Sunday, 6 June 2010

My World Cup Memories - Part Three, Italia 90

After the controversy and disappointment of England’s exit in Mexico, the four years wait until the next World Cup seemed like forever. I had followed the qualifiers intently. It wasn’t entirely comfortable, and it was with considerable relief that we gained the vital point we needed to qualify for the 1990 World Cup v’s Sweden in Stockholm in September of 89. The game may have finished 0-0, but it’s a game that will never be forgotten for the iconic image of the talismatic Terry Butcher drenched head to toe in blood following a head collision that required numerous stitches. His white England shirt had quiet literally turned red. To a young impressionable chap like myself, Butcher typified the English spirit.

At the start of Italia 90 I was 15 years old; the final would be on my 16th birthday. Unlike the previous two World Cups, this one would not be followed from the comfort of the family home. This time around I was going to follow the drama with my mates. The tribal, patriotic emotions took the viewing experience to a whole new level, as did the odd drop of alcohol here and there! New Order’s ‘World In Motion’ was played back to back wherever you went. Easily the greatest football song of all time, it is a lifetime defining anthem that conjures so many evocative memories, good and bad. I was bursting with pride for my country. It is perhaps a little sad when looking back in retrospect that Italia 90 was probably the peak of my World Cup experience in some ways. I viewed the England players as heroes: every one of them. In particular, Gazza, who had so much passion, skill and invention plus the lovable slightly daft character to go with it. It would be the last time in a World Cup I would look up to England players with such awe and admiration.

The World Cup in Italy came with all the cultural sophistication you associate with the Italians. This was no ‘Pie and a Pint’ sort of World Cup. Constant reminders of the history of the country were evident throughout, with the final itself being held in the ancient city of Rome. Even Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma gave a dramatic and emotional operatic theme to the TV coverage. My fascination with football stadia was satisfied with such venues as the impressive Stadio Olimpico in Rome and Milan’s San Siro. I already knew of the Stadio San Paolo in Naples as it was Maradona’s home ground at the time. There is, however, a common opinion that due to the defensive nature of some teams and the low goal-scoring ratio throughout the whole tournament, Italia 90 was the worst World Cup ever (Brazil, for example, despite all their flair and ability played with 5 defenders in some games). I don’t think that it was a coincidence that this happened in a country famed for their defensive approach. But then this was a World Cup: the stakes were at their very highest. Take England’s group for example, things were so tight that only England managed to win a game, nobody scored more than one goal in any one game and no less than 5 of the 6 games played ended in a draw (two of them goalless). But despite all this, Italia 90 represented England’s greatest World Cup adventure since 1966. And what an adventure it was!

The favorable time-difference meant I’d get a chance to watch both the late afternoon and evening kick-off’s. For one month I was completely surrounded by football at an age where nothing else appeared to be more important! I remember quite clearly the first game of the tournament between the current holders, Argentina, and the Cameroon. Despite my admiration for Maradona, I found myself rooting for the underdog Africans. Played in a packed San Siro in Milan, the Cameroons pulled off one of the all time World Cup shocks and out-muscled and bullied their far more talented opposition winning 1-0, and all this despite having every one of their players and substitutes sent off for not being able to tackle! The result would not prove to be as much of a fluke as first thought, as the huge Africans went on to win their group (Argentina scrapped through as one of the four best 3rd placed teams). England’s campaign got off to a disappointing start with a draw against Eire (I recall the typical doom and gloom in The Sun the following morning), a slightly more respectable 0-0 draw against the Netherlands, and, thankfully, a vital and decisive 1-0 win over Egypt, courtesy of Mark Wright’s only ever England goal. We were through to the last 16.

