On Second Thoughts: Italia 90 | Rob Smyth | Sport

A frequent refrain of the tedious muso is that “it’s all about the music”. In reality, it’s often anything but. Most iconic gigs are such because they capture a moment and a mood, whether personal or societal: that first yes-it-really-really-really-could-happen bit of eye contact with the future Mr or Mrs You, or, as Mani said of Spike Island, the chance to “get as many like minds in a field, get ‘em off their tits, give ‘em a bit of music and see what happens”.

Take perhaps the last defining concert in this country, Blur at Hyde Park in 2009. Technical niceties weren’t really a consideration; most people would have been more interested in the colour of Damon Albarn’s Fred Perry than the range of his falsetto. And do you really think Ian Brown’s voice hit the heights at Spike Island? At Hyde Park, Albarn could have Mockneyed his way through Daisy Bell on loop for two hours in his 1995 Kappa mac and it would not have changed the fact that this was a Culturally Important Moment. When Blur reunited at Glastonbury earlier that summer, even this paper said that it was “not just about the music”.

Sometimes, similarly, it’s not just about the football. The comparison with gigs is far from exact, because with football you are talking about improv rather than established material, but it remains true that all live creative pursuits have the capacity to transcend the actual performance. In football, that is never truer than during a World Cup. There is no greater shared experience in sport and maybe even life: 31 days and 31 nights of cool beers and watercoolers; big screens and bigger ideas; sweepstakes, wallcharts and wall-to-wall football.

In that context, it is possible to view the most notorious World Cup of all, Italia 90, a little differently. As a pure football tournament it left a fair bit to be desired – although, as we shall see, it might not be as bad as the received wisdom suggests – but as a dramatic spectacle it was immense: a freestyle opera so full of rich and lasting experiences as to make the cliché of “balmy, barmy nights” almost irresistible. Not a great tournament, but certainly an epic one. Of all the World Cups in the last 40 years, only Italia 90 could have produced a book as soulful and momentous as Pete Davies’s All Played Out. More than any other, Italia 90 felt like a World Cup.

It captured a mood and, being the last World Cup before the Premier League and the Champions League, came at a time when anything was possible for football. We know now that the showers-that-be ballsed that up completely, but we didn’t then. If Matthew Engel, one of the most original and brilliant sportswriters this country has produced, calls Italia 90 an “unmitigated triumph” for its wider impact – as he did in this paper the day before the final – that will do for us. So will the comment of MaidMarian in an article about great tournaments: “Italia 90 was a great event just spoiled by the football.”

Much of that was to do with the venue. Italy. All football tournaments should be held in Italy, where calcio is consumed with a passion that makes religion seem almost frivolous by comparison. At the time Serie A was the best league in the world by a distance, and the game has rarely felt as important as it did around then. Italy ached with such fervour that the tournament could not fail to haemorrhage grandeur and gravitas. Two days after the final, Ian Ridley wrote in this paper that “probably only in Italy could such an unsatisfying tournament overall – in footballing terms, that is – have been such a success”.

A model tournament

Diego Maradona

Diego Maradona.

On the field, Italia 90 had two major things going for it: an almost ceaseless supply of drama, and a number of individual and collective stories that went straight into World Cup folklore. We usually associate drama in football with the cheap theatre of goalfests, but Italia 90 infamously has the lowest goals-per-game average (2.21). There were another 28 goals scored that did not go in the book: it’s fitting that such a dramatic tournament should have set a new record of four penalty shoot-outs – including, uniquely, two in the semi-finals – that has not been bettered (though there were also four in 2006). Some felt those semi-finals were cheapened by the manner in which they were decided, but both were immense matches regardless – probably the best pair of semi-finals in any World Cup, which counterbalances the appalling final. It’s certainly the case that they were the first pair of semi-finals since 1966, and perhaps 1954, in which we did not, deep down, know the result of at least one of the matches in advance.

The mighty nature of the semi-finals was a reflection of a tournament whose balance of shocks and heavyweight clashes was perfect. This is an absolutely vital element of a World Cup yet one that is rarely commented upon. If you have too many thrilling shocks early on you end up with predictable semi-finals (1994, 2002), and if you have none you end up without that Pak Doo-ik moment (2006). Somewhere in between is Italia 90, which had an immaculate model: one largely unknown side to gallivant as far as the quarter-finals but no further (Cameroon), with another also providing a significant shock or two (Costa Rica); one or two dark horses to reach the quarter-finals (Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia), and everyone out the way so that four proper teams can face off in the semi-finals.

Italia 90 was able to achieve this despite the elimination of Brazil and Holland in the second round, another development that lends considerable weight to suggestions that this was one of the most dramatic World Cups. As a loose rule of thumb, the quarter-finals is par for the top tier of international sides: if you go out at that stage it might still be failure, and the coach can be quietly confident there will be a P45 waiting for him when he gets home, but it is not humiliation. Yet if you go out before that, you will be remembered forever.

