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Hope opera: World Cup 1990 – West Germany v England

July 17, 2010

Tears of a clown: starved of success for so long, England fans didn’t know what to expect this World Cup – what they got was Gazza, a boy wonder and first superstar of a new football age

So, as the curtain has fallen on the 19th global football extravaganza in South Africa, here it is then… George’s Journal’s own final World Cup special. And its focus is – and, let’s be honest, could only be – the world’s 14th soccer spectacular, which took place in Italy in 1990. Yes, Italia ’90. A particularly memorable World Cup for footy followers of not Spain or Holland, but Argentina, Italy, (West) Germany, Cameroon and, yes, England.

And, you know, England in 1990 was rather the bright, colourful, happy place. Or, at least, it was recalling it through the eyes of a ten year-old, as I was that year. But with Teenage Mutant Hero/ Ninja Turtles on sale in every toy shop in the land, Bart Simpson ‘doing the Bartman’,  Kylie and Jason singing especially for us all and seemingly every moment of the day being ‘Hammer Time’, how could it not have been a good year?

Well, from a wider, more grown-up perspective, it actually wasn’t that bad a twelve months. Following the life-affirming moment the previous October when the Berlin Wall was broken down and friends and family from either side were reunited and strangers became compatriots in all but name, East and West Germany took momentous steps to reunify their country – finally doing so in the autumn. And this development looked like it might genuinely prove the rod to break the camel’s back, or at least the Soviet Union’s (and, with hindsight, of course, we know it was). Plus, lest we forget, in April of this year, Nelson Mandela, the man who had been incarcerated in Robben Island off the coast of South Africa’s Cape Town for 24 years, finally walked out of jail a free man – and into the world’s consciousness for all time. Even Thatcher was finally given her marching orders at the end of the year – all right, yes, she was replaced by John Major, but still.

Yes, the ’80s were over and now a hopeful, fresh, new decade free of Thatcherism, Communism and apartheid seemed to yawn ahead of us – the oh-so modern-sounding 1990s. Yet, at the same time, all was not entirely happy within the UK. Thatcher’s parting shot before she left, the hideously unfair Poll Tax, threatened to poleaxe Middle England as well as the most financially vulnerable – and it resulted in a violent protest in London’s Trafalgar Square. Moreover, those in the know could see a recession looming that would come to the fore over the next two years, which would be partly generated by the 1987 stock market crash and partly by the growing tensions in the Middle Eastern Gulf thanks to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invading the free state of Kuwait late in 1990. That incident itself would also lead to a war in which Britain would become unavoidably drawn. Even the youthful, drug-fuelled abandon of the rave scene, which had been kicked into the mainstream the previous summer, seemed much more cynical and aggressive than its supposedly comparable hippy movement of around 20 years earlier, as it was more a decadent avoidance of – rather than a naive answer to – the darkness of modern times.

Hello, goodbye: Italia ’90’s logo (left) and mascot, Ciao (centre left); the Berlin Wall is felled (centre right); and the Poll Tax riot rages in Traflagar Square as Thatcher finally goes (right)

And, if all that wasn’t enough, football itself was looking universally gloomy on these shores. After a dreadful showing in the European Championships of 1988 (England lost all three group games), negating an inspiring, decent turn in the ’86 World Cup, there wasn’t exactly universal belief in the national team. Indeed, Bobby Robson – still the manager – was receiving the sort of verbal volleys from the tabloid press usually reserved for a deeply unpopular PM at the helm of a useless government (he was only the England manager after all, not Gordon Brown). In fact, the English public didn’t have much belief in its national sport in general either. The bane of the sport in the late-’70s and throughout the ’80s, hooliganism, was far from eradicated, and it ensured what was once a father-and-son sport was now very much the preserve of the adult male. Kids, let alone women, hardly seemed welcome on the terraces in what too often were heated and far from savoury environments. Throw in the hooligan-driven disaster at the Heysel Stadium in ’85 and the completely non-hooligan-related tragedy at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield the previous year, and football was genuinely becoming something of a tarnished past-time in the national psyche.

