gazza’s life changed. Supporters’ good behaviour in Italy and Sardinia ensured that Manchester United and Aston Villa, as the previous season’s FA Cup Winners and Division One runners-up, would be granted entry into the European Cup Winners Cup and UEFA Cup respectively (Liverpool remained banned for another year).

Italia 90 ushered in a new decade of hope and footballing pride. In 1985, English clubs had failed to reach a TV agreement – yet within 18 months of Italia 90, the elite clubs agreed to break away from the rest. The Premier League was born. Media and broadcasting rights’ changed the financial climate. New players emerged, new systems, new coaches. England became the place to be. The post-Hillsborough Taylor Report ensured our stadia would no longer be death traps.  Football was reaching out to new supporters – women, children, corporate clients wishing to impress clients.

Football became the subject of plays, books and dramas. Pete Davies’ All Played Out became the seminal book of the period. Fever Pitch, by Nick Hornby, propelled the game into a broader range of people. The middle-classes were developing views on whether England should stick with a sweeper system or resort to a four-man midfield. Everyone had an opinion. Football became a sport you could admit to liking. Football-loathing Thatcher was to be replaced by Chelsea fan John Major within four months of Italia 90. The notion that football was a national disease was packed up with her belongings as she moved out of No.10 for the final time.

What started as a horrible, cynical tournament of poor football, became something special to every single England fan. Italia 90 was a detestable tournament for many. Not for England. We needed something to change. We needed a clean slate. And that’s what we got. Football would never be the same again.

© The Libero 2013 for @AwayColours


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