The first round of knockout games featured some mighty encounters; a strangely defensive looking Brazil v’s Argentina and West Germany v’s the Netherlands amongst them. The latter of the two games will unfortunately be better remembered for the bizarre Frank Rijkaard spitting incident on Rudi Voller that saw both men sent off (if memory serves me correct, the TV cameras had picked up an earlier attempt by Rijkaard to spit at Voller, but the ref never saw that). England was drawn against Belgium, a side who was in good form and had been impressive in the group matches. The game was a typically nervy and tight affair that looked to be heading to a penalty shoot-out before David Platt somehow swiveled on to a ball into the box (I seem to recall it was Gazza from a set piece?) and put the ball passed the Belgian keeper. It was a magic moment shared with friends and although I don’t recall a huge amount about the game itself, I can picture the moment the pub erupted when we realised Platt had bagged the winner. The beer was dripping from the ceiling and there was utter pandemonium. England were through to the Quarter Final’s once again, but this time a stocky Argentine genius would not be amongst the opposition, rather it would be colossal Africans built like clay village huts that stood in our way.

If this World Cup was indeed the worst one ever due to the reasons noted above, then the quarter finals done little to disprove the theory. A dull 0-0 after extra time, Argentina relied on a penalty shoot-out v’s Yugoslavia (despite Maradona missing his spot kick) to go through to the last four. The hugely impressive and eventual Golden Boot winner, Schillaci scored for the Italians v’s Eire in an all-to-predictable 1-0 win, and a penalty put the Germans through against the Czechs. The game of the round was most certainly England v’s Cameroon. There were some that thought this game would be a formality. It was certainly true that England were the favorites against an African side that appeared to be over-performing and riding their luck. But the Cameroons were no mugs. They’d beaten Valderrama’s Columbia in the last 16 thanks to two goals from Roger Milla, who, despite being over 40 years old, became forever famous for that dancing goal celebration in an earlier game. Before the Cameroon match I was concerned about our ability to cope with the brutal tackling and relentless raw power that the Cameroons had displayed so well against the Argentines in the opening game. Everyone was nervous that Gazza would react to a strong challenge and get sent off. It was, I think, the only England game I watched outside of a pub in 1990. A few of us had gathered at a friend’s house to watch the drama unfold. First we scored through Platt, and then the towering Africans hit us with two goals midway through the second half. Without the anxiety of a packed and twitchy pub, I remember sitting quietly; keeping the faith we had another goal in us. And thank God, we did! The England Captain, Gary Lineker, scoring from a dubious looking penalty with just 7 mins left. Another dodgy looking penalty converted by Lineker would win us the game in the first half of extra time, and England were in the semi-finals. Just saying it sounded fantastic. Just thinking about the possibilities beyond that was…er…well, unthinkable! The whole nation got behind Bobby Robson: a man we had all grown to love as a second father figure.

I began dreaming of a very special birthday on July the 8th in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. I swear, I’d have never asked for anything else…ever!

But it wasn’t to be. On the 4th of July 1990, late into the evening, I was left totally heartbroken. 15 years old and crying on the shoulders of friends, who themselves were inconsolable. I can honestly say the pain of the defeat – and the nature of it – is still very hard for me to try and recall nearly 20 years later. I simply don’t have it in me to put on a brave face and re-live the game (which I admit is not ideal considering this whole series of reminiscing posts was my idea!). Hand on heart; I have never been able to watch a re-run of the failed penalties. And that image of Bobby’s face as he turns away from the dugout knowing his dream is over gets me every time.

As Waddle’s penalty attempt rose high into the Turin sky, the 1990 World Cup was over. Even the thought of watching Maradona in the final wasn’t enough, and don’t talk to me about 3rd place matches (is there a game anywhere that has so little value?).

Four years to the next World Cup and a chance to heal the pain. But four years of hurt would turn in to eight...

1 comment:

  1. Another great trip down memory lane Ted. Italia 90 was certainly the most dull and cynical World Cup, perhaps ever.

    I remember a lot of games being settled in ET or on penalties. I also remember the Irish playing so much better than us.

    However despite this my memories of World in Motion and Nessun Dorma give me a warm feeling inside. I too also remember this World Cup fondly because I was also in the pub or around mates' house watching games.

    I watched the final on a narrow boat on the grand union canal with some mates and remember thinking how desparately boring the game was. wishing for the final whistle so we could get of the boat and get pissed!