This then was the picture when in June the England squad touched down on the Italian island of Sardinia to begin their group games, along with their fans – seemingly segregated from those of other nations who were happily ensconsed in mainland Italy (yet, given our hooligan problem, you could hardly blame the tournament organisers making that decision really). And, as if to underline English football’s woe at this time, Robson’s men hardly made a brilliant start to the tournament – in fact, in a word, they were crap.

They kicked off proceedings against the Republic of Ireland, who had qualified for their first ever World Cup and, managed as they were, by English 1966 Cup winner Jack Charlton, featured a fair number of men in their ranks who were representing the Emerald Isle owing to ancestry rather than actually being born Irish, given they hailed from the likes of Liverpool, Yorkshire and London. Therefore, the players on both sides were greatly familiar to each other, as, even the genuine Irish among them, played week-in, week-out in the English First Division. As such, the game proved something of a derby grudge match and the quality practically non-existent. England took the lead as early as the eighth minute, however, when their hero of the previous World Cup, midas-touched marksman Gary Lineker, bungled in a goal, but after 72 minutes Kevin Sheedy equalised for the Irish and the game finished all-square.

Next up for the men in white were the heroes in orange – and Holland’s team were indeed heroes. Packing Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, the Dutch were formidable foes, having demolished England just two years before on the way to winning the European Championships that year. Well, formidable foes they were in prospect, at least. For the game that ensued ended in a greatly disappointing 0-0 stalemate and, surprisingly, England dominated most of the play. Still the draw wasn’t much use to either side, given Holland had also drawn their opening match – against Egypt – 1-1. And it was against Egypt then that England played their final group game. To say everything was riding on it would not be an exaggeration; the group, unlike others in this – and many – World Cups was incredibly tight, ludicrously so, in fact, thanks to so many draws and so few goals.

The hero and the hairdo: Italy’s Toto Schillaci had good days in front of goal (left); Colombia’s Carlos Valderrama clearly had a bad day at the barber’s – but could play a bit, mind (right)

Yet, in keeping with their depressing performances so far, England scored an unremarkable goal from a set-piece – a header from defender Mark Wright – and held on to the 1-0 lead. And this ensured that, in spite of their poor form, they had some how conspired to top the table – and as group winners they would have the presumably ‘easier’ draw in the second round. Ireland and Holland followed them through; the Irish in second place and Holland in a disappointing third (but with one of the best records for a team finishing in that place in a group, thus their qualification), but only after both teams had drawn lots for their places, given they had exactly the same records. This was the first and – so far – only time lots have had to be drawn to decide group finishes in World Cup history.

Still, if the English and Dutch hadn’t instilled hope in their respective nations with their group form, it was a different story for the hosts. As ever, the Italian team looked classy, made up as it was with players from the likes of AC Milan, Juventus and Inter, such as defender and captain Giuseppe Bergomi, centre-back Franco Baresi, forward Roberto Baggio, midfielder Roberto Donadoni, striker Gianluca Vialli and young left-back Paulo Maldini. And the Azzurri were impressive from the off too, securing three victories out of three in their group (unusual tournament form even for a good Italian side), as they defeated Austria, Czechoslvakia and the United States and reached the next stage with ease. More unusual was the fact that two of Italy’s four goals came from a player only once before capped, diminutive but exciting striker Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci.

Indeed, it would be fair to say too that the style, grace and blue cool the hosts displayed on the pitch was reflected by their staging of this tournament. This was a very Italian World Cup, make no mistake. All the stadia seemed to be grand, almost Classical theatres in which the events unfolded before spectators and TV viewers’ eyes – somehow it felt like  there was something of the Colisseum about every one of them. Opera seemed to be everywhere too, not least if you tuned into the BBC’s coverage, thanks to their use of Luciano Pavarotti’s unmistakable rendition of Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s Turandot over their broadcasts’ opening titles. Quite frankly, this piece of fine music became so imprinted on the mind during the contest that it effectively became the thing’s unofficial theme tune – surely playing a decisive, early role then in the popularisation of opera and classical music during the decade to come. And it quickly became apparent that – on television, at least – opera and football were far from strange, but perfect bedfellows; the melodramatic, broad-brushstroke action and passion to be seen in the TV visuals a terrific fit with the music of past masters. Even the event’s opening ceremony was too cool for school (bringing Milan catwalk fashion to a football pitch at one stage, as it did), while the home Italian broadcaster’s gracefully moving screen graphics were far more stylish than anything the Beeb or ITV had come up with for mere footy.