That meant the two games on Sunday 24 June were imbued with an impossible tension. Bad enough that one of Brazil and Argentina were going out, and one of Holland and West Germany, but to go out to their most hated rivals was utterly unthinkable. Brazil lost to Argentina in perhaps the greatest smash-and-grab of all – worse still, they were vaccinated by Diego Maradona, who produced one of the great assists to win the match – while Holland were thrashed 2-1 by West Germany and humiliated further when Frank Rijkaard mistook Rudi Völler’s perm for an old tissue.

Rudi Völler and Frank Rijkaard.

Rudi Völler and Frank Rijkaard. Photograph: Getty Images

Brazil’s exit is still their earliest since 1966 – a harsh legacy for a brutally underrated team who were disparaged for their sacrilegious sweeper system but who were completely dominant in all four of their matches – while Holland, who played with the vigour of men emerging from an Amsterdam café in the small hours, are rightly judged by the peerless historian Cris Freddi as “the most disappointing team in any finals tournament”. They did, at least, contribute to one of the greatest days in any World Cup.

Le notti magiche di Toto Schillaci

To continue the dramatic theme, we had the most shocking start to any World Cup when Cameroon beat the holders Argentina, and a few seismic late goals: Freddy Rincon to put Colombia through from Group D, Daniel Fonseca to put Uruguay through from Group E – and shatter the hopes of Scotland and Austria in two other groups – and, of course, David Platt’s life-changing volley against Belgium. There was even, for the only time in the World Cup, the drawing of lots to decide which of Holland and Ireland would be beaten by West Germany in the second game.

The redemption of West Germany, who had lost the previous two finals, was one of many fantastic tales, both collective and individual, that will keep us warm as the years close in. Most nations would have gone a big rubbery one at the prospect of deliverance from the pain of Espana 82 and Mexico 86, but Germany just went about their business with the minimum of fuss. This side is occasionally, unfathomably criticised, yet they were as good a power team as there has ever been, with scarcely a weakness and at least six world-class players in Andreas Brehme, Jurgen Kohler, the utterly underrated Guido Buchwald, Lothar Matthäus, Jürgen Klinsmann and Rudi Völler. The quality of the champion is a vital part of a World Cup’s legacy, and in that regard Italia 90 is in credit: the Germans were the best between 1970 and 2010.

England’s journey was equally compelling, from “No Football Please, We’re English” (the headline in Gazzetta dello Sport after the appalling first match against Ireland) to a performance of genuine continental sophistication in that semi-final against West Germany, Their progress may have been a little hamfooted – a three-goal win would not have flattered Cameroon in the quarter-final, and Belgium had slightly the better of an excellent second-round game – but they were also ingenuous, likeable and, by using a sweeper system that seemed astonishingly sophisticated in a country that taught 4-4-2 on the curriculum, thrillingly European. They were also very worthy winners of the Fifa Fair Play Award, and the goodwill of that match against West Germany was truly remarkable for a game of such importance.

Paul Gascoigne runs to the bench to celebrate after his assist for England’s winner against Belgium.

Paul Gascoigne runs to the bench to celebrate after his assist for England’s winner against Belgium. Photograph: Mark Leech/Getty Images

Goodwill flowed towards Ireland as they gave it a lash and sneaked into the quarter-finals in their first-ever World Cup. There was Argentina’s warped and guiltily hilarious defence of their title, which they surrendered as compliantly as Tony Montana did his life; say what you like about them, but the World Cup will never have better pantomime villains. There was the eye-watering thuggery and eye-moistening brilliance of Cameroon, the first African side to reach the quarter-finals. And then there were the hosts. Other nations have wanted to win a World Cup just as much as Italy did in 1990, but none have needed to win it quite as much. When they went out to Argentina in the semis, you could almost feel the wailing.

Italy’s star was Toto Schillaci, compelling evidence that beauty can be in the eyes of the beholdee. Italy will always talk about the “Notto Magiche di Toto Schillaci”. He won the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot but he was not the only man whose life was defined by four weeks in the summer of 1990: Paul Gascoigne came from leftfield to inspire England (it’s easy to forget that he wasn’t even certain of a place in the squad until an astonishing performance against the Czechs in late April), Roger Milla came out of of retirement to drive Cameroon to the last eight with four goals and proof that some old men can dance; and Sergio Goycoechea came from the shadows to save the penalties that took Argentina to the final.

Proustian rush

Stories and drama are, you might say, all well and good, but the football was negative and unwatchable and blah blah blah . Well. The main evidence used to damn Italia 90 is that average of 2.21 goals per game, yet there is an uncomfortable contradiction here. At the time, Serie A was rightly seen as superior – yet that had an extremely similar ratio (2.24 in 1989-90; 2.29 in 1990-91). It is dangerous to confuse negativity with defensive excellence, and there was plenty of the latter on offer. Ireland and Egypt were negative, Cameroon were filthy and Argentina were both, but the rest were fairly blameless. The technical quality was very high, too. And, though Italia 90 is seen as an affront to the purists, surely the 1-1 draw between West Germany and England in the semi-final of that tournament is preferable to the basketball farce between Italy and West Germany at the same stage of the 1970 World Cup, when six goals were scored in the final 31 minutes because everyone had shot their bolt in the heat?

