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While I’ve been enjoying the 2014 World Cup so far, when I think about the most memorable World Cups of my lifetime there’s one tournament that always stands out head-and-shoulders over all the rest. It’s the one that I feel the most nostalgia about even now.
And that’s 1990 in Italy. Cue Nessun Dorma

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While most World Cups have their memorable moments or narratives (Roberto Baggio in USA 94, for example, or the Ronaldo show of 2002), Italia 90 remains unsurpassed in my mind in terms of the drama of the overall tournament and the moments that abide in the memory. I think some of that was down to the Italian setting that imbued the tournament with a level of very Italian romance and aura (some say there’s a very special quality even to the hues of the natural light in much of Italy, especially Rome).

Some of that was the Italian passion and pedigree in football, some of it also the historical aura of the cities in which stadiums were located and games took place.

Some of it might also relate to the sense, with hindsight, that Italia 90 and USA 94 may have been the last World Cups before football properly became the massively corporate, billion-dollar (some would even say ‘corrupt’) industry that we know today. On that note it’s interesting to observe some political commentators suggesting that this current World Cup in Brazil may be one of the last (or even the last) “proper” World Cup in the classic sense, due to the changing political climate and instabilities in various places, including Russia and Eastern Europe (Russia being the location of the next World Cup) and the Middle East (location of the World Cup after that).

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For me personally Italia 90 was also the first World Cup I properly experienced. Although I have memories of watching Mexico 86, it was Italia 90 (I was 10 years old by then) that I first was able to properly comprehend and follow what was happening. At the time I assumed all World Cups were as dramatic and fascinating as this; I later discovered otherwise. Baggio notwithstanding, USA 94 didn’t have quite the same magical aura to it, which is why I really do think location has a huge part to play in what really makes an impression on memory (or on sense memory, at any rate).

The fact that it was England’s most successful campaign in my lifetime may also have had something to do with it; but actually even without that England-centric view I still think Italia 90 would retain its nostalgic aura, so much so that I wish they’d send another World Cup back to Italy in my lifetime (because, seriously, Russia and Qatar are two utterly moronic decisions however you look at it; I mean why not just go with Antarctica and war-torn Syria for the next two tournaments?).

If I had to name a second favorite World Cup after Italia 90, I’d probably choose Germany 2006, not so much for the atmosphere in that instance (Japan/South Korea in 2002 probably created a better atmosphere as a setting), but for the narrative; it was the last hoorah, the final bow, for a number of the game’s great world players – including Ronaldo, Luis Figo, David Beckham, Alessandro Del Piero and Fabio Cannavaro among others, and of course Zinedine Zidane, who became that tournament’s most memorable participant for both the right and wrong reasons. But even that World Cup for me delivered less in actual intrigue and drama than it hinted at; and Italia 90 remains both the real beginning and the very height of my love affair with the World Cup.

Some of us perhaps look back at it through slightly rose-tinted glasses, but framed with the soaring voice of Pavarotti, our memory of the narrative of the tournament really does have the quality of an Italian opera expressed through the medium of ‘The Beautiful Game’; and when I remember every little hint of Paul Gascoigne magic or every time “Toto” Schillachi popped up to net another goal and inspire the hopes and imaginations of the home crowds or every time Roger Milla took Cameroon one step further in their unprecedented success and ran over to the corner-flag to do his little dance… when I remember any of those sorts of moments (and a dozen others), I remember that Italia 90 is as great as football gets in terms of drama and magic, even if not in terms of actual football quality at all times.

Italia 90 had it all; characters, drama, tears, ecstasy, shock upsets, moments of brilliance, tense semi-finals, Italian passion, English grit, German precision, heroes and villains, Pavarotti.

Hey, and England weren’t empty-handed either; they got awarded the FIFA ‘Fair Play‘ award 🙂 That’s something. Argentina sure as fuck weren’t going to be up for that trophy.

Aside from the general argument in favour of the 1990 World Cup, here are 10 specific reasons why Italia 90 remains the most memorable and emotionally resonating World Cup tournament of our times…

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Turin: England vs Germany

It remains the greatest, most nail-biting, most dramatic, most emotionally resonant, England football match in living memory; Portugal/England from Euro 2004 matches it for me as a football match but without the perceived emotional undercurrent. Everything about this semi final still resonates; everything from Gary Lineker’s equalising goal and Chris Waddle’s world-class attempts to win the game for England, to Sir Bobby Robson’s all-too-obvious attempts to contain his terrible disappointment and Paul Gascoigne’s tears at the thought of missing the World Cup Final.