Unfortunately, though, there was something else about Italia ’90 that could also be said to be rather Italian, at least in a football sense. This was a World Cup, more than any that had gone before, where defensive tactics seemed to outstrip attacking ones. And that meant that, for all the spectacular and impressive settings and soundtracks, sadly there weren’t a hell of a lot of goals.

For instance, out of the tournament’s six opening groups all the big names went through, but with little pomp. This was perhaps most characterised by Brazil – not looking their most imaginative team ever – who claimed three wins out of three, but with mere 2-1, 1-0 and 1-0 victories. Joining them in the second round from their group, though, was something of a surprise package in the shape of debutants Costa Rica, who got through at the expense of yet another disappointing Scotland team. Mind you, one side that bucked the low-scoring trend was, perhaps surprisingly, West Germany. Decked out in shirts that featured a natty tri-colour horizontal stripe across the breast and featuring stars such as über-midfielder and captain Lothar Matthäus and forwards Jürgen Klinsmann and Rudi Völler, they lived up to their pre-tournament favourites tag by defeating Yugoslavia 4-1 and the United Arab Emirates 5-1. All the same, though, it’s probably fair to say that all the real early drama occurred in title-holders Argentina’s group.

Yes, the campiones in pale blue and white stripes struggled from the beginning. Their – and the entire competition’s – opening match was against total minnows Cameroon, and they lost it, 1-0. Just as the world had been stunned by captain Diego Maradona’s ‘hand of God’ antics in the tournament four years before, yet another match in which he was involved sent shockwaves around the globe. Fair enough, this didn’t look to be a great Argentina side by any stretch of the imagination, but for an African team to beat it in the curtain raiser of football’s greatest show was a sensation. True it was too that the Cameroonians hardly outplayed their opposition, deploying the tactics of bandits rather than cavaliers – at one stage Argentine forward Claudio Caniggia was fouled three times in one run; riding the first two challenges honestly, the third one was so bad his boot came off. Unsurprisingly, Cameroon had two men sent off (one of them the brother of goalscorer Francois Omam Biyik), but held on to claim the win. And they didn’t stop there. The team in the traffic light-like green, red and yellow strip beat Romania 2-1 in their next match, with a brace from 38-year-old veteran striker Roger Milla, before slumping to a 4-0 defeat to the Soviet Union. Still, their two victories were enough to see them top the group – undoubtedly one of the highlights of the compeition thus far. And what of Argentina? Well, wouldn’t you know it, they managed to scramble together a win and a draw and thus reached the second round as one of the first’s third-placed teams with the best records. Jammy so-and-so’s.

There was little jammy about the Argentines’ victory over Brazil in the all-South American Last Sixteen fixture, though, or was there? The winning goal came the former’s way from Caniggia thanks to a Maradona run just ten minutes from time. However, the Albicelestes‘s former captain has since claimed that when, during the match, Brazilian player Branco was sportingly offered water by a member of the Argentine team staff, the water contained a tranquiliser. Not very sporting after all then. Elsewehere in the second round, Schillaci scored again as Italy beat Uruguay 2-0; Yugoslavia advanced past the, as usual, underperforming Spain; Costa Rica were Czech-mated to the tune of 4-2; and, deep into extra-time, Cameroon did the business again by beating Colombia.