If you did a Family Fortunes-style survey and asked 100 people to name the worst World Cup, Italia 90 would surely come top. Yet the reality is simply not that clear cut: purely in terms of entertaining football, there are strong arguments that 1938, 1962, 2002, 2006 and maybe 2010 were inferior. Italia 90’s problem was not that it was the worst, but that it was the first: the first low-scoring World Cup of the colour television era (and the first in which one team failed to score in the final, which seems incredible now), and thus forever to be despised. It is seen as the dark age of football, before the abolition of the backpass and the assault from behind, but in reality it was simply the case that the balance between attack and defence was slightly out of whack. The dark age is now, ever since the Millennium Bug of 4-2-3-1 kicked in.

The fact that Italias 90’s appeal extended beyond the action is reflected by the staggeringly high quality of its peripherals. The Proustian rush of the BBC’s titles will, of course, never be bettered in sport, but that is not all. The 21st-century stadia, all built or heavily redeveloped for the tournament, were remarkable; and the kits were the best of any World Cup. Italia 90 came after the Toffs era of classy but plain kits, and just before design tools and their design tools got to work (and also just before adidas unfathomably marginalised the trefoil). Nor was there a corporate overload: Brazil’s kit, an elegantly faded colour rather than the brilliant yellow we know now, was made by Topper. Topper. How cool is that? And how cool were the TV graphics, part of RAI’s superb coverage, which included umpteen fresh and new camera angles. We even had Orbis’s World Cup 90, a one-off that was as good as sticker albums got. This stuff may seem piffling, but it all added to the feel of a Proper World Cup.

‘Don’t do it son!’

There was plenty more to take from the tournament. As we did a similar thing during an On Second Thoughts on USA 94, here’s a list of other things to remember fondly from Italia 90.

Klinsmann producing an individual performance for the ages against Holland; the hideous cruelty, on an individual level, of the already besieged Jim Leighton’s crucial mistake against Brazil; the hideous cruelty, on a collective level, of Taffarel’s miraculous injury-time save from Mo Johnston in the same game; the two-footed perfection of West Germany’s left wing-back Brehme, who scored two penalties with his right foot having scored one with his left at Mexico 86, and who was such an attacking threat that the Holland right-winger Johnny Van’t Schip’s principal job was to mark him (Brehme scored the decisive goal with a delicious curler); the mysterious and apparently impenetrable Italian defence, which went a World Cup record 517 minutes before conceding; Maradona’s crafty politicking before the semi-final and then his staggeringly cocky penalty at the end of the same game, which left most of Italy foaming with impotent rage; Barry Davies giving Carlos Valderrama a rollocking a split-second before Valderrama’s regal reverse pass allowed Rincon to score and put Colombia into the last 16; the peerless Davies holding the name “CANIGGIAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA” for an age; Gazza making a prat of Mark Goodier; Milla making a prat of René Higuita; Massing.

Roger Milla after picking the pocket of René Higuita.

Roger Milla after picking the pocket of René Higuita. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Gary Lineker’s nervelessness from the spot against Cameroon, particularly as, in the first instance, he was taking England’s first penalty for four years; the outside of Enzo Scifo’s right foot; John Motson shrieking “You can’t have this in the final” after Gustavo Dezotti’s assault on Jürgen Kohler, as if it would have been a hoot in the semis; the regal smoothness of Careca’s two goals against Sweden; the majestic simplicity of Ruud Gullit’s goal against Ireland; Murdo MacLeod being sparked out by a Branco free-kick to such an extent that he tried to head a cross into his own net a few moments later and prepared to wheel away before it drifted wide of the top corner; Belgium’s supreme performance with 10 men against Uruguay; Tony Cascarino’s penalty against Romania when, having walked from the halfway line while getting all sorts of agita from the voice inside his head (“You look like a man about to meet a firing squad… The whole world is watching. Frightening, isn’t it? … You’d better assure your mother. ‘Don’t do it son!’ she’s screaming. ‘What happens if you miss?’”), he kicked the ground so hard that he could have broken his foot, but still scored; Dragan Stojkovic’s performance against Spain, and particularly his dummy for the first goal; Michel’s hat-trick against South Korea; two silk-smooth English Deses, Lynam and Walker; one of them having a brief but total shocker against Cameroon; a phalanx of Czech midfielders whose left feet were not much educated as doctoral; hearing the Stone Roses on the BBC; Bobby Robson admitting that “4-4-2 saved us” after the Cameroon game, which in the climate of the time was akin to saying you preferred Primark underwear to Ann Summers; the otherwise unfairly maligned Howard Wilkinson telling the England team that “they had a bye, basically” against Cameroon, who then gave them a proper chasing; and Matthäus’s chilling second goal against Yugoslavia, neck and neck with Roberto Baggio’s meandering run as the best of the tournament.

There were, we’re sure you’ll disagree, some pretty memorable on-field moments. But it was about more than that. If football is more than a game, then Italia 90 was more than the game.

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