For all the subsequent England teams and campaigns (which have included, on paper, much stronger squads than the Italia 90 squad) and all the superstar names, no England team has come as far this one did in 1990 under the stewardship of England’s most effective and by far its most endearing and likeable manager Sir Bobby Robson; he got England respectably far in Mexico 86 (remember: England lost in 86 to the eventual champions of Maradona’s Argentina and even then only with the aid of an illegitimate/cheat goal), and in 1990 he got them all the way to within spitting distance of the final. And again England only lost to the eventual tournament winners and even then it was only on penalties; let’s bear in mind also that Germany’s goal was a fluke deflection and that the only proper goal scored in normal time was Gary Lineker’s.

Even prior to the Germany game, 1990 was certainly a dramatic England campaign overall; scraping through the group stage, beating Enzorello Schifo and Belgium only in the dying seconds, and of course finally this unforgettable semi final against West Germany. It was also the most likeable England camp in our memory; it wasn’t a squad of millionaire superstars, nor of a £6 Million-a-year manager, but a hard-working unit with maybe only two or three world-class players that included the most reliable goal-scorer England have ever had in Gary Lineker.

English forward Gary Lineker is tripped in 1990 World Cup

It’s strange to think now that Bobby Robson was coming under all kinds of fire from the English press and from sports journalists; with hindsight the F.A has never found a more effective or more likeable England manager in the 24 years since that night in Turin.

It’s actually Bobby Robson’s face and not Gazza’s reactions that most move me now when I look back at that footage; he knew how close he’d come to fulfilling his dream and getting England into the final (for what would’ve been a grudge match/rematch with Maradona and Argentina – imagine what that would’ve been like). Instead it was Bobby Robson’s final game as England manager.

I still almost get misty-eyed thinking about Bobby Robson’s face at the end of that game; just knowing how close it had been, how close he’d come.

The difference between this and most subsequent England eliminations from the World Cup is that it was clear how hard that England team was fighting to win, how much effort was going into every minute of the game, and how deserving England was of a victory; and all this being against a basically superior opposition that only just managed to get through to the final.

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Franz Beckenbaur’s Germany were probably the best team in the tournament and overall worthy winners of Italia 90; but the argument can certainly be made that Bobby Robson’s England were the better team on that night. And that night in Turin still remains the greatest achievement of England on the world stage in most of our lifetimes; and frankly it’s hard to see it being matched by England for a very long time yet.

Toto Schillachi

Who could forget Salvatore “Toto” Schillachi, the unheard-of Sicillian who seemed to come out of nowhere (and off the bench) to light up Italia 90, becoming the saviour of Italy’s home-based 1990 campaign at a time when Gianluca Vialli and other stars of the Italian side were failing to deliver in that most important of Italy’s tournaments.

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Goal after goal was scored by Schillachi, proving it was no fluke, ending with Schillachi acquiring the Golden Boot as well as player of the tournament – this being in a tournament that had featured Paul Gascoigne, Maradonna, Claudio Cannigia, and the German stars Lothar Matthaus and Jurgen Klinsmann. Part of the charm of Schillachi was also how thoroughly unlike a footballer or sportsman he looked; he literally looked like car mechanic who’d accidentally wandered into the Italian dressing room and been mistaken for a player. It’s one of the great stories in football even now.

Yet, like some strange supernatural entity summoned to aid the nation in a time of need, Schillachi, who was a figure of obscurity before Italia 90, more or less returned to being a figure of obscurity in football terms after it too. It was a moment in time; literally cometh the hour cometh the man.

 

Pavarotti’s ‘Nessun Dorma’

When we think of Italia 90 the first thing that comes into some of our minds is no doubt Luciano Pavarotti’s world-famous voice and that piece of music; Nessun Dorma is so intimately linked to the Italia 90 World Cup for many people that it’s virtually impossible to listen to that piece of music without all the football associations.

It was actually the BBC’s use of the 1972 recording during its coverage of the World Cup that ensured the Pavarotti/Italia 90 association; a piece of music Pavarotti became so identified with that the Decca recording of the aria was played at his funeral during a dramatic fly-past by the Italian Air Force.

Although Nessun Dorma has been used subsequently in other sporting events, as well as in several movies and in various other mediums, none of those other appropriations will ever claim it back from Italia 90 as its primary association. Every singer under the sun seems to have tried to do renditions of Nessun Dorma since, but really they may as well save their breath; it’s Pavarotti or nothing.