It was all thanks to the miraculous Milla weaving his magic once more as, coming on as a substitute after normal-time had been completed, he scored two goals in three minutes. Indeed, the second came from a catastrophic mistake committed by the Colombian keeper – the infamous mistachioed and perm-haired Rene Higuita – as he brought the ball out of the penalty area at his feet only to be disposessed by the cool forward who then slotted home. Colombia reduced their arrears to 2-1 before the end, but it wasn’t enough, Cameroon won and thus became the first African nation ever to make it through to the quarter finals of a World Cup. And terrific stuff it was too.

Doing the jig: The groovy goal celebration of Cameroon’s extraordinary Roger Milla

Less terrific, though, unfortunately, was this round’s meeting between West Germany and Holland. Two nations between whom there’s traditionally little love lost, of course, they last met in this compettion way back in the ’74 final when Cruyff’s quality Dutch were surprisingly beaten to the title by Beckenbauer’s efficient Germans. This time around then, the Dutch once more had a quality footballing side, the Germans were once more efficient and, indeed, Franz Beckenbauer was once more leading them – this time as manager, however. But there the similarities ended, because if you’re not aware of this match and thought Sunday’s latest World Cup final was bad-tempered, well, you really ain’t seen nothing yet.

The game was feisty from the start, with unnecessarily strong tackles going in all over the shop, but the real farago began when Rijkaard fouled Völler and a free-kick was awarded the Germans around the midway point of the first-half. The former player followed this up, bizarrely, by spitting in the latter’s hair; Völler made a big show of complaining about it to the referee and, for his troubles, got booked along with Rijkaard. Then, as the free-kick was taken, Völler dived theatrically in the hope of winning a penalty; it wasn’t given, but an unimpressed Rijkaard proceeded to twist the German’s ear and stamp on his ankle and, perhaps understandably, Völler squared up to him. The referee was having no more and gave them each another yellow card – they were both sent off. However, that wasn’t the end of it. As they walked off, the German slightly ahead of the Dutchman, Rijkaard demonstrated what he thought of Völler once more – by spitting in his hair again. Having suffered this indignity a second time (and it was an indignity too, as the home broadcaster needlessly showed a slowed-down replay of the unsavoury moment, saliva in Völler’s horrible blond perm and everything), Völler looked appealingly to the ref, but to no avail given he’d already been dismissed from the pitch.

The Germans reacted far better following this incident and actually started to play football. Then, in the 51st minute, Völler’s partner in attack, Klinsmann (who, now playing up front on his own and improving by the second, pulling the Dutch defenders here, there and everywhere), completed a fine move with a terrific striker’s finish to put his team 1-0 up. Then, eight minutes from time, defender Andreas ‘Andy’ Brehme curled in a superb shot from distance, sealing the win for Germany. And with that, the great Dutch class of ’88 went crashing out – and the Germans rumbled on.

Holland’s fellow group qualifiers, England and Ireland, had just as eventful ties this round. Drawn against the unfancied Belgium, as their side was, optimistic England fans probably felt this one was going to be a push-over. It proved to be anything but. Containing the remnants of the more than useful side that finished fourth in Mexico ’86, Belgium made for stubborn opposition throughout. Having said that, England seemed rather devoid of ideas and invention in trying to make the break-through anyway. The game drifted into extra-time and the very real possibility of a dreaded penalty-shootout (a huge rarity in English football back then – how innocent that seems now) to decide the winners, let alone who’d progress, loomed ominously. And then, with just a minute remaining, an England free-kick was lofted to the Belgian goal’s back post, and a player swivelled, connected and scored the most exquisite volley possible. The player was David Platt, a regular with Aston Villa, who prior to the tournament had only played five times for his country, and had come into the side in the second match, replacing yet again injured captain Bryan Robson. An unlikely hero to say the least. But none of that mattered – it was a truly magical World Cup moment for England; a miraculous one too that ensured they had made it into the quarter finals by the skin of their teeth.

Splitting hairs?: More like spitting in his hair – Frank Rijkaard lands one on Rudi Völler’s perm

And, against odds even a Dublin bookie wouldn’t have liked, Ireland confounded all expectations by reaching the least eight as well – and they only did it on penalties. In fact, they made it look easy. Finishing their match against Romania 0-0, they managed to convert all five of their spot-kicks to Romania’s four, with centre-back David O’Leary unfeasibly putting away the winning one (he’d never taken a peanalty before in his football career). Memorably, the Irish players, substitutes on the bench and team staff sprinted towards O’Leary and buried him in one giant, triumphant pile-on. Manager Jack Charlton hung back, though, perhaps musing on the promise he’d made his players that if they managed to win the match and make the quarter finals, he’d ensure they got an audience with the Pope at Vatican City. And, yes, amazingly, ‘Big’ Jack somehow pulled some strings and, inconceivably, this event happened – the moment when John Paul II met Jack Charlton (two most incongrous individuals) really was unforgettable. What did His Holiness say as they shook hands? Yes, that’s right: “I know who you, are Mr Charlton – you’re the boss!”. It’s nice to know that in this world, with all its unsavouriness, occasionally things like that are just meant to happen.

Anyway, on to the quarters, and, for the most part, this round proved to be less memorable than its preceding one. Yugoslavia managed to match Argentina until penalties decided their contest in the latter’s favour (despite Maradona missing in the shootout); West Germany defeated Czechoslovakia thanks to penalties as well – only one this time, though, from the boot of Matthäus in the 25th minute; and Italy eventually – and rather unromantically – put an end to Ireland’s magical mystery tour thanks to a 38th minute goal from that man – again – Schillaci. Still, as they departed this World Cup, Irish eyes were definitely smiling – they’d managed to finish among the last eight, plus they’d done it without winning  a match outright. And, of course, their team had met the Pope. Worth mentioning a second time that, methinks.

As for England, well, hopes were high. Yes, because unlike four years before at this stage, when they’d been drawn against eventual winners Argentina, this time they would face the johnny-come-latelies Cameroon. An entertaining side, sure, but an ill-disciplined rabble who Lineker and co. would easily stuff. Right? Wrong. As the two teams lined up in the tunnel, the England players at first looked loose and easy, but then as they turned to see the Cameroonians next to them, they noticed that, in the words since of central-defender-cum-brick-s***-house Terry Butcher, ‘they were enormous’. Their opponents were also singing a traditional song in French. England player Chris Waddle has since claimed that his manager Bobby Robson told his team not to worry as the Cameroonians were singing because they were scared of facing England, only for one of the opponent’s players to tell him politely in English that his team were singing because they always sung before matches and that they certainly weren’t scared of England.

This, perhaps, should have been a bad omen, but England started well. So much so that on 25 minutes, Platt popped up in the penalty area again and headed in a cross to put them in front. His goal against Belgium then did seem to have been the brilliant spark England had needed to get their campaign well and truly underway. By half-time, England were comfortably on top and, it’s probably fair to say, a nation glued to its TV sets was feeling a little smug. But then came and a change in the Cameroon camp – Roger Milla was substituted on. So effective in extra-time against Colombia, the (in football terms) geriatric striker’s introduction to proceedings proved devastating again. Slowly but surely, his presence caused the English defence more and more problems and, eventually, in the 61st minute his side won a penalty, which was duly despached by Emmanuel Kundé. Then, five minutes later, panic stations – Eugène Ekéké smartly scored to put them 2-1 ahead.

However, unlike their disbelieving fans, England didn’t lose their heads. They kept playing good, attacking football – due, in no small part, to the midfield of Platt, Waddle and withdrawn-striker Peter Beardsley, and, due, probably in large part, to Paul Gascoigne.