Class, Passion and Tears: Gazza’s Moment

And of course Paul Gascoigne in Italia 90 is one of the – if not the – most enduring memories of that tournament, and not just for England fans. His tremendous skills, his dogged determination to win every ball, take every free kick, win every tackle (which ultimately earned him his yellow card in the semi final and led to the now-famous tears), and his heart-on-sleeve vulnerability, made its impression on the Italians too.

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Though he didn’t score, Gascoigne enlivened and inspired England’s performance through the tournament both on and off field. And it was Gascoigne’s tears in the Germany semi-final clash that most personified England’s disheartening defeat; it was the most iconic image of the tournament and remains one of the most abiding images in football.

Only David Beckham years later matches Gascoigne in my mind for an England player so passionate about playing for his country and also so capable of being a galvanizing presence and source of inspiration for other players (as well as fans in the stadium).

Watch England in any game of the 2010 World Cup and then watch Paul Gascgoine in any game of Italia 90 and the difference is startling.

The shame of it too is that we never got to see what Gazza would’ve been like by the time of USA 94 because England didn’t get there.

 

Maradona’s comeuppance

Yes, brilliant though he was as a footballer (it’s hard to think of anyone better with a ball at their feet), it has to be said Diego Maradonna was never a likeable character; in fact for many people he was thoroughly unlikeable. A player with no scruples, a willing cheat, who often played dirty, and clearly didn’t care how he won so long as he did win, it was somewhat satisfying to see Maradona somewhat get his comeuppance in 1990 by getting his Argentina side all the way to the final yet again, only to lose this time to the imperious West German side. I doubt many people had any sympathy for him at this stage.

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You could argue that he got even more comeuppance 4 years later in the USA World Cup when he was ejected from the tournament for failing a drugs test; but it was watching him go through the frustrating motions of that final with Germany, knowing that his powers were abating and the title was slipping from his fingers more and more as each minute passed.

In terms of Italia 90, though Argentina were certainly entertaining at times (though probably more so for Claudio Cannigia than Maradona), most neutrals (and certainly most of the native audience in Italy) would’ve preferred to have seen the hosts Italy win that semi final. Maradona, in his defense, was fighting an uphill struggle with a lot of antagonism towards him in particular from Italian crowds in the tournament and certainly in that Argentina/Italy semi final.

The final itself against Germany was no great advert for football and in fact was an anti-climax given how good the rest of the tournament had been (as finals often are); Germany only won it with a penalty, and Argentina had players sent off, particularly for theirs and Maradona’s fiery protesting and aggressive treatment of the referree. Lother Matthaus and the West Germans, on the other hand, kept their cool of course and rode things out dispassionately. There was to be no retaining of the World Cup trophy for Maradona and Argentina, who would have to content themselves with the glory of Mexico 86.

That uninspired final only served to remind us that we would’ve had a much better end to Italia 90 had Italy won their semi-final; what the likes of Roberto Baggio and Salvatore Schillachi (or Paul Gascoigne, for that matter) might’ve brought to that final is something we can only wonder about with hindsight, just like wondering what might’ve happened if Zinedine Zidane hadn’t retalliated against Marco Materazzi in the 2006 final.

There’s no question anyhow that Diego Mardonna was an unpopular figure throughout the 1990 World Cup and no one other than in Argentina wanted him to get his hands on the trophy again; his own doggedness is probably what dragged Argentina through that tournament and as far as the final in Rome, but a visible – and again unpunished – hand-ball in the group stages helped Argentina along (proving that 1986 had been no one-off cheat) and it later came to light that during the knock-out game with Brazil Maradona had tried to offer Brazil’s Branco water spiked with tranquilizers during half time in order to slow him down in the second half.

I mean seriously; anyone who wanted to villify Zidane for the 2006 final (for which I still maintain that he was the wronged party) or Beckham for the sending off against Argentina in 1998 should remind themselves of what real slimey, unsporting villainy is in football – it’s Diego Maradona.

 

Jack Charlton’s Ireland

Like Cameroon, the Republic of Ireland were breaking ground in Italia 90. Under the management of England legend Jack Charlton, they exceeded all expectation in the tournament (their first, for that matter), losing only to the home nation Italy eventually. Although they excelled similarly in USA 94, in Italia 90 their presence and their singular spirit brought great character and atmosphere to their fixtures and Ireland became one of the most memorable aspects of the show.

 

West Germany’s Victory

As much as it stuck in the gut to have them dispatch England from the tournament, there’s little question that Germany were overall worthy winners of Italia 90. Led by the German superman Lothar Matthaus and aided by Jurgen Klinsmann’s superb goal-scoring capabilities, they stomped their way through the tournament like an unstoppable juggernaut at times. They’ve seemed to do that at several subsequent World Cups too, but have always been stopped short of the ultimate prize; in 1990, however, they got all the way. And apart from struggling against Bobby Robson’s England in the semi-final, Germany were the most consistently brilliant team in the tournament, their thrashing of Yugoslavia in particular being a potent example of German attacking relentlessness.