Yes, Gazza. It’s very difficult to imagine a time when the clown prince of football from up there in Geordieland wasn’t a part of the English (and wider British) consciousness, but before this tournament, he was just a useful midfielder who had come down south and played for Tottenham Hotspur. He wasn’t particularly well known at all. Like Platt, he’d made only a handful of appearances in a national shirt before this tournament, but he exploded like a bright, brilliant lightbulb of ebullience as England progressed through it. And yet, that mostly wasn’t because of his footballing prowess. It seemed more so (especially for me) because of his irresistible personality; a tubby, bubbly barrel of fun that was far more the joker in the class – his practical jokes were in evidence seemingly whenever TV sport reporters interviewed anyone in the ‘England camp’ and surely did much for the team’s morale and relaxed spirit – than a football king-in-making. He seemed a bit like the team mascot whom they let play because he was lucky for them – indeed, many misconstrued why he stuck his tongue out at the camera during the national anthem at the start of each match, assuming it was a cheeky greeting to the audience back home; it was actually a good-luck charm he’d adopted.

Yet, great players rise to the occasion (and, at his best, Gazza was assuredly great). Cometh the 83rd minute against Cameroon, cometh the man. The Africans were just seven minutes away from knocking England out, but Gascoigne had other ideas. He squeezed a pass – seemingly through the eye of a needle – to Lineker and, so good was it, that the beaten defender had no choice but to bring the striker down. England’s Number 10 did what was required of him – under untold pressure, admittedly – and blasted the penalty home. The game was drawn. Extra-time. And Gazza was involved in the build-up once more when Lineker was felled in the penalty area again in the 105th minute. The result was another spot-kick converted by Lineker – under untold pressure once more (he would later say he had been practicing ‘that penalty for years‘) – and from the jaws of disaster England had done it, they’d clinched a dramatic and rather heroic victory and, get this, they were now through to the last four. Their biggest football, nay entire sporting, achievement since 1966 itself. It was heady stuff. But Bobby Robson, who was seeming more like the country’s avuncular uncle each moment than public enemy number one, was keeping his feet on the ground, as he pleasingly pointed out something everyone knew already, that Gazza was ‘daft as a brush’. Ah, Bobby Robson, what a lovely chap he was.

Now, must admit, by this time in the tournament, and despite their knocking out the tournament’s ultimate underdogs Ireland, I’d developed a soft spot for the Italians. They were the hosts after all. When on the attack, they were playing exciting football (soon to be superstar midfielder Roberto Baggio scored a stunner in a group stage match) and Schillaci seemed to celebrate as wildly as his nation’s fans when he scored a goal. And now they were close – really close – to the World Cup final once more as they lined up for the first semi-final against Argentina. Sadly, though, the game was a let-down, there’s no of getting around it. The totemic Toto put them one up after just 17 minutes, but Caniggia equalised for the Argentines midway through the second-half. And that’s how it remained – until the end of extra-time. And wouldn’t you know it? Yes, for the second World Cup match running, the Argentines got through by penalties – the Azzurri, so attractive in their home tournament, had fallen at the penultimate hurdle; they hadn’t even made the final, Maradona’s mob had instead. As an English child who’d gone through the last four years with the ‘Hand of God’ always fresh in the memory, it seemed cruely destined somehow that ‘dirty little’ Diego would drag his team through to football’s showpiece match once again. Like the general negative style of play, that surely was one of Italia ’90’s disappointments.

Miracle workers: David Platt heroically scores against Belgium (left) and ‘Big Jack’ gets the Irish in to meet the Pope (right)

However, of course, another, bigger disappointment was to befall me and the rest of the English nation thanks to the second semi-final. Even followers of football who weren’t even born when it took place know not just the story, but the events therein – nowadays they’re arguably better remembered than the ’66 final. And, yes, like that final, this one featured the same two protagonists. England and West Germany. And, like that final, this match was an utter belter. England maybe started just the better, but neither side created a genuine chance in the first-half. Then in the second, the breakthrough came, but unlike against Cameroon, it didn’t come England’s way. The goal was the Germans’, and it was damned fortuitous too. On the hour-mark, Brehme struck a free-kick from just outside the England penalty area and, deflecting off the backside of the unrushing and turning full-back Paul Parker, it crazily looped high up into the air and dropped between keeper Peter Shilton’s outstretched glove and the bar – and into the goal. The man who had been flummoxed by Maradona’s cheating four years before had been flummoxed by a great slice of bad luck here. And England were behind, with just half-an-hour to turn it around.

They did it though, admittedly with just ten minutes remaining. Parker, nicely atoning for his ‘mistake’ of before, hoisted a long ball from the left-wing forwards, and Gary Lineker controlled the ball beautifully, his touch managing to drag it away from the two German defenders on him and across to his left foot, with which he belted it past keeper Bodo Ilgner and into the bottom corner. 1-1. England’s striker supremo had done it again, and his celebration (arms aloft, fists in the air and head rocking back with pure relief and exultation crossing his face) said everything. And so extra-time came. The most memorable moment of which, and the entire match’s third most memorable, being when Gazza went heavily into a mis-timed tackle against midfielder Thomas Berthold and was booked – his second in the tournament after being shown a yellow card in the match against Belgium. In this World Cup, two bookings accrued in separate games – even if they were in separate rounds – ensured a player would miss the next match, meaning that Gascoigne would automatically miss the final, should England get there. And then it happened, Gazza’s waterworks; the image for which he’s most remembered, one of modern football’s most recalled images. His bottom lip trembling and the tears falling, the player was inconsolable and the TV cameras brilliantly captured Gary Lineker observing his teammate and gesturing to the bench that someone needed to ‘have a word with him’. Yes, Gazza was out of the final, but less than 20 minutes later, so were England themselves.

Before the utterly unforgettable penalty shootout, though, there were more highlights in extra-time that, owing to the match’s climax, are nowadays easily forgotten. Both the Germans and the English – namely Chris Waddle – managed to hit the post and, by now England’s lucky charm, David Platt even put the ball in the net, but his effort was ruled offside. Yet, it’s for the penalties and their result that this match – and, in fact, England’s entire campaign at Italia ’90 – has gone down in the annals of legend. The Germans took four penalties and put them all away (Brehme, Matthäus, Karl-Heinz Riedle and the terribly mistachioed Olaf Thon); the English, taking first, took five and put away three (Lineker, Beardsley and – only just – Platt). Their last two, of course, they didn’t convert. Stuart Pearce, penalty-taker for his club Nottingham Forest, inexplicably struck his into the keeper’s body, and Chris Waddle, dead-ball specialist par excellence, fired his over the bar. After Pearce’s saved effort, Waddle apparently changed his planned penalty, reverting to Plan B – ‘leathering it’. Clearly it didn’t work and, clearly, he should never have had that haircut right before such an infamous match – such a move always ends in tears in football. England, having arguably had just the better of the match, had lost it, and in a manner that, at the time, seemed the most theatrical, unfair and painful possible, but West Germany were through and Bobby Robson’s brave boys, after a campaign that had seen them get better and better and by the end play good, solid and exciting football, were out.

They did have one more match to play, however, the seemingly meaningless play-off for third place against Italy – Gazza missed it, of course. The Italians deservedly won it 2-1, with goals from Baggio and Schillaci (his sixth of the tournament, bagging him both the Golden Boot and Golden Ball awards) and from Platt (impressively his third of the contest). So, Italy at least salvaged something following their penalty heartache against the Argentines; England had to console themselves with the Fair Play award. It was something, I suppose. As for the final… well, talk about an anti-climax. To my mind, it probably still remains the worst World Cup final in history; even worse than the latest one – I mean, at least that had Iniesta’s goal. Italia ’90 then culminated in 90 minutes of fouling (mostly from a dire Argentina), play-acting, two players sent off – both Argentines – Pedro Monzon and Gustavo Dezotti, and was decided by a penalty five minutes from time, which was tucked away by Brehme. The better of the two teams on the day won it, but not the best team in the competition. Still, to the victor go the spoils, of course, and winning their third crown, West Germany had now become the most successful nation in world football – that is, until Brazil won their fourth title four years later in the USA. Oh, and come the final whistle, Maradona, who’d bizarrely expected the Italian dominated crowd to support his team (and swore at them in Spanish as they unsportingly booed the Argentine national anthem before kick-off), was reduced to tears. Again, that’s something, I suppose.