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While I would’ve preferred seeing England or Italy lift the trophy, there was no real argument Germany deserved it. And Klinsmann was one of the most likeable as well as effective goal-scorers on the world stage, having an even better personal tournament in USA 94 than in 1990. Worth mentioning too that West Germany’s victory took place at a highly significant time for the German people amid the fall of the Berlin Wall, being the final tournament before East and West were reunified.

Enter Roberto Baggio…

While USA 94 was his real showcase and the moment-in-time for which he is best remembered, it was in Italia 90 that Roberto Baggio made his entrance into global consciousness; and on home soil made himself the national hero of Italian football for a generation. Having become the then most expensive player in the world prior to the tournament, there was uncertainty and curiosity about Baggio particularly from foreign observers who didn’t know much about him other than the at-the-time extraordinary price tag of 7 million (a trifle, of course, compared to today’s mad football money).

1990 World Cup Finals, Rome, Italy, 19th June, 1990, Italy 2 v Czechoslovakia 0 Italy's Roberto Baggio on the ball

Baggio didn’t exhibit his talents straight away, with Salvatore Schillachi garnering the headlines in Italy at first; but the third group game against Czechoslovakia Baggio scored one of the most memorable goals in World Cup history. Picking the ball up near the halfway line, he turned and weaved through several opposition defenders, one by one, before coolly sending the Czech goalkeeper the wrong way and scoring the kind of solo goal most footballers can only dream of at a World Cup. His celebration resembled a divine moment of religious ecstasy like a medieval Italian saint.

Cameroon Comes To the Party

We’ve got somewhat used to the idea of an African side causing upsets and making headway in any given World Cup; Nigeria in 94, Ghana in more recent tournaments, Senegal in 2002. But the Cameroon show of Italia 90 was the groundbreaker, the scene setter; from literally the opening game of the tournament onward.

In that memorable opening game, the world champions Argentina, led by Diego Maradona, suffered a shock defeat to the African newcomers. The African side clearly had no game-plan or discernible tactics other than to launch themselves at Argentina and hope for the best – but it worked. It also got two players sent off, one of them for a kamikaze-like assault on Claudio Cannigia.

ITA: World Cup 1990 - Cameroon v Colombia

That is in fact one of the most memorable images; the sight of the Quicksilver-like Argentine striker sailing past one Cameroon player after another, each of them trying to bring him down, until the third finally succeeds in violent fashion. It’s not pretty; but then, hey, neither was Maradona’s hand-of-God goal in 1986 – I’m not sure there was much sympathy for the Argentina team.

Cameroon’s groundbreaking campaign was one of the memorable highlights of Italia 90, particularly Roger Milla’s numerous goals and his trademark celebrations. Milla and the African side got all the way to the last eight, losing to England; and even then only just missing out on a semi-final place, with two of England’s goals being Gary Lineker penalties.

 

The Level of Competition, and Those Semi Finals

One of the extraordinary things about Italia 90 was the level of competition once the tournament hit its stride, with several sides being conceivable winners by the time the knock-out stage was underway. Germany and Argentina were both likely winners, but England looked like a distinct possibility, and so did Careca’s Brazil (who probably outplayed Argentina in the quarter final and were unlucky to be undone by a single moment of Maradona/Cannigia brilliance).

Two underdogs, Cameroon and Ireland, both looked like extraordinary success stories in the making at one point (and Franz Beckenbaur had stated it was Cameroon that Germany were afraid of and not England), and even Enzo Schifo’s Belgium side seemed like they could do the business.

And of course there was the host nation Italy, who could easily have ended up winning it; like England, they were only eliminated at the semis by a penalty shoot-out – the margins in these semi finals were negligible and it could’ve just as easily been England and Italy in the final.

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I’m not sure there’s been another World Cup since Italia 90 that was so wide open and in which all four semi finalists were such strong (and worthy) contenders; again maybe 2006 would be the closest contender, but I don’t think the Portugal 2006 team could’ve won the final even with Luis Figo.

Some commentators actually cite Italia 1990 as one of the poorest World Cups for the actual quality of football; in terms of goals, perhaps that’s a valid argument, but in all other terms I find that claim astonishing.

For atmosphere, for sheer drama, and for the near equality-of-quality between those final four teams, I don’t think Italia 90 has been matched. I sometimes wish I could go back in time and experience it anew.

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