Losing it: emotions get the better of Gazza in the semi-final – and Lineker knows it (left); Chrissy Waddle fires his penalty over and it’s sadly all over for England (right)

So, in the final analysis, what should one make of this World Cup and, in particular, England’s performance and disappointing defeat? Well, as noted, overall it wasn’t a great competition; however, the ultimate winner may well have been football – English football, that is. The first sign of this were the scenes at Luton Airport as the England squad landed back home. Quite frankly, they were welcomed as heroes, as a group of players who had really achieved something and by doing so had made the nation proud. In truth, of course, they’d only gone one match further than they had in the ’86 World Cup; but that and playing really well against the Germans seemed to mean a hell of a lot to the punters, and, suddenly, seemingly overnight, football was back in the country’s good books. Indeed, leading its charge was hero of the hour and new national treasure Gazza – a young man not just idolised by kids in the playground like me, but loved by housewives everywhere thanks to his blubbing up in a Turin stadium.  Gascoigne was an instant star, like Gary Lineker before him then, but somehow more so – perhaps because he was so human, and thus gave football such a human face once more. In what remained of 1990 alone, he would release both a Number One 1 hit single, Fog On The Tyne, and win the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award.

And yet the boost that England at the 1990 World Cup gave football seemed to go further; the feelgood factor didn’t seem to fade. All right, the England team itself went into decline for the next few years (Robson departed as manager, Lineker retired, Gazza wasn’t fit enough and the team slumped at the ’92 European Championships and didn’t even make the ’94 World Cup), but English football itself flourished with the arrival of the Premier League. The new top division for the country’s national sport was swish, colourful, exciting, media-savvy, advertised to the hilt and importantly much more safe, hooligan-free and family-friendly. It also proved a money-making machine – the secret to its success, naturally – as the style and quality of football it presented improved, new stars became household names with bells on and the big clubs became bigger than ever and more and more popular. Slowly but surely, as the ’90s progressed, England seemed to gain a football identity that reflected the would-be-triumph that Italia ’90 suggested it deserved. In time, too, the national side itself improved. At the 1996 European Championships – handily held on home soil – England had another stonker of a tournament, in which Gazza dazzled again and Stuart Pearce got to atone for his penalty miss… well, it all was brilliant until they crashed out to the Germans on penalties again in an eerily almost exact same semi-final as the one six years before.

So that’s the last word then? Well, it would be nice, nay seductive, to finish this final of my World Cup blogs on such a positive note, but I’m not sure it would really be honest. For, I’m afraid to say, I can’t help but think things aren’t that rosy – and, following England’s woeful showing at this year’s World Cup – I suspect many would agree with me on that too. Frankly, to my mind, it rather feels like we’ve come full-circle since 1990. Before that tournament, English football was beset by hooliganism and tragedy off the pitch and a lack of imagination and invention on it. Now, in spite of footy’s hugely successful past two decades in this country, the national game now is undeniably very top-heavy – the big clubs behave like small countries and, while lesser clubs struggle to pay the bills, even they aren’t properly financially sound either. Plus, the English national team and, more importantly, its own association seem stuck at a cross-roads, not knowing which way to turn. The bloated, money-driven psyche of the Premier League seems to stunt our best players when they put on the national jersey in tournaments and, tactically, we once again are found wanting.

What’s the answer? Where to next? Just what will football’s future be? I’m damned if I know. Since 1990, World Cups – and England’s involvement in them – may not have been as legendary as the past ones I’ve covered on here, yet they still have definitely been World Cups with highs, lows, moments to cheer, moments to boo, and – most of all – incident. Hindsight and nostalgia are wonderful things and, at their best, both honest and delightful to indulge in, but football and its World Cups will continue in some way or form long into the future, I heavily predict, surely ensuring the sport itself will always be the winner.

Well, at any rate, we’ve all got to hope that, right…?

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